The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939 film)

The Hunchback of Notre Dame

Theatrical poster
Directed by William Dieterle
Produced by Pandro S. Berman
Screenplay by Sonya Levien
Bruno Frank (adaptation)
Based on The Hunchback of Notre-Dame by Victor Hugo
Starring Charles Laughton
Sir Cedric Hardwicke
Thomas Mitchell
Maureen O'Hara
Edmond O'Brien
Alan Marshal
Walter Hampden
Music by Alfred Newman
(musical adaptation and original composition)
Cinematography Joseph H. August A.S.C.
Edited by William Hamilton
Robert Wise
Distributed by RKO Radio Pictures, Inc.
Release dates
  • December 29, 1939 (1939-12-29)


Running time
116 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,826,000[2]
Box office $3,155,000[2]

The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a 1939 American film starring Charles Laughton as Quasimodo and Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda.[3][4] Directed by William Dieterle and produced by Pandro S. Berman, the film was based on Victor Hugo's novel of the same name.

For this production RKO Radio Pictures built on their movie ranch a massive medieval city of Paris and Notre Dame Cathedral, one of the largest and most extravagant sets ever constructed.



"With the end of the 15th century, the Middle Ages came to a close. Europe began to see great changes. France, ravaged by a hundred years of War, at last found peace. The people under Louis XI felt free to hope again ~ to dream of progress. But superstition and prejudice often stood in the way, seeking to crush the adventurous spirit of man."


The film opens with Louis XI, the King of France, and Jean Frollo, the King's Chief Justice of Paris, visiting a printing shop. Frollo is determined to do everything in his power to rid Paris of anything he sees as evil, including the printing press and gypsies, who at the time are persecuted and prohibited from entering Paris. That day is Paris' annual celebration, the Festival of Fools. Esmeralda, a young gypsy girl, is seen dancing in front of an audience of people. Quasimodo, the hunchback and bell ringer of Notre Dame Cathedral, is crowned the King of Fools until Frollo catches up to him and takes him back to the church.

Esmeralda is caught by guards for entering Paris without a permit and is being chased after until she seeks safety in Notre Dame, to which Claude, the Archbishop of Paris and Jean's brother, protects her. She prays to the Virgin Mary to help her fellow gypsies only to be confronted by Jean Frollo, who accuses her of being a heathen. Afterwards, she asks King Louis to help her people, to which he agrees. Frollo then takes her up to the bell tower where they encounter Quasimodo, whom she is frightened of. She tries to run away from the hunchback until he catches up to her and physically carries her away. Pierre Gringoire, a poor street poet, witnesses all this, and calls out to Captain Phoebus and his guards, who capture Quasimodo just in time. Esmeralda is then saved and starts falling in love with Phoebus. Gringoire later trespasses the Court of Miracles but is saved by Esmeralda from hanging by marrying him.

The next day, Quasimodo is sentenced to be lashed in the square and publicly humiliated afterwards. Frollo, seeing this, realizes that he can't stop the sentence because it already happened, and abandons him instead. However, Esmeralda arrives and gives him water, and this awakens Quasimodo's love for her.

Maureen O'Hara as Esmeralda

Later that night, Esmeralda is invited by the nobles to their party. Frollo shows up to the party, where he confesses to Esmeralda his lust for her. Afterwards, she dances in front of the nobles and moves away from the crowd with Phoebus to a garden where they share a moment between each other. Frollo then kills Phoebus out of jealousy, and Esmeralda is wrongly accused of his death. Afterwards, Gringoire visits Esmeralda in her prison cell to console her. Frollo confesses the crime to his brother, and intends to sentence Esmeralda to death for it (which he does), saying that she has "bewitched" him. After Esmeralda is about to be hanged in the gallows, Quasimodo saves her by taking her to the cathedral.

When Gringoire and Clopin realize that the nobles are planning to revoke Notre Dame's right of sanctuary, they both try different methods in order to save Esmeralda from hanging. Gringoire writes a pamphlet that will prevent this from happening, and Clopin leads the beggars to storm the cathedral. Frollo confesses his crime to King Louis, to which Louis orders Olivier to arrest him. Afterwards, the King talks to Gringoire after reading his pamphlet. Meanwhile, Quasimodo and the guards of Paris fight off Clopin and the beggars. Afterwards, he sees Frollo in the bell tower seeking to harm Esmeralda, and throws him off the cathedral top. Later that morning, Esmeralda is pardoned and freed from hanging, and her Gypsy people are also finally freed. Then, she leaves with Gringoire and a huge crowd out of the public square. The film makes it clear that in the end Esmeralda truly loves Gringoire. Quasimodo sees all this from high on the cathedral and says sadly, to a gargoyle, "Why was I not made of stone, like thee?", and the film ends.



The characters of Claude Frollo and Jehan Frollo are changed as in the 1923 film. Instead of being the bad archdeacon as in the novel, Claude is good, and his original position as a villain was given to his younger brother, Jehan, who was a drunken student in the novel and again portrayed as an older man instead of a teenager. The only difference in this film is that Claude (credited as "Archdeacon" in the end credits) is portrayed as the Archbishop of Paris, and Jehan (known in the film as "Jean Frollo" or simply "Frollo") is portrayed as a judge and close advisor to the King.

Award nominations

The film was nominated for two Academy Awards:[5]


Frank S. Nugent of The New York Times wrote a mostly negative review of the film, finding it "little more" than "a freak show". Though he acknowledged it was "handsome enough of production and its cast is expert," he called it "almost unrelievedly brutal and without the saving grace of unreality which makes Frankenstein's horrors a little comic."[6] Variety called the film a "super thriller-chiller" but found that the elaborate sets tended to overwhelm the story, particularly in the first half.[7] Harrison's Reports wrote, "Very good! Audiences should be thrilled anew by this lavish remake of Victor Hugo's famous novel."[8] Film Daily called it "compelling, dynamic entertainment."[9] John Mosher of The New Yorker wrote that Laughton "achieves something like a tour de force. The lines themselves (such modernisms as 'to buy protection'), along with a perfunctory plot arrangement, are among the weak features of the film, which otherwise is a vivid pictorial drama of fifteenth-century Paris."[10] E. H. Harvey of The Harvard Crimson said that the film "in all is more than entertaining." He said that "the mediocre effects offer a forceful contrast to the great moments" in the film.[11]

The movie was very popular but because of its cost only made a profit of $100,000.[2]

Home video

The Hunchback of Notre Dame was released on September 21, 2001 on DVD by Image Entertainment.

Turner Classic Movies showing

Turner Classic Movies presented The Hunchback of Notre Dame on November 20, 2015 as part of its 24-hour "TCM Memorial Tribute to Maureen O'Hara" [who died on October 24], with commentary by host Robert Osborne. Shown earlier were 1939's Jamaica Inn, 1961's The Deadly Companions, 1963's Spencer's Mountain and McLintock!, 1965's The Battle of the Villa Fiorita, 1971's Big Jake and 1957's The Wings of Eagles. Following The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the tribute continued with 1952's The Quiet Man and At Sword's Point, 1947's Sinbad the Sailor and 1945's The Spanish Main.[12]

Opening Comments

"Hi, I'm Robert Osborne. We've set aside our regularly scheduled programming today to pay tribute to the beautiful Maureen O'Hara, who died last October twenty-fourth at the age of ninety-five. And our next film with Maureen O'Hara is the one that first brought her to the world's attention back in nineteen thirty-nine. She was born in County Dublin, Ireland, her real name was Maureen FitzSimons and she'd actually made her movie debut while sh… she was still in her teens in the British movie called Kicking the Moon Around. But it wasn't long until Maureen was in Hollywood, making a very flashy impression in this movie we're about to show you, which is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. And with the face that she had and that Irish spunk that she radiated, she couldn't miss — and she didn't. Our movie is the nineteen thirty-nine version of the Hunchback story, with Maureen as Esmeralda and Charles Laughton in the role made famous sixteen years earlier by silent screen legend Lon Chaney. But the general consensus is that no version of this eerie story by Victor Hugo of The Hunchback of Notre Dame can quite match this version we're gonna bring you now. It was directed by William Dieterle, produced on a lavish scale at RKO Studios by Pandro S. Berman. And, as the book Halliwell's Film Guide says, it's one of the best examples you'll ever find of Hollywood expertise at work in all departments. So here's Maureen O'Hara at the very start of her legendary career in the ambitious nineteen thirty-nine version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Closing comments

"Charles Laughton worked very hard to play Quasimodo in this movie in a… a way that would compare favorably to Lon Chaney's famous performance in the nineteen twenty-three silent version of the story. Laughton, like Chaney, also had to put up with a great deal of discomfort while doing the role. I mean, to get the right look for the Hunchback, Laughton was wrapped in latex and foam rubber to add the needed weight and size, all of which would have been extremely uncomfortable at any time, but was especially so when The Hunchback was filmed. At that time, Los Angeles was being hit by a big heat wave, the temperatures hovering around a hundred and ten degrees, and sound stages of movie studios in those days were often without air conditioning. Yikes! It's said that when Maureen O'Hara first saw Laughton made up to play the Hunchback, she couldn't believe that was him and that he was able to withstand the heat. She said to him, 'Good God, Charles, is that really you?' and he just winked at her and limped off to his dressing room.


  1. Hanson, Patricia King, ed. (1993). The American Film Institute Catalog of Motion Pictures Produced in the United States: Feature Films, 1931-1940. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. p. 976. ISBN 0-520-07908-6.
  2. 1 2 3 Richard Jewel, 'RKO Film Grosses: 1931-1951', Historical Journal of Film Radio and Television, Vol 14 No 1, 1994 p56
  3. Variety film review; December 20, 1939, page 14.
  4. Harrison's Reports film review; December 23, 1939, page 202.
  5. "The 12th Academy Awards (1940) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-08-12.
  6. Nugent, Frank S. (January 1, 1940). "Movie Review - The Hunchback of Notre Dame". The New York Times. The New York Times Company. Retrieved September 18, 2015.
  7. "Film Reviews". Variety. New York: Variety, Inc. December 20, 1939. p. 14.
  8. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame". Harrison's Reports. New York: Harrison's Reports, Inc.: 202 December 23, 1939.
  9. "Reviews of the New Films". Film Daily. New York: Wid's Films & Film Folk, Inc.: 4 December 15, 1939.
  10. Mosher, John (December 30, 1939). "The Current Cinema". The New Yorker. New York: F-R Publishing Corp. p. 51.
  11. Harvey, E. H. "The Hunchback of Notre Dame." The Harvard Crimson. Wednesday December 16, 1953. Retrieved on February 20, 2010.
  12. TCM Primetime - What's On Tonight: TCM Memorial Tribute: Maureen O'Hara
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