Archive for April, 2019

Paris is Burning

NotreDameLike others across the globe, I watched the heartbreaking footage of the Notre Dame Cathedral Fire as it occurred. The irony is not lost that it took place during a restoration and that the structure, having survived eight centuries, the French Revolution, and WWII. As with all events of this kind, the world showed its true colors of humanity with an outpouring help to rebuild what was lost. Promises of support and funds flooded in from nations, businesses, and individuals, all coming through to gather as one.

As I watched the live stream of the attempts to extinguish the fire, I kept thinking of the last time Notre Dame burned. But the previous time was in 1967 on the other side of the Earth. That cathedral did not survive.

It’s a long-accepted fact that movie sets are temporary facades, even the ones that were built to last. Many of them were either torn down or fell victim to fire. This is especially true of Universal Studios which had more than its fair share of flaming sets. In the silent era alone, it had eight major fires, included a notable one in May 1922. Among the casualties of that one was the production, Under Two Flags. Its star, Priscilla Dean, reportedly injured her ankle while trying to save the film but tripped on the stairs in her costume. The film was eventually completed and still exists in several archives.

The following year, Universal began filming one of their Super Jewel Productions, an adaptation of Victor Hugo’s Hunchback of Notre Dame. The film starred Lon Chaney, Patsy Ruth Miller, and Norman Kerry. For the filming, Universal constructed a replica of the Paris square and the iconic Notre Dame Cathedral. The sets were built as permanent, with cobblestones brought from twenty miles away for the streets, while two hundred carpenters built the framework of the cathedral upon which the concrete facade was cast. Only the lower part of the west side was constructed. Long shots included a hanging miniature to complete the illusion. The results were spectacular, even by today’s standards of filmmaking.

The set became a fixture for other productions in the decades to come. Lon Chaney briefly appeared before it two years later in Phantom of the Opera. Ironically, it was not used for the 1939 Charles Laughton version. RKO decided to build their own sets.

By the time of the 1967 fire, it was referred to as the Court of Miracles, part of the Little Europe set. The blaze spread over twelve acres, also consuming the Denver and Laramie street sets, while embers were carried by the winds to the NBC studios several miles away.

To watch the 1923 Hunchback today is like staring into a time portal. Silent films are like that, in part due to their age. But many of them convey distance far more than the span of years. Hunchback is a prime example, as much for its accuracy as its period. The cathedral is especially striking. One can scarcely believe that the film was not shot at the genuine structure in France, especially during the scenes when the hunchback is scaling the sides of the building. Comparing photos of the two side by side is an extraordinary example of authentic reproduction.

Yet the most significant difference to modern eyes is that one went up in flames in 1967 after surviving only four decades. It now exists only as a flickering image on the screen. The other cathedral—eight hundred plus years old and counting—represents longevity in the face of countless obstacles. Despite the catastrophic damage it suffered, our lady of Paris will endure.


Cinema Houston celebrates a vibrant century of movie theatres and moviegoing in Texas’s largest city. This weblog is a companion to the Book, Cinema Houston: From Nickelodeon to Megaplex (University of Texas Press, 2007), and website, www.CinemaHouston.net.

David Welling is a Houston-based writer, artist, and graphic designer. His lifelong interest in movies (and the places that show them) led to the writing of Cinema Houston, which included fifteen years of research, and its subsequent website.