Wednesday, July 24, 2013

In A Silent Way : Victor Hugo Part One

If I were a more well read man then perhaps I would know the classics. Most certainly the name of Victor Hugo is one that I’m aware of, but this familiarity comes to me via other media, which have adapted his novels for their purposes. My next blog-posts I will address two of the more successful to be done by cinema during the silent era.

 Lon Chaney

Probably the most renown of these is the 1923 version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame”. My personal history with the Hugo story is a little funny. Having never read the novel, I first became aware of it thanks to the images of Lon Chaney as Quasimodo that I saw in Famous Monsters Magazine. My gut reaction was that I thought he looked pretty damned cool! A little later I did catch the Charles Laughton version, but aside from one or two scenes that have stuck with me, I believe that I was bored by it. My best "schooling" in the work came via the Classics Illustrated adaptation drawn by Reed Crandall. I've never caught the Disney animated version but I did see a live action show, based on that version while visiting Disney-MGM about a dozen years ago. All this culminated with a vague familiarity of the story. But recently I took in the silent film version.

 Charles Laughton

Chaney is justifiably lauded for his portrayal of the title character. Quasimodo's introduction is one of my favorite scenes in the film. His bitterness and spite for the masses, whom he views below from the bell tower, is expertly conveyed through Lon's acting talents. Sure the make up looks a tad primitive 90 years later but it's still quite effective. In our modern era it's almost unbelievable to realize that the actor was responsible for his own make up, the binding system used to contort his body and the stunt work. I had to smile at later scene where we visit the "hall of miracles". In the story this is where the charlatan beggars ease out of their fake contortions and into their normal appearance. In real life, Chaney had to do this nightly! I'll also add that this performance clearly was the inspiration for Jack Kirby's visualization of the Toad character from the X-men.

This version the story was able to engage me very much. I do have some beefs with a few points. The character of Maria is identified in the inter-title cards as the "queen of the gypsies". Seeing how vehement her hatred for gypsies was I wonder if this label was meant to be sarcastic? In any event, I found the honorific a bit confusing. Also, her "true identity" was telegraphed from a mile away. I also didn't like her final treatment. To be honest I can't recall the Maria character from the other versions that I know. I wonder if she in the original novel or simply an addition to the screenplay? I was also uncomfortable with how the character of Phoebus is suddenly transformed from a cad into a romantic hero. The switch seemed too sudden for me. Finally, as I've found in a few other silents, the ending is just so damned abrupt. There's not event a hint at an epilogue, yet the story leaves so many threads dangling.

I saw this feature thanks to a 50 movie ‘mega-pack’ collection of horror films and the print quality wasn't very good. Despite this fact I still give this a big ‘thumbs up’. The actually viewing experience exceeded my expectations going in.


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