Based on Victor Hugo's novel, a deformed bell-ringer is helped by a gypsy and rescues her from being judicially murdered.
King Louis XI (Harry Davenport) learns of the printing press, but Frollo (Cedric Hardwicke) warns of heresy and witchcraft. Gypsies are banned from Paris. Deformed bell-ringer Quasimodo (Charles Laughton) is voted king of fools, but Frollo breaks his staff. Actor Gringoire (Edmond O'Brien) is not paid. Gypsy Esmeralda (Maureen O'Hara) takes sanctuary in the cathedral. Frollo adopted Quasimodo as a child. Esmeralda prays, but Frollo tells her to leave. She asks King Louis to help her people and runs from Quasimodo. Soldiers capture Quasimodo, but Captain Phoebus (Alan Marshal) lets Esmeralda go. King of the Beggars Clopin (Thomas Mitchell) welcomes Esmeralda with a kiss and kills a man who didn't pay his share. Poet Gringoire asks Clopin to let him stay; but he must marry to keep from hanging. Esmeralda takes him, and they are taken to the bridal chamber. She loves Phoebus and wants to be sister to Gringoire. A deaf judge has Quasimodo whipped and pilloried for an hour. Quasimodo cries for water, and Esmeralda gives him some.
At a party Frollo tells Esmeralda that he wants her. She dances, and Phoebus kisses her. Phoebus is found murdered, and Esmeralda holds the knife. Quasimodo rings the bells. Frollo confesses to Archdeacon Claude (Walter Hampden) that he killed a man for the love of a woman but that Esmeralda must die for it. Claude says he won't help him. In jail Esmeralda tells Gringoire that she is innocent. Gringoire writes an appeal, but soldiers destroy the printing press. In Esmeralda's trial Chief Judge Frollo has witness Gringoire removed and warns Esmeralda. Quasimodo comes in and says he did it, but people laugh. Esmeralda refuses to confess until she is tortured. King Louis tries her by ordeal with a blindfold, but she chooses the wrong dagger. Frollo sentences her to be hanged. The Archdeacon says she is not guilty. Quasimodo swings on a rope to the scaffold and rescues Esmeralda, shouting "Sanctuary!"
The Archdeacon won't let Gringoire see Esmeralda. Quasimodo tells her he is nearly deaf as well as ugly. The Procurator (George Zucco) gets nobles to sign a document to abolish sanctuary. Gringoire writes an appeal while Clopin prepares weapons. People ask King Louis not to suspend sanctuary; but Frollo says public opinion is dangerous. King Louis asks the Archdeacon who the murderer is, and Frollo admits he did it. Claude says that Frollo loves Esmeralda; but he convicted her because she does not love him. King Louis orders Olivier to arrest Frollo. Clopin leads an attack on Notre Dame to save Esmeralda; but citizens roused by Gringoire's pamphlet defend the cathedral from beggars and nobles. Quasimodo drops big blocks on the beggars' cannon. Clopin uses a battering ram as Quasimodo drops blocks on them, wounding Clopin. Quasimodo pours boiling liquid on them, causing panic. Quasimodo finds Frollo in the bell-tower with a knife and pushes him out to his death. Gringoire and the Archdeacon announce that King Louis has pardoned Esmeralda and the gypsies. Esmeralda kisses Claude's hand and embraces Gringoire. In the final scene Quasimodo cries and asks why he can't be like stone.
This drama portrays the transition out of the middle
ages as the printing press influences public opinion, and the
lower classes organize to resist war and unemployment. Despite
this eloquent plea for the gypsies, within six years about 250,000
would be murdered by the Nazis.