Pardon me, can I have my body back?
John Barrymore takes on the double role of the kindly doctor and his horrible alter ego. This adaptation is Stevenson with a pinch of Wilde thrown in for good measure. This was the film that finally made Barrymore a movie star to match his acclaim on the stage. And the makeup! The makeup!
Nasty, brutish and short. Ish.
Available on DVD and Blu-ray.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published in 1886 and was an immediate hit. Dozens of film adaptations have been made, starring everyone from Spencer Tracy to Adam Baldwin, the 1931 Fredric March version being arguably the most famous.
John Barrymore had been appearing in motion pictures since 1914 but had not yet enjoyed the same level of success that he had achieved on the stage. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde proved to be the prestigious hit that he needed to vault to the highest ranks of movie stars.
So, how will the oft-filmed story hold up? We are about to find out.
First, let’s reacquaint ourselves with the source material in extremely condensed form:
The novella is the tale of a lawyer named Utterson who discovers that his good friend, Dr. Jekyll (a respected medical man of 50 or so), has been associated with a strange and violent young fellow named Edward Hyde. When a member of Parliament is murdered, Hyde disappears and all seems normal once again. Then Utterson is summoned to Jekyll’s house, where the servants fear that Hyde has murdered their master and holed up in the laboratory.
Utterson breaks in, discovers Hyde dead from suicide and finds Jekyll’s confession. Jekyll had performed an experiment on himself to separate the good part of him from the evil. However, the evil side proved too strong and Hyde was taking over. Worse, the drugs Jekyll needed to hold Hyde at bay became unobtainable. Jekyll had written his confession, knowing that soon only Hyde would remain.
The novella was adapted into a stage play by T.R. Sullivan, who incorporated the melodramatic elements that he knew audiences would clamor for. A love interest in the form of a nice Victorian maiden was introduced. Further, while the original tale was laid out like a mystery, with Jekyll’s friends (and the reader!) trying their best to discover the secrets of Mr. Hyde, the play shared the character’s duality immediately and emphasized the horror aspects of the tale. It is this play, rather than the original book, that most film adaptations take their inspiration from and the 1920 version is no exception.
Let’s dive a little into the story now.
Do-gooders need to party too
Dr. Henry Jekyll (John Barrymore) is considered a living saint. Independently wealthy, he toils long hours treating the poor at his own personal expense. Millicent Carewe (Martha Mansfield) has given her heart to the handsome doctor but his work keeps him busy. Her father, Sir George Carewe (Brandon Hurst), is a lecherous man of the world. His only virtue is his careful guardianship of his innocent daughter.
At this point, the story takes a break from both Stevenson and Sullivan and heads directly into Dorian Gray territory. Like Lord Henry in Oscar Wilde’s tale, Sir George has determined that “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.” Further, he has determined that the good doctor needs a good dose of temptation. No one can be that saintly.
Sir George takes Jekyll to a music hall, presided over by Louis Wolheim in a small but colorful role. It is there that Jekyll gets his first eye-full of temptation in the form of Gina (Nita Naldi, looking lovely in her first feature film role), an Italian dancer. Sir George summons over the very interested Gina but Jekyll is overcome with guilt and flees.
Later, he discusses the matter with his good friend and lawyer (and rival for Millicent’s affections) John Utterson (J. Malcolm Dunn). As he talks, Jekyll realizes that he does want to partake in the wild life that Sir George if offering, he just doesn’t want to pay the piper. But what if it wasn’t really him? What if a man could split himself– the normal, moral person and the licentious wicked person? Utterson is completely baffled by Jekyll’s wild talk and does not think much more of it. Jekyll is serious, though, and he sets to work on a formula.
Of course he succeeds. The first transformation scene is a bit of virtuoso acting for Barrymore. I have mentioned before that he is at his best when he is just allowed to chew the scenery. Well, in this film he rips off great dripping hunks and gulps them down whole. It’s marvelous.
Barrymore employed elaborate makeup for the role of Mr. Hyde but the initial shots of the transformation are just him contorting the muscles in his face and affecting a stooping, jumpy walk. It’s quite effective.
Hyde makes a beeline for Gina, uses her and then tosses her aside, though not before appropriating an Italian poison ring from her. He keeps rooms in a seedy part of town where he is able to indulge in every vice available in Victorian London. And, of course, Dr. Jekyll’s reputation (and, presumably, soul) are as spotless as ever.
However, Mr. Hyde is not content to stay in his box. And he is stronger than Dr. Jekyll ever imagined. Worse, he grows more depraved and more violent each time he comes out. How long before he commits a terrible crime? Watch Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to find out.
Bringing Jekyll and Hyde to life
John S. Robertson directed Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Active until 1935, he is remembered for directing the Mary Pickford vehicle Tess of the Storm Country in 1922 and the Shirley Temple film Our Little Girl thirteen years later. His direction in Jekyll and Hyde is rather staid with few flourishes or effects to distinguish itself.
There is one exception, though. Near the end of the film, when Hyde has begun to manifest himself without the formula, Dr. Jekyll is sleeping fitfully. Then an apparition of Hyde appears in the form of a giant spider. The spider crawls onto the fainting Jekyll and disappears into him. Jekyll then transforms into Hyde. It is a marvelously creepy touch handled very well by Robertson and cinematographer Roy Overbaugh.
The rest of the cast is generally commendable. Martha Mansfield, who plays good girl Millicent, had recently graduated from short comedies and was building a promising career. She is not given much to do but her performance is pleasant and she does not overplay the innocent routine. Mansfield signed on with Fox and won the lead role in the Civil War film The Warrens of Virginia. While on location, her voluminous period dress caught fire. In spite of valiant efforts by both her co-star and her chauffeur to save her she was badly burned and died the next day. She was only 24 years old.
Nita Naldi (Irish-American and originally named Mary Nonna Dooley) was new to Hollywood (though not the stage, being a veteran of the Ziegfeld Follies) and her rawness shows but she comes off as charming and sympathetic. Two years later, she would be smoldering onscreen with Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand.
John Barrymore, meanwhile, gives this role his all. And his all is quite a lot. He smirks, simpers, crawls, sobs, screams, leaps, contorts… My goodness! I know that some reviews have called his performance too broad. I guess I should call him out for the ham he is but his enthusiasm is infectious and I just have to give him a pass for sheer effort.
As Jekyll, he is constantly overwhelmed by guilt, by fear, by unbearable temptation… All the while managing to constantly turn sidewise and show off that famous profile.
As Hyde, he is a depraved wretch. He tramples children, bullies barmaids and even gnaws on the throat of one of his more unfortunate victims.
Barrymore’s over the top performance was considered to be the best thing about the film in 1920 and it still is the best thing about it today, though I certainly understand why it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. Or beaker of secret formula, as the case may be.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the movies
A few important themes were changed in the transition between book and film. One major difference between the book and the film is Dr. Jekyll’s motive for his transformation.
Jekyll of the book was in part motivated by his age and wanting to enjoy the follies of his youth one more time– and without the social consequence. He enjoyed sowing his wild oats in the past and still occasionally indulged in unspecified vices but he dared not do it very often lest he lose his social standing. Jekyll of the film is a young man who has never given in to temptation, in part because he has never really been exposed to it. John Barrymore was 38 when he played the role but he could pass easily for a younger man.
While the Jekyll of the book is not a particularly religious man (at least until he commits murder in the Hyde persona), the Jekyll of the film is devout. What I found very interesting is that movie Jekyll latches onto the splitting of the natures as a way “to yield to every evil impulse — yet leave the soul untouched,” indicating that his devotion is more due to fear of damnation rather than innate goodness. As you can see, both book and film arrive at a conflicted character but they get there by different routes.
I have touched on the fact that this version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde features a tempter character right out of The Picture of Dorian Gray. This addition provides a catalyst for Jekyll to begin his experiments. The original motive was 100% internal, which would have been much more difficult to film.
In the end, though, Dr. Jekyll’s downfall is a simple case of wanting to have his cake and eat it too. While he blamed Sir George for tempting him, the simple fact is that if he had just chosen one path or the other, sin or piety, he would not have ended up in his predicament. Sir George may have shown him the seedy side of life but it was Jekyll’s decision to go down that path.
Now for Mr. Hyde. Hyde in the book was young (the unused evil persona was naturally younger), diminutive and… not ugly, not monstrous… No one could put their finger on what they disliked about his appearance but all agreed they were instantly repulsed. Yet he had no particular mark of ugliness or monstrous feature. Further, Hyde was a terrible person but he was also a coward and was obsessed with self-preservation.
In this film (and, indeed, most movie adaptations), Hyde is monstrous physically. Barrymore’s skill for contorting his face meant that he could accomplish the first stages of the transformation without makeup. As the film progresses, Hyde grows more and more deformed and hideous.
Part of the reason the story has been so successful is that Robert Louis Stevenson set up basic rules for his science fiction/horror elements and he stuck to them. That may sound like an obvious ingredient for success but all too many films and books with fantastic elements forget their own laws halfway through (or, worse, never had them at all). Stevenson’s rules are as follows: Jekyll and Hyde share a body and they share a common memory that both can tap into. However, even though each remembers what the other has done, the currently-recessive personality wields no control over the personality in control of the body.
These rules lead to another interesting aspect of both characters: their attitude toward one another. At first, it is Jekyll who uses Hyde to attain the pleasures he must deny himself. However, as Hyde grows stronger and is able to emerge without the formula, he is the one who begins to use Jekyll. He is able to commit crimes and then summon the doctor back to avoid capture. Hyde remembers Jekyll “as the mountain bandit remembers the cavern in which he conceals himself from pursuit.”
While the book states these attitudes plainly, the film relies on John Barrymore’s expressions. In the aftermath of a grisly murder, the cunning smile on Hyde’s face as he mixes the formula tells us all we need to know about what he is thinking. And when Jekyll reemerges, he is at first relieved to be back and then horrified as he remembers the murder that Hyde has committed. It is extremely well done.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is considered a classic of silent horror. As a classic, it holds up rather well. See it for Barrymore in his prime and for a look at Martha Mansfield, whose tragic death halted a promising career, and for Nita Naldi, at the cusp of stardom.
You may think that this review would an ideal place for a Silents vs. Talkies feature. I have to admit something, though: The 1920 version of Jekyll and Hyde is actually the only feature-length version I enjoy watching. The Pre-Code and Golden Age adaptations (starring Fredric March and Spencer Tracy respectively) frankly left me a little queasy with their emphasis on Hyde’s abuse of Ivy (the Gina-esque character), censored though it was. I acknowledge the talent that went into them and their production quality but I am not up to reviewing them right now. And yes, I do realize I just wrote a review that discusses a character biting out someone’s throat. We all have our little double-standard ways. Please forgive me mine.
Where can I see it?
The film is available for viewing on DVD and via streaming. I like the restored Kino-Lorber release with an excellent score by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. It comes on both DVD and Blu-ray. The disc also includes Stan Laurel’s send-up of the film, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde.