'Hunchback' has a distinguished history in film Culture: The Disney version will introduce a new generation to Victor Hugo, a job movie makers have been doing since early this century.

June 23, 1996|By Michael H. Price | Michael H. Price,FORT WORTH STAR-TELEGRAM

If Walt Disney were around to see the results of his cartoon studio's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" adaptation, chances are he'd exclaim: "Gosh! This'll make Victor Hugo!"

Disney had exclaimed similarly about his musically driven feature, "Fantasia," and Beethoven during the early 1940s, defining the true conceit of the popular culture: It actually fancies itself in a class with the higher forms.

In a broader sense, however, Disney was also right about "Fantasia," for the arrogant concert-film experiment did introduce Beethoven and its other chosen composers to a whole new shirtsleeves audience. Much the same might be said of the Disney "Hunchback," which opened Friday, and Victor Hugo.

But the popular culture also must point back to itself, not just to its classical origins. And "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" has become so thoroughly identified as a Disney/Hugo collaboration never mind the gap of centuries -- that earlier, mostly worthy filmings of the story are at risk of being forgotten.

Herewith, a little insurance against obscurity:

Wallace Worsley's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1923) is hardly the first such filming (a 1916 version actually dares to have a happy ending), but it is the first important adaptation -- an energetic silent-screen production that holds up as more than a relic. Lon Chaney, the most versatile character man in the movies' history, plays the title character, Quasimodo, as a contorted human gargoyle with the soul of a poet. Chaney's contortions were genuine, having saddled himself with a 72-pound rubber hump. Available on a variety of video labels, priced in the $20-$30 range.

All due respect to the 1923 edition, but William Dieterle's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" (1939) is an improvement in most respects: Charles Laughton's title portrayal hits near the mark of the original Latin meaning of "Quasimodo" -- "like a newborn" -- and the film's epic sweep and attention to detail remain compelling. Maureen O'Hara is terrific as the gypsy, Esmerelda, who finds herself accused of unholy deeds. In frequent play on cable's American Movie Classics network, and available on various video labels.

Jean Dellanoy's "Notre Dame de Paris" (France-Italy; 1956) is a mess, thanks to the monstrous overacting of Anthony Quinn in the Quasimodo role, and to a sloppy job of English-dubbing. Gina Lollobrigida is convincing, however, as Esmerelda. Unissued as yet on home video, this version is rare enough to keep watch for in the TV listings.

Michael Tuchner's made-for-TV "Hunchback" (1982) is a surprisingly good rendition. Anthony Hopkins gives a spirited, touching impersonation of Quasimodo, with a classically trained ensemble cast (Sir John Gielgud, Lesley-Anne Down, Derek Jacobi) in support. In general video release. (An earlier British-TV version, from 1978, shows up from time to time on public television.)

Of course, the exploitation of Hugo's good name should never stop with fairly authentic adaptations.

Readily available on the low-rent horror-movie racks at most video shops are such knockoffs as "The Ripper of Notre Dame" (Spain; 1979) and "The Hunchback of the Morgue" (Spain; 1972). Both these throwaways serve chiefly to acknowledge the sweeping influence of a literary work that has proved timeless.

Pub Date: 6/23/96

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