Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗ 

(5/10) In a nutshell: This 1913 version of the famous story is almost half an hour in length. It has some impressive production values, but falls short because of movie megastar King Baggot’s unintentionally comic portrayal of Hyde.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. 1913, USA. Directed by: Herbert Brenon. Written by Herbert Brenon, based on the stage play by Thomas Russell Sullivan (uncredited), based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Starring: King Baggot, Jane Gail. Produced by Carl Laemmle for IMP/Universal. IMDb score: 5.3

King Baggot scaring a whole tavern to death with his Jerry Lewis teeth.

King Baggot scaring a whole tavern to death with his Jerry Lewis teeth.

1912-1915 was something of a golden age for filmatisations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s sci-fi horror novel Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Hot off the heels of the 1912 version starring James Cruze (review) came the first 1913 version directed by one of the more prominent directors of the early silent era, Herbert Brenon. The film starred King Baggot, Hollywood’s first true leading man and international star. In many ways it is superior to its 12 minutes long predecessor (which was the 6th known version of the story), but the triple running time isn’t enough to make this film one of the greats. The biggest problem is the Hollywood star himself, who creates a bizarre portrait of Jekyll/Hyde.

Like with most adaptations of the story, this one draws more inspiration from the 1887 stage play by Thomas Russell Sullivan, written just a year after the novel was published, than from the actual book. The play first had a string of success in the USA, then it moved to London where it played with Richard Mansfield in the lead for almost 20 years. The book is told from the perspective of Dr Jekyll’s friend, Gabriel Utterson. Sullivan deleted Utterson completely and told the story from the protagonist’s perspective. Sullivan also created a romantic drama, and made it the centrepiece (in a way he replaced Utterson with a fiancée) – this aspect is not present in the book, but it is present in more or less every film adaptation. Stevenson also didn’t reveal that Jekyll and Hyde were one and the same until the end of the book, whereas most plays and films reveal this in the beginning of the story – especially the films tend to revel in the transformation rather than the mystery. The book describes Hyde as dark, fierce and scary, but not as deformed or monstrous, as many films show him. Stevenson wrote that Hyde was smaller in stature than Jekyll. Mansfield achieved this on stage by playing Hyde almost as a hunchback, something that also carried over to many of the early films, sometimes with unintentionally funny results, such as in this 1913 version.

Jane Gail to the right, in her second Jekyll/Hyde movie.

Jane Gail to the right, in her second Jekyll/Hyde movie.

One reason as to why the story was made into so many films in this era, was that so many films were made. In the early days of silent film, many films were no more than 15 minutes or half an hour long. They were usually filmed on small budgets with a very limited setup. This 26 minutes long movie has ten different scenes. It was not unusual to shoot a movie in a week, and then do editing and post production in almost the same time. Many directors made over 100 films during the first 20 years of silent film, some several hundred. Stevenson’s book wasn’t the only book to be heavily adapted – for example Jules Verne’s Michel Strogoff and The Children of Captain Grant were made into several films, not to mention Shakespeare or fairytales like Cinderella.

Another reason was that the dual role of Jekyll/Hyde provided ample opportunity for actors to prove their versatility. In this regard, no-one has probably ever outdone the remarkable transformation portrayed by John Barrymore in the 1920 version, where Jekyll’s initial change into Hyde is completed in a single shot without editing or make-up effects. In the stretch of 10 seconds Barrymore makes himself completely unrecognisable simply through his ability to distort his face. King Baggot, unfortunately, is not quite as successful.

Dr Jekyll's Lab

Dr Jekyll’s Lab

As opposed to the 1912 Cruze version, this film does give some background to our Dr Jekyll. We see him as a caring fiancée to his girlfriend Alice, played by Jane Gail, who was an extra in the 1912 version, and would later play a wild girl/Captain Nemo’s daughter on the mysterious island in the 1916 adaptation of Jules Verne’s 20,000 Leagues Beneath the Seas (review). He is a virtuous medical doctor who devotes much time to charity patients. We also understand that he is working on a ”dangerous” experiment – a potion that is supposed to bring out his evil side. We never really get an answer as to why exactly he drinks this potion, but the overall sense is that it is for the greater good of science and not for personal reasons. Baggot’s Jekyll is portrayed as a victim – a martyr – of science, rather than a man who battles with his evil side.

Jane Gail, who remained in the shadows of her more famous leading men her whole career.

Jane Gail, who remained in the shadows of her more famous leading men her whole career.

The sets of the movie are far more realistic than in the theatrical and cramped 1912 version – in fact when compared to many of the biggest movies of the year, this is one of the most naturalistic when it comes to set design, helped, no doubt, by the dim lighting. As a whole, the actors are all decent. In the vein of the age, there is much overacting, but there is a fluidity and ease over most of the roles, missing from many rigid contemporary films. Brenon and the uncredited cinematographer create some innovative camera angles, and the editing is surprisingly fluid and quickly changes back and forth between locations. There is also an early use of expressive editing, with Jekyll contemplating alone in sorrow, with a cut to his fiancée, looking sadly through a window. But the film is hampered by stagey set-ups and a stubborn use of 3/4 framing, as well as a lack of close-ups, uncommon but yet used at this time. The transformation scenes are done using very clumsy and out of sync dissolves, as well as some obvious hide-behind-the-chair-and-remove-the-wig effects. But the weakest link is the star himself. As Jekyll Baggot is indeed refreshingly naturalistic and nuanced, and one can understand his appeal at an age where a lot of film actors where flailing and pulling faces, not trusting the camera would pick up on subtler acting (Baggot was himself very amused at the over-the-top acting and hopping around of the actors when he first visited a film set in 1909, him being a renowned stage actor). But it is the Hyde portrait that is the bane of this movie. As was often the practice back then, Baggot created his own make-up. This practice sometimes worked miracles, as with the later screen legend Lon Chaney, ”the man of a thousand faces”, sometimes not as well, as with King Baggot, ”the Hyde of shoe polish under his eyes and Jerry Lewis teeth”. The make-up one could have lived with, but the physical portrayal of Hyde is unfortunately unintentionally comic. As if to outdo his predecessors, who merely played Hyde as a hunchback, Baggot decides to squat down completely until his rear end almost touches the ground, and the performs all Hyde sequences with a Groucho Marx-styled silly walk. He rounds it all out with over the top facial tics and strange OCD-like constant fidgeting with his hands. And for some reason this bizarre figure is portrayed as inspiring gruelling terror in all spectators as soon as he enters a room.

King Baggot in a better role as Ivanhoe.

King Baggot in a slightly more balanced role as Ivanhoe.

Baggot was at this time red hot after his hit films The Scarlet Letter (1911), The Lie (1912), which he also directed, and would make one of his most memorable appearances in 1913 as the knight Ivanhoe. In 1914 he caused a splash with the film Shadows, which he both directed and played ten different characters in. He later gained gained fame as an accomplished director, most notably for the 1924 romance The Gaiety Girl starring Mary Philbin, and the western classic Tumbleweeds in 1925. His career was unfortunately ruined by severe alcoholism and a few falling outs with certain studio executives. From 1930 to 1947 he was mostly employed as an uncredited extra in a host of movies, including some classics, like the 1940 Mississippi. A sad decline for ”The King of the Movies”, ”The Most Photographed Man in the World”, as he was known in the early silent era. Howard Crampton in the role as Dr Lanyon would later star in the 1916 film 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, as one of the soldiers who discover Jane Gail’s character, ”the child of nature” clad in a leopard skin after their balloon crash on the mysterious island. Matt B. Snyder who plays ”Alice’s” father is primarily known as one of the earliest born actors ever to appear on screen. Born in 1835, he was 78 when he made his film debut in 1913 in the little known short The Cub Reporter’s Temptation. He appeared in 15 films and left the industry in 1916, aged 81. He died the following year. It is worth noticing that the film was produced by German-born film pioneer Carl Laemmle (born Karl Lämmle), the founder of Universal Studios. Quite by accident, with this film he actually gave birth to Universal’s legendary monster movie franchise (along with The Werewolf the same year), a full ten years before Lon Chaney would do his first monster roles in The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera. This was then continued with Conrad Veidt in The Man who Laughs (1928) and The Last Performance (1929), and was carried on into the sound era with a loud bang with Frankenstein (review) and Dracula, both made in 1931 and produced by Laemmle’s son, Carl Laemmle Jr.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. 1913, USA. Directed by: Herbert Brenon. Written by Herbert Brenon, based on the stage play by Thomas Russell Sullivan (uncredited), based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Starring: King Baggot, Jane Gail, Matt Snyder, Howard Crampton, William Sorelle, Herbert Brenon Violet Horner. Produced by Carl Laemmle for IMP/Universal.

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