Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale of competing natures in one human has been presented in cinema since its inception, as evidenced by this 1920s John Barrymore vehicle, as well as two previous versions included on Kino’s recent Blu-ray. I was spoiled watching Fredric March’s take on the material previously, a filmI find superior in its acting, but John S. Robertson’s silent take revels in its hedonistic villain even if the presentation feels stale overall.
Dr. Henry Jekyll (Barrymore) is a mild-mannered scientist who discovers a potion releasing an animalistic other known as Mr. Hyde. As his experiments expand, Hyde slowly starts to take over Jekyll, with friends and loved ones fearing for the doctor’s safety.
It’s hard not to compare this to the 1930s adaptation which possessed stellar acting from Fredric March and a sexy turn from Miriam Hopkins as the doomed prostitute, Ivy. That version was suggestive in emphasizing Hyde’s sexual potency, a by-product of its pre-Code nature. This silent version is rather straight forward and conservative in its depiction of Hyde as Jekyll’s id; a brutal cancer lacking remorse. The Hyde makeup is gruesome, an early indicator of the grotesque work used on Max Schreck in 1922’s Nosferatu (also released from Kino in the last few months). In this case, Hyde is a terrifying monster with a macabre visage terrifying in its silence. For some reason silent films always frighten me, even if the characters aren’t in a horror film. It’s definitely an improvement over the furry, vaguely werewolf makeup job done on March in the 1931 adaptation.
The story follows the same route laid out in subsequent adaptations with Hyde slowly overtaking Jekyll, placing him at odds with his beloved Millicent (Martha Mansfield). Hopkins’ Ivy in the 1931 take was delicate but her sexuality was unrestrained, a character trait enhanced by Nita Naldi’s Miss Gina. Miss Gina establishes the path Hopkins character takes, bur Naldi’s exoticism lends credence to her sexuality, while also adding class bias and racial boundaries. Hyde isn’t simply the id unleashed, but also the Devil setting a mild-mannered Englishman down a path to bizarre sexual practices beneath him in every way, shape, or form from a societal perspective. It’s obvious Hyde is taking the man away from the safety of the domestic sphere anchored by Millicent.
With silent movies gaining their footing by 1920, I was surprised at the long lines of text punctuating every scene. With most silent films the images speak for themselves. Nosferatu, also based on a novel, was reliant on the fear and basic premise of the horror in lieu of explaining character’s thoughts and inner feelings. Unfortunately, a lot of dialogue is necessary to explain the competing natures between Jekyll and Hyde, and thus you get long winding text which can distract from the evocative images.
Kino’s Blu-ray hearkens back to classic film history with two additional presentations of Stevenson’s classic. The 1912 version is a one-reel adaptation starring James Cruze. It’s a brief 13-minute short so there isn’t much nuance but it’s intriguing for its early filmmaking aesthetics. There’s also a competing take, also put out in 1920, directed by Louis B. Mayer. Again, this is a brief 14-minutes but pales in comparison to this one and was only released to capitalize on Barrymore’s success. Famed comedian Stan Laurel decided to take a stab at horror with his two-reeler spoof, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride. This is longer, 21-minutes, and has a few good gags. Finally, there’s the inclusion of rare audio from the transformation sequence. It’s only two-minutes but it’s fascinating to hear recording artist Len Spenser act out a scene you can watch. It’s one thing to see the product, sans audio, and another to hear just the description.
Overall, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a solid foray into Stevenson’s work, even if the plot is workman-like. It’s pretty hard to screw up this film and John Barrymore is a great Jekyll/Hyde, especially when covered in the terrifying makeup of the feral Hyde. Watch this in conjunction with the 1931 remake.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.