The first mention of a sound film version of victor Hugo's classic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame can be traced back to a 1932 news item in the Hollywood reporter, stating that John Huston was writing a treatment of the story for the screen, to star Boris Karloff. MGM executive Irving Thalberg first presented the idea to Charles Laughton in 1934. In 1937, MGM considered making the film with Peter Lorre in the title role. RKO studios made the final decision to make the film in 1939.
Many actors were considered to play the role of Quasimodo, including Bela Lugosi, Robert Morely, and Lon Chaney Jr. Even Orson Welles's name was in the mix, and Welles came close, almost making his film debut as the hunchback instead of as Charles Foster Kane in Citizen Kane two years later.
It was thought that Charles Laughton, who was in trouble with the IRS at the time, may have been in too much hot water in America, and would be unavailable to play Quasimodo. RKO promised Lon Chaney Jr. that if Laughton was unable to handle the IRS and his financial fiasco, he would get the role. But Laughton finally settled his differences with the Internal Revenue Service and officially signed on to play the Paris bellringer. Laughton had recently signed a contract with RKO and chose this project to be his first film there.
Laughton, having performed with her in London, requested the beautiful Maureen O'Hara to play his unrequited love, the gypsy Esmeralda in the film, and the studio agreed. Sir Cedric Hardwicke signed on to play the oh-so-evil villain, Frollo, and Edmond O'Brien was inked to play Esmeralda's lover, Gringore. William Dieterle took over the helm as director.
Laughton also recommended Perc Westmore to be his make-up man. Ironically, although he was personally chosen by Laughton, he and Laughton were to butt heads many times in disagreement over how Quasimodo should be costumed and made up.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame had a huge budget, mainly because of its incredibly lavish sets, recreating 15th century Paris and the Notre Dame cathedral. It was to be the second most expensive film in RKO history, exceeded only by 1939's Gunga Din.
On the first day of shooting, Laughton was completely made up and in full costume when director Dieterle requested his presence to shoot the first scene. Many of the Parisian extras were also present and all ready to begin filming. But oddly, Laughton protested that he wasn't ready to shoot the scene and couldn't film that day. Dieterle, no doubt at least slightly angry, patiently told his star, "Please Charles, the next time you're not ready, let me know it previously, so I can plan accordingly.
Laughton spent two and a half hours in the make-up chair each morning. He reported to the set at 4 AM every day. Perc Westmore covered half his face in sponge rubber, adding a lower and protruding eye. His good eye covered by the mask, Laughton's other good eye was covered with a milky contact lens.
Quasimodo's hump consisted of an aluminum framework stuffed with four pounds of foam rubber. The rest of Laughton's torso was padded with rubber, to create a sense of muscles developed from years of ruling the bell's ropes. To play the deaf Quasimodo realistically, Laughton had his ears plugged with wax so he couldn't react to any unexpected sounds.
The movie was filmed during a very hot summer, with temperatures routinely going over 100 degrees. After a full day of working under heavy makeup and in a burdensome costume, at night Laughton would sleep on wet sheets in hopes of keeping cool. But the weather was so oppressively hot, the soaked sheets would evaporate within minutes.
The scene where Quasimodo rings the bell for Esmeralda was shot the day World War II broke out in Europe. The actor and the director were both so overwhelmed the scene took on new meaning. Laughton kept ringing the bell over and over, and the director forgot to yell "cut." Finally, Laughton stopped when he became too tired to continue. He recalled: "I couldn't think of Esmeralda in that scene at all. I could only think of the poor people out there, going out to fight that bloody, bloody war. To rouse the world, to stop that terrible butchery. Awake! Awake! That's what I thought when I was ringing the bell."
Well aware of the war now going on, Laughton chose a lull in the day's shooting to recite, in full Quasimodo costume, Abraham Lincoln's Gettyburg Address. It reportedly stunned the cast and crew for the rest of the day.
In the scene where Quasimodo is being whipped in front of the Parisian peasants, Laughton instructed an assistant director to twist his ankle out of camera range so he could really be in pain. Even with a heavy hump and thick padding in a rubber body suit, Laughton felt every lash that came down on him and was badly bruised. After 16 takes of the sadistic scene, Dieterle whispered to Laughton, "Now Charles, listen to me. Let's do the scene one more time, but this time I want you to suffer." According to Laughton's wife, Elsa Lanchester, her husband never forgave Dieterle.
RKO really wanted the film to surpass the huge success of the original 1923 silent film starring Lon Chaney as Quasimodo. A vigorous advance publicity campaign was undertaken. The studio made sure Laughton's face was never seen, whether in posters or in the film's preview. They wanted the first viewers to be shocked and surprised.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame premiered on December 29, 1939. The reviews were good, in the main, but some objected to Laughton's hideous, grotesque appearance, opining that it was really a horror film, not a recreation of a classic novel.
Up against Gone With The Wind at the box office, the film still did very well. It managed to take in over $3.1 million. But the great publicity campaign and huge set costs bit off a huge chunk of the box office profits, and The Hunchback of Notre Dame only ended up $100,000 in the black.
The film was nominated for two Academy Awards- Best Original Score for Alfred Newman and Best Sound by John O. Aalberg. When one watches Charles Laughton's magnificent performance, so filled with pathos and so evocative of empathy, one truly wonders how he did not garner a nomination, let alone an Oscar win.
Bonus trivia: the scene where Esmeralda is being tortured used old sound track screaming from a previous RKO film, made a few years previously. When you hear Maureen O'Hara screaming in this scene, it's not really her voice you hear. It's actually the (screaming) voice of Fay Wray being menaced in the 1933 film King Kong.