Note: This post was originally written a few days after the Notre Dame fire on April 15th, 2019.
“All over France, in every city there stand cathedrals like this one, triumphant monuments of the past. They tower over the homes of our people like mighty guardians keeping alive the invincible faith of the Christian. Every arch, every column, every statue is a carved leaf out of our history.” – Harry Davenport as King Louis XI
We often say rather facetiously “if only these walls could talk,” referring to those hallowed grounds imbued with a history of ages gone by, whether they reach near or far into the past. However, it’s necessary to acknowledge, with a place such as Notre Dame de Paris, such an aphorism rings true. It takes on resonant meaning the very week I write this.
Only a few days ago, this landmark of Paris (even preceding the Eiffel Tower) was stricken by a fire that ran rampant, even torching the iconic central spire, so it came crashing down. Given the context and what this structure stands for — even as implied by this film — it’s no small surprise the news grieved, not simply an entire nation, but the world-at-large.
It is part of the reason I desired to watch this adaptation of Victor Hugo’s lauded novel. It is a bit of a memorial, but also an act of solidarity. We need to remember these bastions of history because they carry so much worthwhile beauty within their walls.
As would have it, this version of the famed Parisian tale begins with the two pillars of authority within the film, rather like the towers of Notre Dame themselves, albeit one good and the other bad. The King (Harry Davenport) is an open-minded, bright-eyed, and benevolent ruler, who looks at advancements like the printing press with only mild amusement. He sees no harm in the people being able to spread ideas.
Meanwhile, his counterpart, Frollo (Cedrick Hardwicke), is the local judge and arbiter over the judiciary system. To mollify the production codes, he was changed from a religious hypocrite to a far more secular villain as his behavior is unbecoming a man of the cloth. Disney’s version would rectify this minor faux pas and yet for the longest time, this tweak went all but unnoticed. The sentiments and moral dilemmas work out much the same. Likewise, there’s little doubting the weight of the other performances in this version.
Like A Tale of Two Cities or Les Mis, both adapted throughout 1930s Hollywood, the palpable world being constructed here is one of the most prominent assets of this period piece. I might be biased toward these literary adaptations of old. They certainly are not faithful distillations of their sources; they’re processed through the mechanism of Classic Hollywood, and yet they never cease to amaze me for the sheer amount of atmospheric world they are able to put forth on the screen.
Case and point is the initial street carnival hitting the audience full-on with a flurry of activity, gaiety, and sensory overload in every area. There’s no way to fill in all the background with computerized extras or scenery and so what you see is what you get, from a mass of cackling gypsies to a giant hog on a spit, to all sorts of medieval dunces, stilt walkers, and street performers milling about. It’s true such an arena would be impeccable for a fruit fight and of course, there is one.
Charles Laughton’s turn as Quasimoto is a highpoint in an illustrious career because he willfully commits to the character in all of his outward ugliness and ostracization, while still endowing him with the tenderness dwelling therein.
At times, it’s a near-silent performance, which makes it potentially more compelling — so much is left to posture and expressions — the nuances of behavior speak volumes on his behalf. Dialogue might turn into a crutch for other characters, but very rarely for him. His words — when used at all — are chosen carefully and, thus, there is a meaning behind them well worth considering.
For the day and age, there is arguably no better lass to portray Esmerelda than Maureen O’Hara as youthful, fiery, and supernally beautiful as she is in this very moment. Whether she’s a convincing gypsy or not, it’s easy enough to believe she draws the admiring eye of nearly every mortal man.
So many eligible (and not-so-eligible) men vie for the affections of the striking, thoughtful, free-spirit. She is smitten with the handsome Captain of the Guards: Phoebus (Alan Marshal), who returns her favor. Another is the scorned poet Pierre Gringoire played by an initially unrecognizable Edmond O’Brien, due to the utter youthfulness of his features. Quasimoto harbors his own crush on the pretty maiden, though his is not the only unrequited love.
Frollo, as painted here, is no Disney villain — harsh and corrupt he may be — but there is something buried there to feel sorry for, even as his soul is twisted up inside. Tormented by an infatuation he cannot seem to quell. Ultimately, what remains is his vindictive polemic against gypsies and anyone he deems to be pernicious to his self-prescribed social order.
Here the narratives channels this undercurrent of Aryan prejudice sweeping the European landscape, this heavy strain of anti-Semitism that, ironically, brought a plethora of talent to Hollywood. The parallels are too overt not to comment upon. It goes to show how the social climate of the time cannot be completely stripped away from material which, while timeless, also has striking ties to the contemporary moment.
On a lighter note, what better vagabond to be King of the Hall of Miracles than the one and only Thomas Mitchell. His year would yield performances in a staggering five movies — all of them classics — including Gone with The Wind, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, Only Angels Have Wings, and this film. What’s more astounding is the consideration that this might be the weakest of all the pictures he was in! One can never discount the inevitable shadings of color he adds to any ensemble.
The Christ metaphors with Quasimoto are also blatantly clear. He is crowned the King of the people on the first day only to be ridiculed and mocked in the streets the next. He is the scapegoat, taking on all the people’s ills, grievances, and malevolence upon his head. Even the local leaders, as reflected by Frollo, look down on him in disdain and utter malice. So Quasimoto’s station in life is that of a total outcast, despised by everyone.
There is only one person who has pity on him and it is, of course, Esmerelda. She showed it before, marrying the poet to save him from hanging, and this is her second act of goodness. The wheels of justice can be harsh as she is sentenced to death, based on the bleatings of a Goat named Aristotle. The logic used is not unlike Witches sinking during the Salem trials. Her innocence falls on deaf ears, not as a result of clanging bells, but instead, even harder hearts.
There is a certain gravitas with the young vision of beauty bowed on the steps of the cathedral, awaiting her execution. The lingering essence is very much the same to Dreyer’s seminal masterwork Joan of Arc. A figure of such common virtue subjected to such ignominy on such a grand scale.
Again, the Christ-like metaphors cannot be dismissed as yet another martyr is unfairly condemned for practicing witchcraft. It takes one outcast rescuing another and seeking sanctuary in the house of God. While it might seem an antiquated tradition, there is something impactful about the walls of Notre Dame being a haven to all who call upon them.
The final storming of the cathedral feels more like disastrous miscommunication than a fully-fledged battle for the heart and soul of the city. Regardless, the last note is a resounding one. Esmeralda ends up with her man. Quasimoto, in a realistic development, despite being a hero, is forced to carry on his life of solitude.
Though he might not be the most prominent feature of Notre Dame de Paris, it becomes increasingly apparent he is like the cornerstone — a vital component — mostly rejected and forgotten by the world around him. He did everything out of deep, abiding love, requited or not. Much the same might be said of Laughton’s performance. The whole story falls apart without him, and he handles each scene with his usual aplomb and theatrical bearing.