Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) A Silent Film Review

The other American Jekyll and Hyde picture of 1920, this film has a low budget and few stars to its name but it does contain more traditional horror elements than other silent versions of the tale and deserves a little more attention.

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No Place to Hyde

Knockoff productions had been an issue in the film industry since the beginning and by the time the silent feature era was in full swing, it was not unusual for a popular play or film to face at least a few cheap knockoffs in the theaters. Abie’s Irish Rose begat The Cohens and Kellys and The Shamrock and the Rose and the expensive John Barrymore vehicle Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde begat this inexpensive version produced by Louis B. Mayer with the goal of siphoning off some of that sweet prestige picture cash.

The fiend!

So, we must ask the obvious question of whether or not the Sheldon Lewis adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde can stand on its own two (four?) feet or if it merely exists as a footnote to the Barrymore version.

Star Sheldon Lewis is not a household name these days but he had a solid stage career and worked steadily in the movies, mostly character and villain roles. He was one of three feature-length Jekyll/Hydes in 1920, with Barrymore and Conrad Veidt in the lost F.W. Murnau film Der Januskopf taking up the other slots. (In the latter film, the characters are named Dr. Warren and Mr. O’Connor.)

Some lost films really, really hurt. This is one of them.

We leave Victorian London far behind as the story is set in the America of 1920, likely due to budget concerns. The film opens by showing Henry Jekyll hard at work in his clinic. He is toiling day and night to help a dying child with a mysterious ailment. A fine, self-sacrificing physician, right? During a visit with his fiancée, Bernice (Gladys Field), Jekyll reveals that his interest is rooted in something more than compassion. He is fascinated by the way the child lingers between life and death, proclaiming that such a state almost proves his belief that there is no soul. Yikes.

The next day, Jekyll skips out of a golf date with Bernice by explaining to her that he is working on a formula that will allow him to separate the good and evil in humans and will physically transform them. As one does. Bernice is annoyed because a) morbid much? and b) she really wanted to play golf. He finally gets rid of her by telling her he will take her to the opera.

Yikes

But the night of the opera, Jekyll decides that his formula is ready for human experimentation at last and takes a long glug. Worst. Boyfriend. Ever. As Hyde, Jekyll stalks out to see what mischief he can cause.

In the book, Hyde had a penchant for kicking and jumping on his victims and he targeted children and the elderly. The descriptions of Hyde’s murder and assault spree is still scarier than any of the adaptations I have seen so far.

Heeeere’s Hyde!

Sheldon Lewis’ Hyde launches into his reign of terror by throttling a random passerby and stealing her purse, following that up with wandering into a sawmill and trying to light it on fire. He finally escapes back to his lab, where he tries to kill Jekyll’s cat. Once he resumes his own identity, Jekyll prays for forgiveness for his sins and his agnosticism but the very next title card explains that he hires rooms so that he can better conceal his Hyde persona.

Bernice, meanwhile, has decided that she’s more than a little bit sick of playing second fiddle to Jekyll’s pseudoscience. And let that be a lesson to you, nerdy boys and girls. You can have a healthy romance or you can turn yourself into a cat-hating pyromaniac. One or the other, not both. She becomes engaged to Jekyll’s friend Danvers Carew (Leslie Austin) instead.

He’s doing it for the chicks, if we’re honest.

Jekyll is horrified that his love has left him for a man who doesn’t constantly stand her up and the title card states that he takes solace in Hyde. One of the problems with this adaptation is that it fails to convey exactly why Jekyll keeps going with his experiment. He doesn’t seem to have a particularly good time during his first foray as Mr. Hyde and he is a shivering, penitent mess afterward. The Barrymore version was by no means faithful to the book but the opportunity to romance Nita Naldi was a powerful and understandable temptation.

However, all three of the “major” Hollywood Jekyll and Hyde adaptations went for the whole psychosexual abuse thing and I was ready to throw things at the screen by the time Spencer Tracy started torturing Ingrid Bergman in the 1941 version. So, a different flavor of evil was welcome, I just wish that the motivation of Jekyll had been clearer. Perhaps some scribbled notes clarifying his scientific interest in the Hyde experiment despite the obvious trauma, for example.

Winning back your fiancee should not start with murdering her new suitor, just saying.

In any case, Hyde burns down a tenement building for funsies here. Jekyll recovers, feels awful and then makes out his will leaving half his estate to Hyde. In other words, not all that sorry. And then Hyde commits his most daring crime yet. He sneaks into Bernice’s home and murders Carew.

Now, burning down a tenement is one thing but the police absolutely draw the line at killing one of the country club set and the manhunt is on. Hyde takes refuge in the room Jekyll rented for him and through the magic of double exposure, a vision of the murdered Carew appears to HYDE not Jekyll, showing Hyde has a conscience. This is at odds with the book as Henry Jekyll’s entire motivation for the experiment was to vicariously enjoy evil and keep his own conscience clean.

Hyde by firelight.

Jekyll finds himself turning into Hyde involuntarily and can’t resist throttling his landlady. So, it seems that inviting Bernice over to explain matters is not entirely wise but I am not the scientist. Will the fiendish Mr. Hyde ever be brought to justice?

Spoiler: The screenplay makes use of the 1920 setting and has Bernice sensibly call the police. They arrest Hyde and when he turns back into Jekyll in his cell, they interrogate him until he turns back. Hyde is then sent to the electric chair and… Jekyll wakes up. It was all a dream and now he believes in god. Yippee!

Hyde prepares to ride the lightning.

Sheldon Lewis does carry on a bit as Mr. Hyde but carrying on a bit is pretty much essential for the role. Spencer Tracy tried a more subtle approach with minimal makeup in 1941 but it rendered the notion that Jekyll was unrecognizable as Hyde ridiculous. And, of course, the Hyde of the book was not a particularly impressive figure, he is described as small, ugly and repulsive.

The aspect that really separates John Barrymore’s performance from that of Lewis is the way the actors convey the internal struggle between Jekyll and Hyde. Barrymore manages to convey the good in Jekyll battling to escape Hyde’s grip and to show why he cannot stop the experiment before it is too late. Lewis seems more wishy-washy, his Jekyll is contrite in one scene and then actively aiding and abetting Hyde in the very next.

Sorry or sorry he got caught.

Due to the film’s low budget, the lavish sets of the Barrymore films would have been impossible and much of the Sheldon Lewis Hyde’s violence is performed in real locations with real decaying buildings, sawmills and shipyards. This gives the picture heft and grit that it would not have been able to convey otherwise. Real footage of firefighters unsuccessfully battling a tenement blaze adds to the documentary quality. The irony is that these cost-cutting measures are quite pleasing to the eye of the modern film fan. The direction by Charles J. Hayden isn’t groundbreaking but it gets the job done.

The one place where the low budget hurts the picture is important, though. The makeup and transformation scenes are simply not up to the standard of the Barrymore version. The transformation scene doesn’t use makeup or even a double (as the 1912 Thanhouser film did) but simply uses cuts to make the substitution.

A real fire for Hyde.

This seems like the right place to clear up a few things about the original source material, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. (You can read a public domain edition here. Highly recommended.)

People who are only familiar with the screen adaptations may be surprised to learn that the original story treats the character of Mr. Hyde as a mystery. A nasty, cruel, murderous creature has somehow gained the trust of the kindly and morally upright Dr. Jekyll. How could this be? The revelation that they were one and the same was unveiled in the final third of the story in the form of Henry Jekyll’s confession. Linear storytelling is just less interesting here.

Jekyll mid-change.

I want to make it clear that movies in 1920 were perfectly capable of using a non-linear structure with a final epistolatory revelation. I mention this because some reviews of the 1920 Jekyll and Hyde films have claimed that such a structure was impossible for audiences to grasp at the time and that Citizen Kane would introduce the non-linear narrative to movies and I want to go somewhere and cry. And take my copy of The Cabinet of Caligari with me, what with its unreliable narrator, written confession-within-a-possibly-false-flashback structure and all. (I’m also packing Limite and Sodom and Gomorrah.)

The use of linear structure likely had more to do with the outsize influence of Thomas Russell Sullivan’s stage version, which abandoned the mystery and confession in favor of a more traditional narrative complete with love interest. But, yes, audiences of 1920 could handle different narrative structures. (Pours self a stiff drink and glares at people who generalize the silent era without actually watching silent movies.)

What could he possibly have to do with mad science?

My second point about the original Jekyll and Hyde book is that while the story is often framed as separating the good from the evil and such words do appear in the text, the title character had a far more complicated motivation. (Again, stage adaptations can bear some blame for this turn to the simplistic.) Jekyll is coy about his exact sins and desires but:

“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.”

In other words, Henry Jekyll found himself wanting the reputation of a saint and the nightlife of a sinner and the hypocrisy of this was at odds with his worldview. Please note that Jekyll did not need the formula to indulge in his desires, he had already indulged them. His goal was to assuage the guilt that came with his hypocritical behavior and to eliminate the risk of being recognized. And so, he concocts a formula that will remove the higher thoughts and virtues, leaving only wanton desires.

“There was something strange in my sensations, something indescribably new and, from its very novelty, incredibly sweet. I felt younger, lighter, happier in body; within I was conscious of a heady recklessness, a current of disordered sensual images running like a millrace in my fancy, a solution of the bonds of obligation, an unknown but not an innocent freedom of the soul. I knew myself, at the first breath of this new life, to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil; and the thought, in that moment, braced and delighted me like wine.”

Hyde escaping across the rooftops.

Sensuous and reckless are hardly horrifying terms these days. Heck, James Bond as we know him would not exist without them. Yet these were the evils in the very Victorian Henry Jekyll’s mind and the removal of inhibition unleashed something terrible indeed. Jekyll is also older in the book than he is in most film adaptations, so Hyde also represents a return to youth.

A simple good vs. evil narrative doesn’t really tell the whole story because book Jekyll is not a good man. A truly good man would not have concocted such a scheme and would not have found himself in the hypocritical pickle in the first place. The story is not good vs. evil so much as morally conflicted vs. no inhibitions, Katie bar the door.

Hiya, toots.

Stevenson via Jekyll acknowledges Jekyll’s flaws in the character’s confession:

“Had I approached my discovery in a more noble spirit, had I risked the experiment while under the empire of generous or pious aspirations, all must have been otherwise, and from these agonies of death and birth, I had come forth an angel instead of a fiend.”

In short, Jekyll compounded the drug to separate elements of his nature but was not entirely sure of the results. The film adaptations of the book have handled the reason for the experiment in various ways, from making Jekyll a sweetie pie with fatal curiosity to lifting from The Picture of Dorian Grey to furnish a more decadent motivation.

Bring out the science stuff!

This film goes the more traditional mad scientist route, which is a perfectly solid creative decision. Jekyll is determined to disprove the existence of the immortal soul. How experiment would generate such evidence is not entirely clear but a doctor going to bizarre extremes to prove a theory is always a safe narrative route to take in a horror picture. However, as stated before this film doesn’t really cover what Jekyll is getting out of the experiments and why he continues with them.

All this being said, this film does have more of a traditional horror feel than other Jekyll and Hyde pictures with its whole “killer on the loose” vibe. Hyde’s random spree of violence is creepy and weird and that’s the flavor I always associate with the character. The sequence in the sawmill is particularly effective due to the moody lighting. Hyde lingers at the window, grinning like a maniac, and then slips inside and disappears into the shadows. It’s the simple things in life.

He likes fire and strangling and purse-snatching.

Hyde’s murder of Carew in this film marks a transition from random violence to personal with the evil alter ego essentially doing Jekyll’s dirty work. Creeping through a window to beat a rival to death proves to be too much even for the rather twisted Dr. Jekyll.

There’s just enough about this picture that works, in other words. The narrative jigs and jags and never really settles on a tone or a set of motivations for its title character but the gritty atmosphere and the more manic Hyde are pluses.

Mwahahaha!

So, is it worth seeing? This is not the best adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde but it is interesting and leans into the horror aspects of the tale. The makeup is not as sophisticated as the Barrymore film but the primitive brutality of Mr. Hyde (see tenement, set fire to dumpster, dance with glee) is true to the spirit of the original. Is the picture better than the Barrymore film? Not really but it’s worth seeing as a separate and distinct creation.

Where can I see it?

Available for streaming and purchase from Harpodeon.

☙❦❧

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4 Comments

  1. Steve

    Such an enlightening review, with all the context and comparisons to the novel as well as the other films.
    Such sophistication aside, for some reason I got a big chuckle over the golf date bit. I just couldn’t picture a golf scene in this kind of story. Opera yes, golf no.

  2. Joe Thompson

    Hi Fritzi. I like the way you brought the source material into your analysis. I enjoyed both the Sheldon Lewis and Barrymore versions for different reasons. I had not thought of the resemblance of the Lewis version to an outright horror movie.

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