In October HHCT hosted its second silent film night in St Michael’s Ledbury, featuring the 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame which stars Lon Chaney as the hunchback, and Patsy Ruth Miller as Esmeralda. Our organist for the evening was Anthony Hammond, Director of Music and Organist at Cirencester Parish Church, and founder and artistic director of the Cirencester International Organ Festival. In addition to his reputation as a performer of French and 20th century organ music, Anthony has made something of a specialism of silent film improvisation, and his ability to play for the best part of two hours without a break left the audience awestruck. The Ledbury organ rose to the occasion under Anthony’s fingers, finding appropriate music for every mood, and even including a few musical jokes – Esmeralda masqueraded as an Egyptian princess to the strains of Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba.
This blockbuster from Universal Studios was already the fifth film adaptation of Victor Hugo’s novel, but outshone its predecessors in the lavishness of its sets, including a very convincing recreation of the cathedral of Notre Dame. Like most film adaptations of the novel it plays fast and loose with the plot, in part to avoid upsetting the church: for example, the villain of the piece is not the Archdeacon (improbably saintly in this version) but his evil brother. Lon Chaney puts in an extraordinary performance as the hunchback, featuring his own grotesque make-up, and does all his own hazardous-looking stunts. Though the film ends with the death of tortured hunchback, Esmeralda finds love with the extravagantly named Phoebus de Chateaupers – and his shiny coalscuttle helmet !
Like many silent films, this was thought in the years after the second world war to be of no interest to posterity, and Universal Studios destroyed large quantities of the notoriously flammable nitrous film stock, as well as failing to renew its copyright on the 1923 Hunchback. The film has survived only via 16mm home movie copies which are inevitably less detailed than the 35mm originals, though digital restoration has improved the version we screened to an impressive level of clarity.
We were delighted to welcome a numerous audience to the evening’s entertainment, and look forward to future silent film screenings. Initial thoughts are for a comedy evening next time – but if anyone has suggestions as to what they would like to see, please get in touch.
Our thanks to St Michael’s for hosting the evening, to resident organist Philip Hammond for his co-operation, and to the Bosbury “Flicks in the Sticks” team for the loan of their projector.