Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920)

I’m intrigued by the idea of watching different movie versions of classic novels and seeing how they vary, but often come unstuck when doing this, because I find I’ve forgotten one version by the time I watch another! However, I’ve managed to watch three versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in a relatively short space of time, so they are still all quite fresh in my mind.
The earliest of the three – though the third version I actually saw – is the silent 1920 movie starring John Barrymore, directed by John S Robertson. Having mainly seen the somewhat wrecked figure of Barrymore in talkies like Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight, when years of alcoholism had taken their toll, I was half-startled to see just how weirdly beautiful he was in his silent heyday. As this early version hasn’t been released in Britain on DVD, and I can’t fork out for imports of everything I’d like to see, I watched it online at the public domain site  www.archive.org . I’m sure it would be much more striking if seen on a larger screen – but, even peering at a smaller picture, it still makes a powerful impression, full of eerie light effects. Barrymore’s face is strikingly white, almost ghost-like, during the scenes he plays as Jekyll. By contrast, as Hyde, he is always in darkness, and wanders through crumbling Victorian streets full of sinister shadows.

John Barrymore as Jekyll, with Martha Mansfield as Millicent Carew, and Barrymore as Hyde, with those creepy prosthetic fingers.

Since Barrymore was so strikingly good-looking at this point, with that “great profile” at its greatest, it’s all the more unnerving when he somehow twists his face into a hideous caricature of itself to become Mr Hyde. The first time he undergoes his transformation, he hardly uses any make-up, doing most of it with expression and posture – although he does have prosthetic fingers, which, in close-up, suggest how his whole being is becoming deformed. Later on, as Hyde’s evil grows, he does acquire heavy make-up, as well as ghastly false teeth. He walks hunched up as Hyde, shrouded in a black cloak – I found myself reminded of Olivier as Richard III, so was interested to read that Barrymore was actually playing Richard III on Broadway at the same time as filming Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I wonder how much the two performances influenced one another – and also whether Barrymore influenced Olivier?

Barrymore has a spidery quality as Hyde, with those long fingers… and there’s a remarkable dream sequence where he goes to bed as Jekyll, then a giant spider steals on to his bed, moves towards him and somehow envelopes him, and he wakes up as Hyde.  I’ve only seen a handful of silent movies as yet, but have been surprised to see how much experimentation they include with things like this dream sequence… and how many special effects film-makers did manage to achieve so many decades before the advent of CGI.

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s original novel, there is no love interest at all. However, all the three movie versions I’ve watched feature central love plots, involving “good” and “bad” women, with Jekyll clinging to his virtuous fiancee in a desperate hope she might save him from himself, while Hyde glories in dominating and terrifying the “bad” and sexy woman. Also, in all three versions, the “good” woman is rich and the “bad” woman is poor! I’ve read that all three versions draw on an early stage adaptation.

In this early movie version, Jekyll is a saintly doctor who spends all his time concentrating on his work with the poor, until his sophisticated friend, George Carew, persuades him that he should really delve into other areas of experience. Reviews at the imdb point out that Carew seems to be based on Sir Henry Wootton in Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray – and I noticed that Carew actually uses a line taken straight from Wilde: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”  Ironically, Jekyll is in love with Carew’s daughter, the virtuous Millicent (Martha Mansfield), but the father’s suggestion destroys his daughter’s chance of happiness.
When Jekyll transforms himself into Hyde, he embarks on a destructive relationship with an Italian singer, Gina (Nita Naldi), but then discards her – there’s a chilling scene where he looks at her with contempt and turns to a new, fresh-faced young girl who he plans to corrupt in turn. I thought this version gives the feeling of Hyde carrying out a whole career of hidden corruption better than the  later versions – but the women are really just cardboard cut-outs and not developed as characters.

I was quite surprised to see that the parallels between the central character’s split personality and drunkenness are already brought out in this early version – there’s a scene where Hyde sees a man in a bar who is squirming around in agony, and is told that he thinks he is being attacked by red ants. Very similar to the spider.

The melodrama and the exaggerated movements of silent movies have now stopped worrying me, but  the jangling musical box-style soundtrack accompanying this version is definitely an annoyance, often sounding unseasonably jolly at a scary or agonising moment. I found the film improved a lot when I turned the sound off!

3 thoughts on “Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920)

  1. I love Barrymore, though I haven’t seen this version of J&H yet. I didn’t know it was online (though I knew about that site), so I’ll have to go check it out.


  2. Hope you enjoy it – I’m sure you will. If you watch online rather than downloading, I’d suggest using the new beta player on the archive.org site, as it seems to work much better than their old version!


  3. Pingback: The Sea Beast (Millard Webb, 1926) « Movie classics

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