Stan Laurel pokes fun at the ever-popular Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, terrorizing the English urban landscape with a pea shooter, a party streamer and a finger trap.
Stan Laurel knocked around the film industry for about a decade before he was paired with Oliver Hardy and became a comedy legend. That means there is a considerable amount of pre-Ollie material available for viewing. Laurel’s career was not so much obscurity to stardom as it was doing-pretty-good to wow-doing-amazing.
Laurel’s solo work is rather hit or miss for me. His shorts can be uproarious but they can also be tedious in some cases. However, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde (some versions use the title Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride, for those of you who like to have fun with phonics) is one of the best Laurel solo short I have seen to date.
A bit of context is in order. Laurel comedies often spoofed then-popular box office hits, even if the gag was just in the title. John Barrymore was another stage star trying to find that magic bullet to help him make the jump to movie superstar when he was cast as the lead in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The 1920 film was a smash hit with Barrymore’s low makeup approach (at least early on) and his capital “B” BIG performance praised. It is still in the running to be considered the definitive film version of the story. (Fredric March’s version is the other fan favorite.)
Of course, while the Barrymore film is very good, many aspects of it lend themselves to easy spoofing. Barrymore’s huge gestures during his transformation and his easily mimicked costume and hair clearly inspired Stan Laurel’s comedy performance.
Laurel is Dr. Pyckle, a scientist who wants to separate out the evil from human nature with… well, the sort of science-ish stuff we always see in the movies. He is assisted by Julie Leonard but things get awkward when the seat of his trousers is burned away by acid. Just one of the many perils in store for those brave folks who set out to increase mankind’s knowledge, right?
At last, Pyckle is successful and downs his experimental mixture becoming the horrible Mr. Pryde. Mr. Hyde in Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel was bad enough but cinematic versions turned him even more sinister. Stan Laurel pulls things back and Mr. Pryde’s first crime is… the theft of an ice cream cone!
Pryde continues his reign of terror, shooting peas at kids, popping a paper bag behind a woman’s head and, worst of all, tricking an unsuspecting gentleman into placing his fingers inside a finger trap, the fiend. Every time Pryde goes too far and has a mob on his heels, he runs back to Pyckle’s lab. (At one point, this becomes awkward as Pyckle’s pup eats some of the formula and turns into, well, this:
The small stakes of the film create reverse suspense as we continue to watch and see how petty Pryde will become. The punchline of the joke is that the rest of the cast act like these minor offenses are murder and mayhem and react accordingly. Evil has never been so tiny.
Laurel is, of course, the star of the show but Julie Leonard is great fun as the deadpan and somewhat dim lab assistant and love interest to Dr. Pyckle. She and Laurel have great chemistry (she starred in several of his early comedies) and it’s a shame that she didn’t do more work. I was particularly amused by early scenes in the picture when Pyckle is trying to conceal his burnt trousers while also pitching woo.
Many reviewers praise the “authentic” sets and costumes of the film but I think that’s going overboard. They are sets and costumes, yes, and they certainly get the job done but that’s about it. The back of Dr. Jekyll’s house looks more like the last outpost of the French Foreign Legion (the sets were recycled from other films) than downtown London during the reign of Queen Victoria. This isn’t a dig at the film, it was never intended as a true period place, so much as expressing a little irritation at sloppy reviews.
The title cards in Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde are extremely droll and amusing but it is my understanding that the originals were lost and so these are a reconstruction. A very good reconstruction, mind you, as they have all the glib remarks and bad puns we know and love in silent comedy. However, I can’t really give the film points for them if they are not the real McCoy.
It’s a bit ironic that this broad, zany spoof would in some ways be closer to the spirit of the original book than other “faithful” adaptations. The Hyde of Robert Louis Stevenson’s book was not a supervillain so much as a frenzied, out of control creature, freakish in appearance and most likely to attack elderly men and children. He commits murder, certainly, but he also engages in petty awfulness for its own sake.
Most plays and film adaptations either incorporate a Dorian Gray theme with Jekyll being tempted into his fateful experiments or they add a layer of overt sexual sadism or both. In fact, Jekyll’s temptations were entirely self-made and more of a narrow-minded nature. Though he specifically denies the charge, the Jekyll of the novel is a hypocrite from the start, his desire to have his cake and eat it too is what inspired him to start his experiments in the first place.
“And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life…
…Though so profound a double-dealer, I was in no sense a hypocrite; both sides of me were in dead earnest; I was no more myself when I laid aside restraint and plunged in shame, than when I laboured, in the eye of day, at the furtherance of knowledge or the relief of sorrow and suffering. And it chanced that the direction of my scientific studies, which led wholly toward the mystic and the transcendental, re-acted and shed a strong light on this consciousness of the perennial war among my members.”
Is Hyde evil? Yes. But is Jekyll wholly good? Absolutely not. A good person would not reason as Jekyll reasons in his testimony at the end of the book:
“Men have before hired bravos to transact their crimes, while their own person and reputation sat under shelter. I was the first that ever did so for his pleasures. I was the first that could thus plod in the public eye with a load of genial respectability, and in a moment, like a schoolboy, strip off these lendings and spring headlong into the sea of liberty. But for me, in my impenetrable mantle, the safety was complete. Think of it—I did not even exist! Let me but escape into my laboratory door, give me but a second or two to mix and swallow the draught that I had always standing ready; and whatever he had done, Edward Hyde would pass away like the stain of breath upon a mirror; and there in his stead, quietly at home, trimming the midnight lamp in his study, a man who could afford to laugh at suspicion, would be Henry Jekyll.”
Hyde was intended as a more scientifically advanced disguise and party drug rolled into one. The tragedy of the situation is not a good man consumed by evil but a foolish and arrogant scientist who meddles with something he does not understand and loses control of his own experiment. Jekyll is a composite of good and bad while Hyde is merely the bad.
“My two natures had memory in common, but all other faculties were most unequally shared between them. Jekyll (who was composite) now with the most sensitive apprehensions, now with a greedy gusto, projected and shared in the pleasures and adventures of Hyde; but Hyde was indifferent to Jekyll, or but remembered him as the mountain bandit remembers the cavern in which he conceals himself from pursuit.”
(Modern versions of Jekyll and Hyde seem to be hurtling in an Incredible Hulk in a Top Hat direction, further dumbing down an already battered literary classic.)
Of course, Stan Laurel was in this for the laughs and laughs he gets. The petty practical jokes and immature behavior just hit my funnybone just right and nearly everything lands. It’s not sophisticated but it’s a grand bit of fun. Instead of seeing how the Jekyll and Hyde story could be made bigger and more epic, Laurel and company are determined to shrink it down to its paltriest form and the measly stakes are uproariously tiny.
Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde is a marvelous little comedy and though the missing ending makes it a bit anticlimactic, it is still a fun film from beginning to end.
Where can I see it?
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