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The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923)

Lon Chaney made the transition from respected character actor to star when he strapped almost 50 pounds of plaster to his back to embody Quasimodo the bellringer in what’s often hailed as the best adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel. He had dreamed of playing the role for years and even bought the screen rights himself, determined to make the film independently if his home studio, Universal, wasn’t interested. Fortunately for all of us, Universal’s young manager, Irving Thalberg, was looking for just that kind of project to establish the studio as a leading force in Hollywood.

With a 19-acre set, including a meticulous recreation of the iconic Paris cathedral, The Hunchback of Notre Dame was one of the biggest productions in the studio’s history. The night scenes, shot over a two-month period, still hold the record for the largest number of electricians ever employed on a single film. For all that, however, the main selling point was Chaney. Even behind layers of makeup that took three hours to apply, he delivered a stunningly human interpretation of a character viewed in his time as a monster. The resulting film would be Universal’s top-grossing silent. That success set the stage for later big-budget horror films like The Phantom of the Opera (1925), while ultimately leading to Chaney and Thalberg’s move to MGM.

d. Wallace Worsley, 117 minutes, DCP

Courtesy of Universal Pictures