« The Hunchback of Notre Dame »
(At The Radio City Music Hall)
The Music Hall is the last place in the world where we should expect to fnd a freak show, but "The Hunchback of Notre-Dame" is that and little more. Maybe we have grown squeamish in our old age : maybe our acrophobia keeps us from enjoying the sight of the misshapen bell ringer of Notre-Dame swinging in the belfry tower of the great cathedral; maybe we are an exception to the rule laid down by one of the film's characters that ugliness is fascinating. It never has fascinated us. We prefer to avert our eyes when a monstrosity appears, even when we know he's a synthetic monster, compounded of sponge rubber, greasepaint and artifice. Horror films have their following, but children should not be among them. The Music Hall is no place for the youngsters this week. Take warning !
We have only a faint recollection of Lon Chaney's "Hunchback" in 1923. He had a hairy chest and back, was blind of one eye and deaf and, since those were silent days, we could not hear him speak. Charles Laughton's version is even more horrendous. It is to Mr. Laughton's credit that he is able to act at all under his make-up, to suggest exultation, hatred and to evoke pity.
Yet we cannot truthfully say we enjoyed him or his picture. The film is almost unrelievedly brutal and without the saving grace of unreality which makes Frankenstein's horrors a little comic. The only joyously fantastic note in the whole proceedings is the scene where Quasimodo swings, like Tarzan, on a rope from the cathedral tower to the scaffold, plucks the gypsy Esmeralda from the hangman's grasp and - in haughty defiance of all the rules of pendulum - swings grandly back to the tower again, hoarsely bellowing "Sanctuary ! Sanctuary !" instead of the ape-man's warcry. But otherwise its progress is furiously bloody and brutal, with floggings in the market-place, murder, showers of molten lead, torture and many more ugly implements.
It is handsome enough of production and its cast is expert, with Maureen O'Hara as a beautiful Esmeralda, Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the fanatic Lord High Justice, Walter Hampden as the Archbishop, Thomas Mitchell as the beggar king and Alan Marshal and Edmund O'Brien as Captain Phoebus and the poet Gringoire. In spite of them all, we enter our doubts and demurrers : at the Rialto, yes ; at the Music Hall - and as a holiday show - no ! "The Hunchback" belongs between the covers of his book or back in the simpler days of the movies ; he's a bit too coarse for our tastes now. Frank S. Nugent