Carl Laemmle, the founder and president of Universal Pictures, built his success on short, cheap but profitable films that could be packaged and sold to distributors at a modest price. Production costs on Universal’s silent features rarely topped $100,000 and many cost significantly less. The 1923 Universal release The Shock, starring Lon Chaney, cost a mere $90,220 to make and earned an impressive $257,327 at the box office. Universal classified their releases as Specials, Jewels, Junior Jewels, etc., as a way of letting distributors know whether a film was cheap, very cheap, or super cheap. However, on several occasions, the notoriously frugal Laemmle was convinced to splurge, leading to a handful of “Super Jewels,” among them Foolish Wives (1922) and The Phantom of the Opera (1925).
Yet even these productions paled in comparison to the Universal Super Jewel The Hunchback of Notre Dame, based on the classic 19th-century Victor Hugo novel set during the waning years of the Middle Ages. At a total cost of $1.25 million, Hunchback was the second most expensive silent film Universal ever made, eclipsed only by Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1927), made for an astonishing $1.7 million. Even the problem-plagued super hit The Phantom of the Opera only cost $632,357. It was Laemmle’s twenty-three-year-old executive Irving G. Thalberg who convinced the studio head to take a chance on the project, and Thalberg insisted on casting Chaney in the lead role.
Lon Chaney began his career at Universal in 1912, making more than a hundred mostly low-budget films and getting paid $35 a week. While he left in 1918 for greener pastures at Paramount, Goldwyn, and other studios, he returned to Universal throughout the early 1920s for a few one-offs, including Outside the Law (1921), The Trap (1922), and the aforementioned The Shock (1923). To lure him back once more for Hunchback, Thalberg offered him a weekly salary of $2,500. Justifiably indignant at having been unvalued during his years at Universal, Chaney insisted on $2,500 over and above his original salary—Universal relented and paid him $2,535 a week.
Production ran from December 1922 to June 1923, an extraordinarily long schedule for the time, and the longest shoot of Chaney’s career. The centerpiece of the film was an elaborate re-creation of the lower half of Notre Dame Cathedral. The illusion of the towers and upper part of the cathedral was created by a hanging miniature. Built on nineteen acres, the sets cost about $500,000 in all to construct and included the Bastille and its drawbridge, the castle and its gardens, and the Hôtel de Ville. (One of the set designers, Stephen Goosson, later designed Shangri-La for 1937’s Lost Horizon.) They also re-created the streets of 15th-century Paris, hauling cobblestones from a river twenty miles away and setting them in cement. To dress the stars and more than twenty-five hundred extras about three thousand costumes were required, and the lot’s wardrobe building had to be enlarged to handle all the additional items. Conspicuous extras were put on payroll two days early to get used to their period clothing. During the cast-of-thousands scenes, director Wallace Worsley spoke over the first public address system ever employed on a film production.
Worsley had already worked with Chaney on four other pictures, including The Penalty (1920) and the now-lost A Blind Bargain (1922). He also knew Chaney to be a competent director in his own right, having directed six Universal pictures in 1915, so Worsley let him direct several scenes in Hunchback. However, Chaney’s primary concern was Quasimodo. To turn himself into the grotesque title role, Chaney spent three-and-a-half hours each day in the studio’s Room No. 5 applying makeup and prosthetics that included a twenty-pound plaster for the hump. He later called Quasimodo, “the hardest part I ever played, that’s all,” as he found the extensive makeup a hindrance to creating a sympathetic character. Chaney used the same room for The Phantom of the Opera, and, in 1928, Jack Pierce, a longtime friend of Chaney’s and head of makeup at Universal, commandeered it to make up Conrad Veidt for The Man Who Laughs, Boris Karloff for the Frankenstein and Mummy films, Bela Lugosi for Dracula, and Lon Chaney Jr. for The Wolfman, earning the room its nickname, the Bugaboudoir.
Hunchback premiered at New York’s Astor Theatre on September 6, 1923, a week after a private screening held at Carnegie Hall as a benefit for veterans. While the film was an enormous hit, more than recouping Universal’s costs, critics were divided. Moving Picture World described the film as “a motion picture masterpiece that belongs among the ten best ever produced.” But Variety’s reviewer was appalled, calling the film “a two-hour nightmare. It’s murderous, hideous and repulsive. It is misery all of the time, nothing but misery, tiresome, loathsome misery.”
In 1931, during leaner times, Universal considered a sound remake of the film to take advantage of the durable sets, which Laemmle had insisted be built solidly with an eye for future use. Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Henry Hull, Peter Lorre, and Edward G. Robinson were all considered for the role of Quasimodo, but the Great Depression made financing impossible, and the project was scrapped. In 1939 RKO built new sets at the RKO Ranch in Encino for a version that starred Charles Laughton.
But the story of Universal’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame doesn’t end there. Released in a twelve-reel version for its premiere, the movie was immediately cut to ten reels for general release, and that shorter version is what exists today. Hunchback would have been entirely lost if not for Universal’s Show-at-Home business in the ’20s and ’30s. For nontheatrical and educational distribution primarily at libraries and churches, Universal made 16mm prints and Hunchback was one of their most popular titles. It was so popular in fact that the main titles of the negative eventually became too tattered to print and Universal produced a set of replacement titles in a different typeface. The rest of the negative also showed substantial wear. This well-worn 16mm print with new titles was all that was thought to survive and was the source of a 1959 Blackhawk Films negative that provided nearly every version of the film for decades. In the mid-1990s, the late David Shepard came across a different 16mm print, reduced from a 35mm dupe negative, which became the source for the best home video version currently available.
In 2014, I acquired the film library of the late Gordon Berkow, a legendary collector of rare silent films. His collection contained three hundred original Kodascope and Show-at-Home prints, including fourteen silent features that are not known to exist in any archive, as well as the missing reel of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century. In 1985 Gordon had offered me an original 16mm Show-at-Home print of Hunchback, with the replacement titles, and, at the time, I was surprised that he was selling such a rarity. Going through the rest of his collection in 2014, I finally understood why he let it go. He also had a stunning Show-at-Home print made from the first negative, with all the original titles. That print is the basis of this new Universal restoration. Thanks to digital technology, the image has been stabilized and cleaned, much as Universal did for its recent restoration of Paul Leni’s The Last Warning (1929).
The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of the very first silent films to find its way to modern audiences. Many who grew up, like me, seeing their first silent films as part of Paul Killiam’s PBS series in the early 1970s, might remember being enraptured by the fascinating, albeit fuzzy, images on the screen. Now with this magnificent new restoration, those of you who think you’ve seen it a hundred times will thrill as you watch it unfold for what is really your first time.
Presented at SFSFF 2022 with live musical accompaniment by Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra