There Will be Flames: the Hunchback of Notre Dame at Cornell

Movie music is motion: Jimmy Stewart behind the big white steering wheel of his Desoto as he tails Kim Novak through San Francisco to Bernard Hermann’s worried ostinatos; Max Steiner’s woodwinds inexorably ascending with King Kong up the Empire State Building; the surging surf of the salty Kerr-Lancaster kiss in From Here To Eternity to the palpitating strings of George Duning’s score.

The soundtrack keeps the action going, whether it’s fast or faltering, whether it’s the beating of hearts or of hooves.

Music was thought especially necessary before the advent of the talkies. “Silent movie” is a misnomer, since the accompaniments, though live rather than captured by the cinematic technology itself, yielded continuous sound. There is precious little silence in silent movies.

Failing human voices and ambient sounds from within world of the film, the accompaniment, whether emanating from a full orchestra or a dilapidated piano, was charged with animating the auditory imagination. The motor of motion pictures was—and is—music.

The renowned American cinema organist, Dennis James is a master of kinetic, cinematic sound. I heard him for the first time twenty-five years ago at the magnificent Wurlitzer of Palo Alto’s Stanford Theatre in downtown Palo Alto back when that movie palace and its organ had been recently restored to their original 1925 glory. The film was James Buster Keaton’s The General, which is all about movement—that of the locomotive commandeered by the unlikely confederate hero and Keaton’s ceaseless motion in every direction in, on, behind and ahead of the train. James didn’t simply follow the action, as if he too were casually watching the proceedings from the organ bench, reacting to what he saw, as is often the case for lesser cinema accompanists. So intensely alive and joyously exacting was James score, that his music seemed to generate the action, from the steam whistle’s blast, to the roar of cannon and musket, to the bracing shower of a cooling tank pipe to—at last and most spectacularly—the collapse of a railway bridge.

In the quarter century since that unforgettable General, I’ve heard James perform many other meticulously constructed, and exhilaratingly executed scores. James now makes his home in Upstate New York State, though he is frequently travelling the world in order to share his unsurpassed talents at the cinema organ. In recent years he has come to Cornell University, often at Halloween time, to perform his scores for a series of fascinating exercises in the macabre: The Hands of Orlac (1924), Faust (1926), and Hamlet (1927). James’s music makes even these great movies still more compelling.

The latest edition of James’s exploits amongst Cornell’s spires, the clock-face of the campus’s Campanile made to glow orange this time of year like a jack-o-lantern, came on Tuesday evening just past with his score for The Hunchback of Notre Dame of 1923 with Lon Chaney in the title role. Fittingly, the screening took place in the college’s nineteenth-century chapel, whose architectural details evoke, if in a vague way, those of the on-screen cathedral. It was as if the chapel’s interior became an extension of the film’s famous set, one the most expensive in the then-short history of Hollywood. In this sacred cinema, one steps into a kind of labyrinth of history whose reimagining and repurposing makes such a setting even more fun and disorienting: a church within a church, the Hollywood one magically fitting onto a screen erected at the front of a college chapel that is itself a reinvention of the gothic past and would amount to nothing more than a doll’s house if the entire edifice were dropped into the cavernous interior of the real Notre Dame.

The fire that devastated the great Parisian cathedral last April has re-ignited interest in the 1923 film, presented at Cornell in beautifully restored print. James continues a busy year with his Hunchback score. He flew back into New York a few hours before the screening, raced up to Ithaca get a couple of hours of practice on Cornell’s Aeolian-Skinner organ of 1940. James is as adept in church as he is in the cinema—even better when those two places blasphemously become one. Directly after Tuesday night’s screening he dashed off to get a flight for a performance of the same score the next evening in Edmonton, Alberta.

The movie is never still. Even the moments of relative repose seem barely able to keep from lurching ahead. The film bolts out of the gate, the rabble frolicking and fighting at the Feast of Fools, a bacchanal of misrule that sprawls and menaces the square in front of the cathedral. The fair Esmeralda (Patsy Ruth Miller) dances her “Gypsy” dance, ogled at close range by the masses and also by Captain of the Guard Phoebus de Chateaupers (Norman Kerry) from a more distant casement. (He will soon get his hands on her in a tavern late at night, but moral qualms stop the advances of his greedy fingers over her body.) Horses charge through the streets. An assassin springs from behind a hedge in the cathedral close. James’ score, based on the original Universal Pictures cue sheet but replete with his own resourceful substitutions, is pure restive power, the opening stretch of the film a breathless dance-till-you-drop tour-de-force under the organist’s antic hands and feet. The ceaseless motion of sight and sound seems all the more urgent and threatening against the implacable stillness of the cathedral.

The most unforgettable movements are Chaney’s. First comes his spectacular descent down the cathedral façade amongst gargoyles and niches, his parkour-avant-la-lettre virtuosity traced and tethered by James’s nimble filigree. The most euphoric choreography comes when he rings the mighty bells and is lofted by the rope in ecstatic arcs. Here James’s deployed a canned recording of tolling bells, a rare literal translation from this expert in musical suggestion and metaphor. Later, Quasimodo saves Esmeralda from the executioner by abseiling down the façade and spiriting her into the cathedral. To express his rapture at bringing her to safety, he jumps directly on the biggest bell and rides it like a child in his private playground.

But the mob wants Esmeralda back. The masses believe she is one of theirs and not to be stolen by the rich, by the church, by the powerful. Hunchback is a movie about the 99% oppressed by unseen king and cronies. James’s score seethes with their discontent. There is ugliness and anger in it: James’s lashes at the keyboards, like Quasimodo being whipped in the square. This is not the time for the vaunted precision of The General.

The fury builds as the mob tries to storm the cathedral. Chaney is possessed, racing around the parapet, thrilled by his aerial bombardment of stone blocks and molten lead down on the angry poor far below. With a beam dropped from above that has just crushed five people, the besiegers batter down the great wooden door and with it the law of sanctuary. Quasimodo continues to mete out death from above and it thrills him more than love. James’s score erupts with the dark fury of nineteenth-century Parisian organist Léon Böellmann’s Toccata, its minor melody churning up and down. There will be flames.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at