[11 April 2014]
The greatness of Flicker Alley’s 2014 Blu-ray release of the 1923 film The Hunchback of Notre Dame is evident even before the disc is slid into the player. While the front cover is simple (though stylistic) the inside cover (visible through the clear plastic) features classic print credits and a written foreword by producer (and Universal Studios founder) Carl Laemmle. If that isn’t enough for you, the package also contains an inlay booklet with an eight page informative essay on the film and its star, Lon Chaney, by author Michael F. Blake, accompanied by many crystal clear black and white photographs.
Truly before the film begins, Flicker Alley is delivering the goods.
Why this is noteworthy is not simply because Blu-ray extras (in digital and physical form) are “nice to have”. The reason these extras are more than mere icing on the hunch-cake of Notre Dame is that this classic film is by no means hard to find. Universal’s copyright on the film has long since expired and The Hunchback of Notre Dame could easily be referred to as “The Hunchback of the Public Domain”. Any company can release Hunchback on DVD or Blu-ray, and any individual who wants to try will have no trouble finding a full-length copy for free (and legal) online to make that goal a reality.
That said, to stand out, a company must have something to make its Blu-ray package as special as an Argentinian sunset, because most any savvy consumer who would hold more than a passing interest in The Hunchback of Notre Dame to begin with would certainly be aware of this film’s status and availability. Flicker Alley has taken great pains to show that its Blu-ray is worth a manufacturer’s suggested retail price of $41.98. While that price may be steep for many collectors, Flicker Alley’s boast does not go unsubstantiated.
Once the disc is popped into the old digital spinner the viewer is greeted with an aficionado’s dream come true, or as close thereto as one can come without an actual visit to Universal’s sets (some of which, incidentally, are still standing). Extras include rare footage of Lon Chaney in and out of makeup on the Cathedral set, a beautiful high definition collection of over 100 photos, a digital reproduction of the original souvenir program and an optional audio commentary by Blake.
One of the best rarities here is an actual bonus film, a 1915 short called Alas and Alack (directed by Joseph De Grasse), which featured Chaney himself in his first role as a Hunchback (credited as “Hunchback Fate”). This short is a surreal and dark fantasy that keeps the audience’s attention in its own right, beyond the novelty of seeing Chaney as a hunchback outside of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.
All of this would be wasted, however, if the actual feature, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, was anything but epic. However, this film is truly epic and serves as one of the prime examples of that term as it applies to film. The aforementioned sets on Universal’s back lot depicted Victor Hugo’s Paris of 1482 down to the finest details on the micro and macrocosmic level. These sets covered no less than 19 acres of the back lot and included the façade of the Notre Dame Cathedral itself in almost full size. While the base of the Cathedral and its surrounding square covered no less than two acres, the Cathedral itself stood only one story tall and was completed by a remarkably convincing miniature that hung between the camera and the set itself.
This is especially noteworthy when watching Flicker Alley’s beautifully restored edition of the film. This digitally restored copy (taken from a 16mm print which, in turn, was struck from the original negative) looks amazing in high definition and could arguably be the best presentation this film has ever seen. In many cases, high definition removes the mysteries of film. Makeup looks like makeup and miniatures look like miniatures. This is not the case here. Flicker Alley has presented a beautiful version of this classic film without destroying the mystery inherent to the tale.
The movie is a classic for a reason. It is dramatic, chilling, frightening, convincing, romantic, disturbing and exciting. The scale of the sets and the scope of the film are only dwarfed by the impact of Chaney in the role of Quasimodo. Chaney (as he did for his most famous roles) designed and applied his own makeup here and he is unrecognizable, both as the actor and the actor’s other characters.
Chaney’s Quasimodo is difficult to look at because he appears so realistically to be human wreckage, yet even as the hunchback is capable of frightening things, he is equally capable of earning the sympathy of the audience, thanks to Chaney’s acting through his masks. Whether showing his childlike side, riding the ropes of the Cathedral bell’s (turning Quasimodo’s grotesque face into that of a happy little boy), reaching out for some affection or screaming in pain and shame as he is mocked and tortured by a cruel Parisian citizenry, Chaney brings multiple facets of this poor creature to life (all without the benefit of sound).
From any facet or dimension, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a true classic in its own right due to its ambition, scope, scale and payoff. However, the real reason to see this film is the incomparable performance of one Lon Chaney. Unquestionably, his performance (and the 19 acres that surround him) are worth enjoying in just about any edition of this film. However for the clearest picture I’ve ever seen and arguably the best bonus features ever available for The Hunchback of Notre Dame, the 2014 Flicker Alley version is well worth the price.