Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Directed by John S. Robertson
Written by Clara Beranger, based on the play by Thomas Russell Sullivan, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Starring John Barrymore, Martha Mansfield, Brandon Hurst, Charles Lane, Cecil Clovelly, and Nita Naldi
The story of Jekyll and Hyde is one of the foundations on which modern horror is built. Not only does it have the scientist experimenting on himself, but it lays out the format for internal crises of morality and identity being played out in physical manifestations. Certainly werewolves existed in folklore and fiction beforehand, but they were evil and corrupted in human form as well. Larry Talbot’s struggle against the beast inside of him has more to do with Henry Jekyll than with legend. In one of the most fascinating adaptations of the book, however, Jekyll isn’t initially trying to exorcise evil from the human condition but to let himself enjoy it.
John Barrymore’s Dr. Jekyll is outwardly a good man. He runs a clinic for the poor and is polite and well-mannered. Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst) believes this virtue to be a front, and to prove it he takes Jekyll and other dinner guests to a music hall. Jekyll flees when Carew calls a dancer over to their booth, but he resolves to find a way to indulge himself at no spiritual penalty. This Jekyll seeks to create an identity that can assume all of the burden of his sins. He plans to use Hyde to act on his evil impulses so that his own soul can remain untarnished. I stopped going to Sunday School in the 1970s, but I’m reasonably certain that God can see right through that trick. Depends on your sect, I guess.Jekyll is essentially unsympathetic, which makes it hard to care what happens to him. The narrative therefore spends more time on Sir Carew, Jekyll’s friend Dr. Lanyon (Charles Lane), and rival Edward Enfield (Cecil Clovelly). Millicent Carew (Martha Mansfield) and the dancer Miss Gina (Nita Naldi) exist only to demonstrate Hyde’s cruelty, and therefore they show up rarely. There’s still a touch of the classic internal struggle, as Jekyll wants to keep Hyde from harming Millicent, but the focus is much more on how science leads him away from God. Morality here is not a part of Man’s nature but imposed by a fear of Judgement. It’s not a take I find compelling, but Barrymore is captivating as Hyde. There’s a note in the IMDb entry that the movie is partly based on Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, and there certainly is sign of that in Hyde’s twisted appearance. He is the carrier of Jekyll’s sins, and like Gray’s portrait they have deformed him. Barrymore’s physical transformation is more impressive than the makeup and prosthetics he wears. He carries himself like a plague, contaminating every set he enters. It’s a wonderful performance, reveling in Hyde’s bestial nature, and well worth the hour and 17 minute investment to witness. For the most part, Barrymore’s performance is all we have to go on. The majority of Hyde’s initial misdeeds are hidden from the audience, so until he begins killing those near Jekyll’s circle there’s very little reason to see him as particularly evil. That is, except for one shockingly chilling scene that signals the start of Hyde’s descent. Where he’d been content merely drinking, having sex, and whatever else he’d been up to, suddenly Hyde bowls over a child in the street and proceeds to stomp on him! It’s unclear whether the kid dies or is severely injured, but it’s a serious incident. When immediately confronted by an angry crowd, he then offers 100 pounds in compensation. It’s a powerful signal that he’s gone from licentiousness to monstrous depravity. Initially Jekyll’s transformation is dependent on drinking his potion, but as Hyde grows in power he’s able to emerge without it. Sir Carew’s threat to call off Jekyll’s engagement to Millicent sparks a rage that brings the monster out, but it isn’t long before Hyde needs no trigger at all to reveal himself. This is demonstrated in a symbolic sequence while the doctor is abed. Hyde comes in the form of a giant spider and crawls up onto the terrified Jekyll. He faints in the presence of the evil figure, which sinks into him. Hyde owns the body, and he can command it whenever he wants. The effect is simultaneously wonderful and poorly executed. The Hyde-spider is a see-thru overlay, typical of the time. The technique pays off here, as the ghostlike appearance is eerie. The problem is that the spider costume leaves Barrymore’s arms and legs plainly visible. It looks a bit silly, and I would love to see a photo of Barrymore standing on set in the costume. Still, it’s effective symbolism, and the scene is fun to watch. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a curious film. It’s a terrible adaptation, in terms of presenting the actual story and themes. Apart from the character names and basic fact of the transformation, there’s nothing of Stevenson’s story here. However, it is an engaging movie in itself. Jekyll’s amoral motivation is weird for the character but works with the altered plot. If nothing else it’s a great display of silent acting, a mixture of stage craft and newly formed techniques.