Monday, December 29, 2014

Why Didn't 'Hunchback' Receive More Oscar Recognition in '39?

"I'm about as shapeless as the man in the moon."

Quasimodo (Charles Laughton)

Several film versions have been made based on Victor Hugo's "The Hunchback of Notre Dame," but few would deny that the version that premiered 75 years ago today was the best — even if it took considerable liberties with the source material.

How could it not be great? It starred Charles Laughton, a two–time Oscar nominee and one–time winner, and pretty newcomer Maureen O'Hara, appearing in only her fourth movie. The story was based on one of Hugo's best–known works.

And RKO Pictures constructed on its movie ranch a huge (and expensive) re–creation of medieval Paris and Notre Dame Cathedral — specifically for the making of "The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

Yet, even at a time when the Academy Awards allowed as many as 10 movies to be nominated for Best Picture, "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" wasn't one of that year's nominees.

How could such a thing be possible?

Nor was Laughton nominated for Best Actor — and, in addition to giving an Oscar–worthy performance, he had to wear a ton of makeup at a time when Los Angeles was experiencing one of the most severe heat waves in its history (daytime highs were often close to 110°).

I think he could have been nominated instead of Mickey Rooney, who was nominated for "Babes in Arms." But that's just my opinion.

How could such things have happened?

Be forewarned, ye who have read Hugo's book. There were differences between the book and the movie, apparently dreamed up to suggest similarities between 15th–century France and 20th–century Europe. Consequently, the bad guy in the story, Jehan (played by Cedric Hardwicke), was not the lustful religious charlatan of the novel. In the book, his name was Claude, and he was an archdeacon; his brother was named Jehan.

The names were reversed in the movie — why, I do not know. The characters weren't really changed. The bad one was still powerful; he just wasn't a powerful religious figure.

In the context of the times in which the movie was made, Jehan was a tyrant, a stand–in for Hitler, destroying printing presses for fear they would encourage the people to think for themselves.

I guess that was an easy conclusion for the screenwriters to reach. After all, the villain of the piece, whatever his name, was a persecutor of gypsies — among others.

And O'Hara's character, a gypsy dancing girl, aroused passions in Jehan, passions he could not control.

Laughton played Quasimodo, the hunchback who rang the bells (and had been deafened by them). He could speak, but he didn't often want to.

Except when he was with Esmeralda (O'Hara).

Esmeralda was sweet and kind — and, to be blunt, a bit naive. In Hugo's book, she was about 16. O'Hara was 19 when the movie premiered. Pretty close as these things go in Hollywood.

When Quasimodo was pilloried for abducting Esmeralda, it was Esmeralda who brought him water. I guess she was influenced by the fact that, although Quasimodo was physically repulsive and regardless of his shortcomings, she could see that he represented man's noblest virtues in this passion play. In a rather obvious juxtaposition, Jehan was nefarious and sexually inhibited.

If you have read the book but haven't seen the movie, I should also warn you that many of the secondary stories were discarded, presumably to focus attention on the relationship between the dancing girl and the hunchback.

Still, the movie captured the flavor of the story well enough. Too bad the same couldn't be said of its showing at the Oscars.

"The Hunchback of Notre Dame" received only two Oscar nominations — and won neither.