The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) was Universal's "Super Jewel" of 1923. Directed by Wallace Worsley, starring Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, Norman Kerry, Nigel de Brulier, and Brandon Hurst, it was Universal's most successful silent film, grossing over $3 million.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) was the fifth adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel. Other films based on his novel from the silent era included Esmeralda (1905), The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1911), The Darling of Paris (1917) and Esmeralda (1922). While it was not the first film based on Victor Hugo’s novel, The Hunchback of Notre Dame it was certainly the most ambitious and with an estimated budget of $1,250,000, an unprecedented sum of money for its time.
The film was directed Wallace A. Worsley Sr. who started his career as an actor and later became a director in the silent era. Worsley directed 29 films during the years 1918-1928 and acted in 7. He was very familiar with Lon Chaney having directed several films with the legendary star and his professional relationship with Chaney was second only to Chaney’s partnership with Tod Browning. But The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) would change that forever.
In 1919 Carl Laemmle sr. the head of Universal appointed his 20-year-old secretary Irving Thalberg as head of production. Thalberg soon proved himself worthy of Laemmle’s confidence with his brilliant handling of the "Super Jewel" productions of Foolish Wives (1922) and The Merry Go- Round (1923).
The long held myth that Thalberg came up with the idea for a film version of Hunchback of Notre Dame was dispelled when a series of telegrams and contracts were produced by Alfred Grasso, Lon Chaney's manager. These documents not only prove that Chaney had suggested the story but he also suggested who should be cast and who should direct the film. Chaney, who by this time had established himself as a major box office draw, was adamant about staying as true to the novel as possible and insisted on working closely with the screenwriters. Yet changes were inevitable, in order to bring the story to the screen a number of elements had to be pared down or eliminated entirely. It was also felt the Hugo’s criticism of the Catholic Church would be unacceptable to the audience.While the script was being hashed out Thalberg concentrated his efforts on finding a director that would be suitable to Chaney. Chaney’s list of preferred directors included Maurice Tourneur, Frank Lloyd, John S. Robertson, Chet Withey, Emile Chautard, Raoul Wals, Frank Borzage and Erich von Stroheim. After furious negotiations, Thalberg and Chaney finally agreed to hire Worsley as the director. Worsley had worked with Chaney in making The Penalty (1920) which was one of his better known films.
Filming began in December 1922. Chaney's salary was whopping $2,500 a week. By the time filming was completed in June of 1923, which was the longest shoot of Chaney’s career. He made nearly $60,000 plus lucrative contract bonuses from the film. Chaney earned every nickel of it, in order to prepare himself for the role of Quasimodo, he interviewed with people who suffered from various physical deformities.
Chaney’s makeup was the most punishing to date. The brace which held his legs together is reported to have caused Chaney severe pain for the rest of his life and the contact lens that he wore caused vision loss. A knotted wig, putty on his nose and cheeks, a set of false teeth and a 15 lb. hump, which contrary to myth did not cause Chaney any back problems, completed his makeup. His makeup was so realistic and cutting edge for its time that many audience members truly believed that Chaney appearance was actually that as it appeared in the film.
Over 750 technicians were used to make the film, including 105 electricians. Because of the huge size of the production and the large cast it was necessary to utilize an intercom system making The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) the first film in history where a director used intercom technology to communicate with his assistants during production.
Many of the extras for the massive crowd scenes were recruited from downtown Los Angeles and were offered $1.00 a night plus meals. Among the extras were a number of prostitutes, who reportedly earn some extra cash while on the set. Universal hired 50 Pinkerton detectives and placed them in the crowd of extras to try to catch pickpockets and other thieves during the production.
Principal photography finally ended on June 3, 1923. Four months previously, in February, Thalberg left Universal when Laemmle insisted that he marry his daughter, Rosabelle, before recieving a raise.
Laemmle offered Thalberg's job to Wallace Worsley, but he was busy completing the film and refused the offer. Laemmle, who was unaware of a clause in Chaney's contract that gave Chaney control of the final cut and titles, tried to alter Thalberg's plans for The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923). Laemmie then tried to pressure Chaney but the actor would not bend. He refused to consider changing the plans for the film that he and Thalberg made.Laemmle then forced Worsley to try and talk Chaney into compromising. Chaney saw Worsley actions as a betrayal to Thalberg and never spoke to the director again. Worsley was crushed by Chaney's reaction and his career was crippled, he would never direct another film of The Hunchback of Notre Dame’s (1923) scale.
The final print was just over two hours and at that time the average film ran about 70 minutes. The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) premiered on September 2, 1923 at Carnegie Hall in New York. The film ran for 21 weeks straight at The Astor Theater in New York. Upon its release, the film was cut down to 10 reels so that theater owners could book more showings in a day, and in this form, it played throughout the world during the 1920s.
The original prints of the film were on tinted film stock in various colors, including sunshine, amber, rose, lavender and blue. No original 35 mm prints exist, they were lost through use, decomposition or deliberately destroyed by the studio. The only surviving prints of the film are 16 mm "show-at-home" prints that were distributed by Universal in the 1920s and 1930s for home-movie.
Today the majority of the video editions of The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923) are taken from 16 mm prints that were by Blackhawk Films in the 1960s and 1970s which accounts for extremely poor quality of most video and DVD copies of the film. . Approximately 10-15 minutes of the original footage still remains missing.