Notre-Dame de Paris/The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1911)

‘Esmeralda and her pet goat dance in the atrium of Our Lady to earn a living.’

A gypsy dancer catches the eye of the archdeacon of Notre Dame Cathedral. He is consumed by jealousy when he discovers that she loves Captain Phoebus, who commands the city guard, and orders his servant Quasimodo to kidnap her. However, the deaf bellringer is caught in the act…

Ambitious, 36-minute version of Victor Hugo’s classic novel from French film company Pathé Frères and director Albert Capellani. The screenplay by Michel Carré is a close adaptation and results in one of the most faithful adaptations of the source material.

Gypsy girl Esmeralda (Stacia Napierkowska) is a popular dancer in the streets of Paris. One of her performances in the square outside Notre Dame Cathedral is witnessed by archdeacon Claude Frollo (Claude Garry), who is immediately smitten. However, shortly afterwards, she encounters the city guard and its handsome Phoebus de Châteaupers (René Alexandre). The attraction is instant, and the two begin a romance.

Unfortunately for the lovers, churchman Garry discovers their relationship, and his lust turns to jealousy and obsession. He orders his deaf servant Quasimodo (Henry Krauss) to snatch the girl, but the bellringer is caught and sentenced to public humiliation in the pillory. Moved by his suffering, Napierkowska offers him water. Garry is still determined to have the girl, though, and is prepared to commit murder to further his aims.

The classic tale of the hunchback and his love for a gypsy dancer had already reached the French screen in the form of ‘Esmeralda’ (1905), co-directed by pioneering filmmaker Alice Guy-Blaché. However, some doubt has been cast on her involvement, and the film is apparently lost. As a result, Capellani’s take is the earliest surviving adaptation, and, given the year of production, it’s pleasing to get such a fully-realised film with the story told at such length. Obviously, some elements from the novel have been dropped, such as Emeralda’s marriage to the poet Pierre Gringore. This character, based on a real-life 16th Century writer of the same name, doesn’t appear at all, and there are no scenes with the beggars and their Court of Miracles.

Instead, the narrative boils down to the core interactions of the four protagonists. Unfortunately, it’s hard for an audience to get too invested in them as Capellani shoots everything in a medium-long shot, as was the fashion of the times. Occasionally, his camera ventures a little closer, but there’s still an inevitable distance between the audience and the drama. However, what is remarkable is that it exhibits a very conscious step away from the more fantastical extravagances of pioneers like Georges Méliès. Capellani’s story is set in the ‘real world’, and its drama has consequences for its characters, rather than being primarily a showcase for spectacular set design and early visual effects. It’s part of a definite move toward a more narrative-based cinema.

The distant camerawork does make it difficult to get a good look at the makeup on Krauss, though, which is a pity. Fortunately, the actor does a fine job conveying the character’s physical abnormalities with his bodily movement alone. Modern viewers unfamiliar with the book, however, may find it surprising that he is offscreen for long periods and that much of the drama is focused on the priest and the object of his obsession. Performances in general may appear overstated to modern eyes, but that was the convention of the time and Napierkowska brings a pleasing energy to her lively role, particularly in the early dance sequences.

It has been reported that the scenes outside the cathedral were shot at the actual location. However, it seems more than likely that this was merely an invention for publicity purposes. Hugo’s novel was placed on the Catholic Church’s ‘Index of Forbidden Books’ three years after its publication in 1831. The reason given was that it was ‘too sensual, libidinous, and lascivious’, although it seems likely that its portrayal of a senior church official driven to murder by lust for a woman may have also been a contributing factor! It remained on the list until 1959, so it seems unlikely that ecclesiastical authorities would have been receptive to any request that Capellani may have made for a filming permit.

Unfortunately, any merits the film possesses have been thoroughly eclipsed by the other productions of the tale that followed over the next 30 years. Lon Chaney’s star-making turn as ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame’ (1923) remains the definitive silent version, eclipsed only in quality by the big budget 1939 RKO extravaganza starring a spellbinding Charles Laughton. Many other adaptations have followed for both big screen and small, with the role of Quasimodo tackled by actors as diverse as Anthony Quinn (1956), Warren Clarke (1976), Anthony Hopkins (1982) and Many Patinkin (1997). A Netflix remake with Idris Elba to produce and star was announced in 2018, but a lack of further news suggests that it may have been cancelled.

Napierkowska was born in 1891 to a Polish father and French mother, beginning her career as a dancer at the Folies Bergère. 1908 saw her debut in films, and she hit the big time four years later in a series of shorts opposite famous comedian Max Linder, beginning with ‘Max Sets the Fashion/Max lance la mode (1912). A year later, her attempted relocation to the United States ended with an arrest in New York after authorities condemned a dance performance as ‘indecent’. She returned to Europe, and more film roles followed, including a notable appearance in Louis Feuillade’s ground-breaking serial ‘Les vampires’ (1915). Director Jacques Feyder was thrilled to cast her as Antinea in ‘L’Atlantide’ (1921), only to discover later that his Queen of Atlantis had gained at least 30 pounds since he had last seen her. Hopeful that she would burn off the calories during location shooting in Algeria, the opposite happened due to the rich food available at the local hotel.

It’s surprising to find a feature of this vintage that embraces storytelling at such length, and the results are efficient enough, but it’s no forgotten classic.

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One thought on “Notre-Dame de Paris/The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1911)

  1. Notre-Dame de Paris/The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1911) | Mark David Welsh | Notre-Dame de Paris

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