The Victor Hugo classic novel has been filmed many times, The first was the Lon Chaney silent classic with the committed Mr. Chaney contorted as Quasimodo. Anthony Quinn would later try to play the part in a 1957 version.
The definitive film version of the lengthy novel was the 1939 film version, starring Charles Laughton. Directed by William Dieterle, the film captures the era,the tone and tenor of the times, at least for cinematic purposes.
This would prove to be a major role for Maureen O'Hara in the role of Esmerelda, the gypsy wrongly convicted and sentenced to die for murder. She had starred opposite Laughton a year earlier in Hitchcock's British film, "Jamaica Inn".
Cedric Hardwicke is a perfect villain. The sexually repressed Chief Justice that hates the gypsies, but longs for Esmerelda. The man who frames her for murder and confesses it to his brother the Archbishop. Harry Davenport portrays King Louis XI, known as the "Spider King". He plays a man enlightened, but only relative to his time as he still foolishly employs trial by ordeal to determine Esmerelda's guilt or innocence. A captive to superstition even though his keen mind suggests otherwise. A young and rather slim Edmond O'Brien plays the young poet in love with Esmerelda and of course Thomas Mitchell is ever so nimble as Clopin.
This film, however is a tour de force by Laughton. He manages to convey a sincere range of emotion as Quasimodo, a man who knows the truth and fights for Esmerelda and an unjust conviction.
This is a compelling piece of work. As a footnote there is a fine story about its production. After Quasimodo saves Esmerelda from execution he has escorted her to the bell tower for "sanctuary" at Notre Dame. Quasimodo celebrates by ringing the bells in triumph. The scene of Laughton ringing the bells was shot on September, 1st 1939, the day the Nazis invaded Poland. It was also the final shot made for the film. Dieterle yelled "action", Laughton started ringing the bells. Satisfied with what he shot, Dieterle said "cut", but Laughton continued to ring the bells and as has been said everyone on the set just became mesmerized and silent as he continued to ring the bells. Laughton would later say of this: "All I could think of were all those men going to fight in that bloody war".