DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (John S. Robertson, 1920, USA, 96m, BW)
Cast: Charles Lane, Nita Naldi, John Barrymore, Martha Mansfield, Brandon Hurst
Director: John S. Robertson
Running Time: 96 min.
In 1920, filmgoers were treated to no fewer than two different film versions of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this one, John Barrymore plays the humanitarian Dr. Henry Jekyll, who becomes obsessed with the notion of separating the good and evil impulses within every man. To this end, he develops a potion which unleashes his own darker side: the demonic Mr. Hyde. This was the adaptation which established the clic.
John Barrymore's performance in the silent classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) is described by Barrymore biographer Margot Peters as "a revelation" -- the first real evidence that "a great stage actor could transfer that talent to the screen and be appreciated by a public who had never entered a theater in its life." As it happened, Barrymore's version was one of two silent film treatments of the often-filmed Robert Louis Stevenson story released in 1920. The other was a poorly received vehicle for over-the-top silent actor Sheldon Lewis, set in contemporary New York rather than 19th-century London.
But it was Barrymore's performance that created a sensation. One of the more amazing things about his portrayal is that he accomplishes the intial transition from the refined, handsome Jekyll to the evil, hideous Hyde with no special makeup, camery trickery or cutting. In a continuous sequence that takes up one thousand feet of film, Barrymore simply turns away from the camera with his hands hiding his face, then turns back to reveal grotesquely distorted features. In later sequences, makeup aids his transformation into a horror with pointed head and fangs. Barrymore puts his hands, which he had always considered ugly and "blunt," to effective use as Hyde, wearing sleeves that rise above his wrists as he twists them into claws.
The horrific effects seemed all the more startling to audiences of the day who thought of Barrymore as a handsome, romantic figure. "Underlying the horror of Hyde," Peters writes, "is the astonishing beauty of Dr. Jekyll: the contrast shocks, like a maggot at the heart of a rose." The New York Times was equally impressed by Barrymore's double-edged performance, calling it "one of pure motion-picture pantomime on as high a level as has ever been attained by anyone." This adaptation, written by Clara Beranger, was the one to establish the convention, followed in most versions since, of having Hyde interact with a "good" and "bad" leading lady. Martha Mansfield (who would die after her costume caught on fire during the filming of The Warrens of Virginia four years later) is the virtuous heroine, while Nita Naldi (wearing costumes that were were considered scandalous even for the flapper age) is the naughty cabaret performer who catches Hyde's lustful eye.
The film is extremely faithful to the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, whereas many of the earlier silent versions usually stripped it down to several highlight scenes. Certainly, the film makes some small and interesting changes. Much more emphasis is placed on Dr Jekyll’s good half than it is in any other version of the story, where he is portrayed with near saintly virtue and with sentimentalised cuts away to vignettes of him ministering to the poor. The other change that this version introduces, something that has been copied by a number of subsequent adaptations, is the dancehall girl that Mr Hyde consorts with – a character clearly intended to represent loose carnal temptation in contrast to the virtuous good and, by implication, acceptability of marriage represented by Jekyll’s fiancee. One intriguing addition is the fiancee’s father who initially drags Jekyll to the dancehall who is portrayed as a Victorian gentleman with a taste for vice.
The film is a reasonable run through the story, although perhaps not a truly standout one. (This criticism of course being mindful of the fact that one is watching it after having seen some half-dozen other versions of the story). Director John S. Robertson has a fine grasp of mise-en-scene. The sets and set-ups have a richness of texture and detail, with even the background characters being given life. Robertson also chooses to set the film period in the Victorian gaslight era with all the requisite stovepipe hats, hansom cabs and fog-laden streets. (It should be noted that at the time the film was made, the image of what we regard as a standard Victorian gaslight setting today was recent history ie. only twenty years in the past). Also amusing is when the intertitle cards attempt to replicate a Cockney accent: “Shut your fice – you’re ‘iding the stige” or “Lidies and gents – allow me to interduce the fimous h’Italian dancer – Miss Gina.”
The transformation scene is tame today, with most of this being achieved through John Barrymore’s highly melodramatic acting. Barrymore gives the Mr Hyde role a creepy crepuscularity. The makeup people have given Hyde leering demoniac features and an absurd peaked skull that makes him look like a pinhead. It is, one suddenly realises, really a Lon Chaney [Sr] performance, a role that has been specifically designed to play into the silent era’s fascination with on-screen grotesqueries and actor undergoing a remarkable physical transformation for the part.
Although lacking access to the quality of special effects enjoyed by later filmmakers, the now-forgotten director John S. Robertson still managed to produce a fast-moving piece of work that never feels rushed or perfunctory. While its narrative perhaps lacks the sophistication of Rouben Mamoulien and Victor Fleming’s versions, it retains all the story’s key incidents and themes. Only Hyde’s relationship with the wretched Gina feels under-developed. This is perhaps a clue to the pressure Robertson was under to play up the more sensationalistic aspects of the tale — such as the giant spider that threatens to absorb Jekyll as he sleeps in a simple but effective nightmare sequence — at the expense of the more introspective emotional issues arising from Jekyll’s transformation. The age of the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde coupled with the fact that it’s a silent movie precludes it from reaching the wider audience it deserves, but given that it’s a movie that is now in the public domain — and can therefore be freely found on the internet — there’s really no excuse for not giving it an hour-and-a-half of your time.
Other versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are:– Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1908); Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1910) with Alvin Neuss; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1912) with James Cruze; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1913) with King Baggott; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920) with Sheldon Lewis; Der Januskopf (1920), a lost German version with Conrad Veidt; the classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) with Frederic March; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941) with Spencer Tracy; Jean Renoir’s The Testament of Dr Cordelier (1959) with Jean-Louis Barrault; The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll (1960), the Hammer version with Christopher Lee; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (tv movie, 1968) with Jack Palance; I, Monster (1971) also with Christopher Lee; The Man with Two Heads (1972) with Denis DeMarne; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (tv movie, 1973), a musical version with Kirk Douglas; Walerian Borowczyk’s Dr Jekyll and His Women (1981) with Udo Kier; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (tv movie, 1981) with David Hemmings; a 1985 Russian adaptation starring Innokenti Smoktonovsky;
Edge of Sanity (1989) with Anthony Perkins; The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde an episode of the tv series Nightmare Classics (1989) with Anthony Andrews; Jekyll and Hyde (tv movie, 1990) with Michael Caine; My Name is Shadow (1996), a Spanish version starring Eric Gendron; a bizarre tv pilot Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1999), which combined the story with Hong Kong martial arts and featured Adam Baldwin playing a Jekyll as a superhero in the Orient; Jekyll & Hyde: The Musical (2001) with David Hasselhoff; Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (2002) directed by and starring Mark Redfield; the excellent British tv reinterpretation Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (2002) with John Hannah; The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Rock‘n’Roll Musical (2003) with Alan Bernhoft; Jekyll (2004) starring Matt Keeslar; the modernised Jekyll + Hyde (2006) with Bryan Fisher; The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2006) with Tony Todd; the modernised BBC tv series Jekyll (2007) with James Nesbitt; Jekyll (2007) starring Matt Keeslar where Hyde becomes a virtual creation; and the modernised Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (2008) starring Dougray Scott.
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