Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912) A Silent Film Review

A country doctor is inspired to experiment with a serum that will separate his good side from his evil side. What could possibly go wrong? The second of three known American Jekyll and Hyde adaptations made during the nickelodeon era.

Home Media Availability: Released on DVD and Bluray.

This review is part of the Medicine in the Movies Blogathon hosted by Charlene’s (Mostly) Classic Movie Reviews. Be sure to read the other posts!

Meh vs. Evil

A respectable doctor, a secret formula, an evil alter ego. Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has inspired countless adaptations on stage, screen, radio and television. Its title has entered our vernacular. Its central twist—Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are one and the same!—is so famous that a faithful adaptation of the source material is now impossible.

That famous plot twist was over a quarter-century old when the Thanhouser studio decided to make their own adaptation of the novel. The leading roles are played by James Cruze, who later found much greater fame as a director, helming popular Paramount epics like The Covered Wagon and Old Ironsides. In this film, the directing duties are left to Lucius Henderson.

A quick note before proceeding: There are no known complete prints of the 1912 Thanhouser production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The version we see today was painstakingly reconstructed from fragments. As a result, a film that was once two reels long has been reduced to one reel or thereabouts. Reviews of the film published at the time of release do indicate a more nuanced and complicated plot than what is obvious from the surviving reconstruction. I shall be taking these facts into consideration when reviewing the picture.

Should Graham really be writing medical texts in such a state?

The film begins by showing us a page from an open medical book, which claims that it is possible to divide good from evil in an individual by using certain drugs. Scholarly writing, that! Now, you or I would probably write this off as a screwball notion but to a physician named Jekyll, this represents a fascinating possibility. He mixes up a batch of the drug and drinks it himself. What could possibly go wrong?

The creature that emerges is Mr. Hyde, a monkey-faced little weirdo with homicidal tendencies. Jekyll is able to take another dose and return to normal but, after some months, he grows horrified at the monster he has unleashed. Unfortunately, Hyde can emerge without the aid of the drug and so Jekyll is obliged to continue dosing himself to keep him away. This makes things especially awkward as our good doctor is engaged to the minister’s daughter (Florence La Badie) and transforming into a raging monster is hell on your love life.

Pro Tip: Never date a medical man who believes in human testing.

Will Jekyll break free from Hyde’s power? We know he won’t but getting there is all the fun, right?

While the reconstruction does tell a complete story, there are moments that feel choppy because of the missing material. Dealing with an incomplete from this time period is always a challenge but questions as to what was cut are answered to a certain extent by contemporary film trade journals. (Courtesy of the splendid Media History Digital Library.) These magazines were aimed at theater owners and included complete synopses of films in release, which makes them a gold mine for modern researchers.

Maybe this whole “swallow strange chemicals” thing was a bad idea after all.

So, which scenes are still missing? Well, according to Moving Picture News, the original release included scenes of Jekyll debating whether to engage in the experiment with an older physician (we see just a snippet in the reconstruction), his friends wondering why he has made friends with this horrible Mr. Hyde and Hyde obtaining lodgings so that he can hide his connection to the good doctor. Nothing earth-shattering but these little moments would have enriched the narrative and given it a smoother pace.

John Barrymore’s famous take on Mr. Hyde.

It is interesting to compare this 1912 version of the Jekyll and Hyde story with subsequent adaptations. (I am omitting the 1908 Selig adaptation, which starred my beloved Hobart Bosworth. It is missing and presumed lost and is therefore not available for study.) Both the 1913 IMP production (Herbert Brenon directing, King Baggot as Jekyll and Hyde) and the famous 1920 John Barrymore version chose to make Jekyll’s motivation the desire to have his cake and eat it too. In a perfect symbol of the popular notion of Victorian hypocrisy, the kindly and charitable Dr. Jekyll wished to unleash his inner monster to indulge in the sort of sordid delights forbidden to a gentleman of good character. (The Clara Beranger scenario of the Barrymore film also borrows liberally from Oscar Wilde’s Dorian Grey.)

King Baggot’s Hyde.

(Stevenson’s novel, on the other hand, did not reveal why Jekyll chose to experiment as he did and he did not run a charity clinic or engage in other activities of the kind. In general, Stevenson’s work is more complicated and ambiguous than the simplified film adaptations that boil the work down to good vs. evil. In any case, a man who consumes a drug to alter his appearance and remove his inhibitions so that he can perform acts he knows to be wrong can hardly be described as a good person.)

I wonder what THIS does!

The Thanhouser version makes Jekyll a man of science who performs the experiment out of curiosity. Upon discovering how loathsome the resulting Mr. Hyde is, Jekyll attempts to end the experiment but Hyde is able to emerge on his own and can only be driven away with doses of Jekyll’s serum. This is a departure from almost every other adaptation as they tend to show Hyde only emerging with the help of the serum in the first two-thirds of the story and tend to portray the emergence of Hyde sans serum as a major plot twist in the third act or thereabouts.

This change actually makes the Thanhouser film one of the few versions to successfully portray the story in a good (but naïve) vs. evil context. Jekyll doesn’t want to indulge in sin, he just wants to see if his experiment works and he attempts to abandon it once he sees the harm he causes. (This realization and attempt to abort is generally placed far later in other adaptations.) He played with fire and was burned, underestimating the power of evil once it was allowed into the open. If only our good doctor had been willing to spend a nickel on a lab rat, all this unpleasantness might have been avoided.

It was a dark and stormy… oh never mind.

However, not all of the film’s creative flourishes are successful. The decision to move the action from “a busy quarter of London” to a small rural hamlet doesn’t do much for the film’s atmosphere of terror. Small towns can be scary places (The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari proves that) but no effort is made to set the mood for scary goings-on. In contrast, Georges Méliès and Segundo de Chomón always brought creepy panache to their horror-themed outings and Edison’s 1910 adaptation of Frankenstein incorporated moody shadows into the production with considerable success.

The Thanhouser production, on the other hand, has a generic quality and a solidly middle class setting. The filmmakers were clearly more interested in the ethical issues of the tale, at least the ones closest to the surface, than in recreating Stevenson’s creepy vibe. This fact is mentioned in Moving Picture News, which states that the film “is not one that is calculated to inspire fear or dread in the spectator.” While I’m all for brains over blood and guts, I do think it was a misfire to fail to build a scary atmosphere in a story that includes a trampled child and a murdered minister. A little urban decay would have worked wonders.

“Ahem, MWAHAHAHAHA!”

I should also mention that there is some question as to whether or not Cruze played Hyde in all scenes. Harry Benham, who also worked for Thanhouser at the time and resembled Cruze, claimed that he played Hyde in some scenes. This would have been a logical way of expediting the production as the crew would not have been obliged to wait for Cruze to apply his Hyde makeup and change costumes before resuming work.

The performances in the film are typical for 1912. While film actors were no longer playing to the back row with such fervor, exaggerated movements were still the norm in certain instances. Cruze (and/or Benham) goes overboard as Hyde but EVERY actor goes overboard as Hyde. The role is a siren song to the old ham that resides in every performer. I have not yet seen the actor who can play Hyde and also resist the urge to take great chomps at the scenery. (Spencer Tracy’s performance is sometimes described as more subtle but I think he still has shreds of upholstery between his teeth. The New York Times in 1941 described Tracy’s Hyde as “not so much evil incarnate as the ham rampant.”) On my J&H-o-Meter, I would rate Cruze a C+ or B-. Not bad but not particularly interesting.

He promises not to turn into a monster TOO often.

Florence La Badie is the best performer in the film by far, natural and appealing. She isn’t given all that much to do (without giving too much away, the ending is quite truncated and she is not given the big scene one would expect from Jekyll’s love interest) but she does what she can.

This version of Jekyll and Hyde does interesting things with the story but is done in by its refusal to employ any moody atmosphere. La Badie is a standout but the overall film’s generic feel ends up dampening any fun that might have been had. Interesting but no masterpiece.

Where can I see it?

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been released by Thanhouser and is available as an extra on the Kino Barrymore Jekyll and Hyde Bluray with an excellent piano score by Rodney Sauer.

If you wish to see this film to best advantage, I highly recommend getting the Bluray. While movies of 1912 were starting to move closer to the action and make further use of closeups, this particular title is on the stagey side using only long and medium shots (except for a few inserts of a book and a bottle label). As a result, the higher resolution of Bluray results in a much better viewing experience as we can see additional details that add to our enjoyment of the film.

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5 Replies to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912) A Silent Film Review”

  1. Great post! I love your writing for the post – some very funny lines (e.g. physicians should not be taking illicit drugs while writing medical books!). It is interesting and unfortunate that large chunks of the film are missing. Such is the case with many silent films, but you never know – the pieces may emerge in strange places! Thanks for your contribution to the blogathon!

  2. Another great review, but (speaking as a mouse) I have to take exception with your idea of testing the doom brew on a lab rat. Actually, this makes an interesting aside, because “Jekyll/Hyde” stands on the threshold between traditional Christian morality (good vs evil) and “modern” scientific method (anything goes in the name of progress). Since rats don’t have original sin (under Christianity) and therefore don’t have an “evil” side, taking the potion would presumably have no effect on their behavior–duping the would-be “scientist” into believing that he could swill gallons of the stuff with no ill effect. Another example of the inefficacy of animal testing in the lab 😉

    1. Ah, but the good vs. evil split is described in a secular scientific text and would not necessarily be beholden to any religious beliefs. As we know from Star Trek, animals (especially little dogs with horns) can be easily split into good and evil. 😉

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