‘Hunchback’ showing set
WILTON – It was a spectacular combination: Lon Chaney, the actor known as the “Man of 1,000 Faces,” and Universal’s big screen adaptation of Victor Hugo’s sprawling tale of the tortured Quasimodo.
The result was the classic silent film version of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” (1923), which will be shown just in time for Halloween at Wilton’s Town Hall Theatre.
Silent film with live music returns to 40 Main St., at 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 28.
The special Halloween program will be presented with live music by silent film accompanist Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with a donation of $5 per person requested to help cover expenses.
The film is based on Victor Hugo’s 1831 novel, and is notable for the grand sets that recall 15th century Paris as well as for Chaney’s performance and make-up as the tortured hunchback.
The film elevated Chaney, already a well-known character actor, to full star status in Hollywood, and also helped set a standard for many later horror films, including Chaney’s “The Phantom of the Opera” in 1925.
While Quasimodo is but one of many interconnecting characters in the original Hugo novel, he dominates the narrative of this expensive Universal production.
In the story, Jehan (Brandon Hurst), the evil brother of the archdeacon, lusts after a Gypsy named Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) and commands the hunchback Quasimodo (Chaney) to capture her.
Military captain Phoebus (Norman Kerry) also loves Esmeralda and rescues her, but the Gypsy is not unsympathetic to Quasimodo’s condition, and an unlikely bond forms between them.
After vengeful Jehan frames Esmeralda for the attempted murder of Phoebus, Quasimodo’s feelings are put to the test in a spectacular climax set in and around the Cathedral of Notre Dame.
As the hunchbacked bellringer Quasimodo, Chaney adorned himself with a special device that made his cheeks jut out grotesquely; a contact lens that blanked out one of his eyes; and, most painfully, a huge rubber hump covered with coarse animal fur and weighing anywhere from 30 to 50 pounds.
Chaney deeply identified with Quasimodo, the deformed bell-ringer at Notre Dame Cathedral who was deafened by his work. Chaney was raised by deaf parents and did a lot of his communication with his mom and dad through pantomime.
“The idea of doing the picture was an old one of mine, and I had studied Quasimodo until I knew him like a brother, knew every ghoulish impulse of his heart and all the inarticulate miseries of his soul,” Chaney told an interviewer with Movie Weekly magazine in 1923.
“Quasimodo and I lived together – we became one. At least so it has since seemed to me. When I played him, I forgot my own identity completely and for the time being lived and suffered with the Hunchback of Notre Dame,” Chaney added.
The film was a major box office hit for Universal Studios, and Chaney’s performance continues to win accolades even today.
“An awe-inspiring achievement, featuring magnificent sets (built on the Universal backlot), the proverbial cast of thousands (the crowd scenes are mesmerizing) and an opportunity to catch Lon Chaney at his most commanding,” wrote critic Matt Brunson of Creative Loafing in 2014.
Screening this classic version of “Hunchback” provides local audiences the opportunity to experience silent film as it was intended to be shown: on the big screen, in restored prints, with live music and with an audience.
“If you can put pieces of the experience back together again, it’s surprising how these films snap back to life,” said Rapsis, a New Hampshire-based silent film accompanist who creates music for silent film screenings at venues around the country.”