The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939)

Although it deviates from the novel on some key points, this epic tale of the deformed bell ringer Quasimodo and his love for the beautiful gypsy Esmeralda is considered by many to be the best screen adaptation of the Victor Hugo classic. A lot of the credit goes to star Charles Laughton, who uses his body, a few words and one eye (the other covered by makeup) to capture the title character’s abjection. RKO production head Pandro S. Berman didn’t stint on the budget: for the Notre Dame set, he approved a replica standing 190 feet tall at a cost of $250,000. Art director Van Nest Polglase even incorporated scenic pieces made for the Lon Chaney silent version from 1923. Berman also assembled a troupe of seasoned character  actors like Cedric Hardwicke, Thomas Mitchell and Harry Davenport in supporting roles. For the romantic leads, he brought Maureen O’Hara to the US to play Esmeralda in her first film here and cast a young Edmond O’Brien—surprisingly lean and boyish considering his later, heavyweight character performances—as the romantic poet who loves her. The historical film seemed particularly timely in the year World War II began. That wasn’t an accident. Screenwriter Sonya Levien drew parallels between medieval France and modern Europe, with the oppressed gypsies standing in for the occupied nations’ Jews.

(d. William Dieterle, 117 m, Digital)

World premiere restoration presented in association with Warner Bros. Classics