By Joe Queenan
June 24, 1996 12:00 PM

>The Hunchback of Notre Dame


IN ONE OF THE BIG SCENES IN VICTOR Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, an angry mob storms the cathedral, and Quasimodo, the unhappy hero of the title, pours molten lead down on their heads. Why would Disney want to make such goings-on the subject of its latest cartoon feature, opening this Friday (June 21)? Because of the success of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast (1991), suggests John Stanley, author of Creature Features Strikes Again, an encyclopedia of horror movies. Like Beauty, Stanley points out, “Hunchback is a love story about an ugly creature who loves a beautiful woman, and how her attitude changes.” Toss in Pinocchio. According to Tab Murphy, head writer of this Hunchback, “Here was a hero, albeit a tragic one, who could overcome his handicaps.” At the least, to judge from the molten-lead incident, he’s empowered.

It’s not as if Disney is the first to try to score with Hunchback. There have been at least seven earlier film adaptations of the Hugo classic, including the 1917 silent The Darling of Paris, starring that primal vamp Theda Bara as Esmeralda in a beefed up role.

Of the actors who’ve stooped to play Quasimodo, two stand out (but could barely stand up). In 1923, Lon Chaney saddled himself with a 72-pound rubber hump. For the 1939 version with Maureen O’Hara, Charles Laughton reported to the set every day at 4 a.m. to start applying his makeup, and was strapped into an aluminum-scaffold hump. To make sure his face showed anguish for one scene, he told an assistant to twist his foot—hard.

After Laughton (the best, says Stanley) came a limp 1957 version with Anthony Quinn and Gina Lollo-brigida, followed by two TV films, one for the BBC in 1976 with Warren Clark and Michelle Newell, the other for CBS in 1982 with Anthony Hopkins and Lesley-Anne Down. Ever see Big Man on Campus? That 1989 comedy reimagined Quasimodo at UCLA.