(8/10) In a nutshell: In a career-defining role as Jekyll/Hyde John Barrymore lifts the quality of this 1920 silent film by two whole points, and sets the bar almost out of reach for anyone who has ever tried on the same role after him.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. 1920, USA. Directed by John S. Robertson. Written by: Clara Beranger, based on a play by Thomas Russell Sullivan. Based on the books Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (uncredited). Starring: John Barrymore, Nita Naldi. Produced by Adolph Zukor and Jesse S. Lasky for Lasky Famous-Players. Tomatometer: 92 %. IMDb score: 7.0
In 1920 director John S. Robertson and in particular lead actor John Barrymore created what remains the most well remembered adaptation of the Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde-story, despite numerous later versions. It is a testament to the astounding talent of Barrymore that this silent version still has such an impact on contemporary viewers that no other film, despite their superior technical and dramatic values, have been able to eclipse this one as an icon. When we think of Mr Hyde, John Barrymore’s image is the one that comes to mind, even if we have never even seen the film, nor know who John Barrymore is, very much like Boris Karloff and Frankenstein’s monster (1931, review).
I have already covered much of the background for the story in my reviews of the 1912 version (review) and the 1913 version (review), but here is a recap: Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the novel Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1886, and it immediately became a bestseller. The story is told from the perspective of a Mr Utterson, who follows the strange case of his friend Dr Jekyll who works on a secret experiment at the time when a sinister and corrupted fellow known as Mr Hyde turns up. Hyde starts acting violently, lewdly and becomes known as something of a pervert, later even commits murder (accidental such, it is later proven). Jekyll takes his oen life and in a letter tells Utterson his story. How he as Jekyll had become hooked on immoral activities, but feared being caught and losing his position in society. Thus he created a potion that would change his appearance so he could frolic freely with what presumably was wild sex, drinking, fighting and gambling (we are never really told what Jekyll was up to before Hyde came along). Unfortunately the potion also creates a split personality, bringing out all the dark, animal instincts of Jekyll and manifesting themselves as Mr Hyde. Jekyll turns himself back with an antidote, but unfortunately Hyde starts manifesting himself without the potion, and soon Jekyll runs out of a rare salt that he needs for the antidote, so finally he decides to end his life after a friend has died of a heart attack when accidentally witnessing Jekyll’s transformation.
This, though, is not the story seen on screen. As good as every film adaptation draws its inspiration from a stage play written in 1887 by Thomas Russell Sullivan, that also became a huge international hit. The play removes Utterson completely and tells the story not from the point of view of an outside observer, but rather as a linear dramatic story. He also added a female love interest, making the love story the dramatic centrepiece. He also revealed early on that Jekyll and Hyde were one and the same, and a big draw was the transformation that took place on stage. The book describes Hyde as sinister and scary, but not deformed or monstrous, as many of the early films do. Stevenson described Hyde as smaller in stature than Jekyll, solved on stage and in film by making Hyde appear as a hunchback, stooped or a cripple – sometimes with unintentionally humorous results, see the review of the 1913 version above. The films also repeatedly lost the fact that Jekyll himself was ”immoral” and created Hyde just to go about his business incognito.
The 1920 film takes elements from the play, from previous films and from Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, and adds in some details from the book. Dr Jekyll (Barrymore) is portrayed as a philanthropist, an idealist and a brilliant scientist with strong morals and a god-fearing respect for his immortal soul. In a philosophical discussion an older gentleman and colleague George Carew (Brandon Hurst) – a man of the world – points out that in order to grow as a human being one must also have a taste of sin in one’s life, at which Jekyll fiercely protests. Jekyll is utterly afraid of losing his soul to the devil, and has this far lived a completely pure life. But intrigued, he nevertheless follows Carew and a few friends to what appears to be a high class gentlemen’s club, where an Italian exotic dancer is performing. This Miss Gina is played by none other than the silent era femme fatale Nita Naldi, very properly dressed throughout the whole performance. She also doesn’t seem to be a very good dancer. But all this showing of bare ankles, a modest cleavage and shoulders rouses new feelings in Jekyll. After the show he even has a drink with the enticing Miss Gina. The intertitles let us know that this is the first time in his life that Jekyll has ”awakened to a sense of his baser nature”. In other words, this is the first time this man in his thirties, (Barrymore was 38 at the time) has been horny. What does that say about his fiancée?
Conversing later that evening with his good friend Dr Lanyon (Charles Willis Lane), he proposes that it would be great if one could split the dark and light side of one’s personalities in two different bodies. Then the one body could be as perverted as the it wishes, while the other could keep its soul intact. Preposterous! Lanyon shouts, but it is too late. Jekyll readily starts making a potion that will not only turn his body into a different body, but apparently also collect all the ”baser nature” in this new vessel. After this the story follows the basic premise. Hyde emerges, goes doing bad stuff, ”leaving a trail of victims of his lewd acts”. He becomes greedy, haughty, naughty, perverted and evil. Jekyll starts turning without potion and starts sulking. With Hyde starting to skulk about the house with a ”free pass” written by Jekyll, Mr Carew, who also happens to be the father of Jekyll’s fiancée Millicent (Martha Mansfield), starts getting worried and demands answers as to what Jekyll’s connection to this vile creature Hyde is. Jekyll gets angry at these accusations, since it was Carew that awakened his sense of his baser nature in the first place! In rage, he turns into Hyde like some proto-Hulk in full view of Mr Carew. Hyde sees no other way out than to bludgeon Carew to death. Hyde then gropes at Millicent but at the last moment comes to his senses and drinks poison, killing himself.
The screenplay is written by Clara Beranger, and the logic makes no sense whatsoever. First we have the strange notion that a grown man has never felt sexual passion in his life, and the sight of an exotic dancer suddenly opens whole new worlds. If he has a fiancée, one would presume that even a man of 1920 has some sense of sexuality. And add to that the fact that he is, in fact, a seasoned physician, and as such would hardly have been a stranger to human sexuality. Second, the idea of this personality split is muddled beyond comprehension. Jekyll wants to split his dark and light sides in two bodies. But in fact he doesn’t create a new body, he only changes his own body. One would presume that since Hyde has the sense to change back into Jekyll, the original Jekyll must still be in there somewhere, thus collapsing the idea of a complete body split. And since he also has the idea to take poison in the end, the soul must also be in there somewhere, thus making the whole thing utterly pointless. Remember that in the book Jekyll had no qualms about his soul, he simply wanted to be naughty without being caught. Being caught doesn’t seem to be a problem in the film, since it is his friends in high society that take him to the naughty club in the first place. In fact, this is much more of a Dorian Gray-story – how to collect all your dark deeds in an independent and secret vessel – only in that in Oscar Wilde’s book there was a painting that was actually separate from the protagonist. The painting would absorb all the effects of the sins of Dorian Gray, while leaving the man himself physically unharmed by both vice and age. It is unclear though, whether Gray’s soul stayed intact – but overall sense is that it did not. Here Beranger has included both Dorian and the painting in a single body, which makes the whole thing a bit confusing. Beranger even uses some lines from Dorian Gray – such as the famous quote “the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it”.
But this moral discussion isn’t really the draw of the film. It is Barrymore’s utterly brilliant performance. The first change of character is done complete in one take, without any cutting, diffusing of editing. Barrymore convulses, throws his long-ish backslicked hair into his face, and when looking up again the dashing, handsome, clean features have completely disappeared. In their place is a creep with a protruding, pointy chin, an elongated face, huge, crazy, bulging eyes and a menacing, lopsided, wry grin. No make-up, no wig, no nothing. And he is completely unrecognizable! Later the effect is enhanced with some make-up that gets a bit heavier as the story progresses, as well as a bizarre stripy wig with a top that makes him look almost like a conehead. In the end the change is actually made by a dissolve cut, but a very good one. In fact, the make-up is hardly necessary, especially not the obvious long-nailed rubber prosthetic fingers, that almost destroy the illusion (in one scene we can even see one of them fly across the screen as Barrymore convulses). This is truly one of the great performances in movie history – as is the perfomance that Barrymore does when in character as Hyde. Seldom has a more charismatic, evil and vile, but at the same time strangely seductive and sexual character been seen on screen. Barrymore used the same kind of character for his hypnotic portrayal of the mentalist Svengali in the sadly obscure masterpiece with the same name in 1931. As a leading man in stage productuions as well, Barrymore had no problems with moving on to talking movies in the late Twenties. As a reviewer for The New York Times wrote in 1920: ”Those who expect the photoplay to be good because ‘it [the Jekyll/Hyde story] is just the thing for the movies will find that it is good because it is just the thing for John Barrymore. It is true that the screen lends itself peculiarly to the story, but it can be only a sufficiant medium for Mr. Barrymore’s ability. It is what Mr. Barrymore does himself that makes the dual character of Jekyll and Hyde tremendous. His performance is one of pure motion-picture pantomime on as high a level as has ever been attained by anyone.”
The film itself is not at all badly made. Even in the very early days of German expressionism, some of the same elements can be seen in this American film, especially the dark alleys and the cluttered, scary joints and basements where Hyde moves about. We have some very moody and cold visions of the underworld, and the almost surreal close-ups of Hyde’s manically glaring face are quite effective. Chris Cabin of Slant Magazine feels that Robertson’s ”potent chilliness” has been largely underrated, and I partly agree with him. Special effects are very scarce (I can now think of two or three) but beautifully done when used. I laud Robertson for not over-indulging in dissolves and replacement shots that never look quite satisfying any way you do them, but instead relying on Barrymore’s acting qualities and clever use of traditional editing to add and remove make-up. There is also a superb dream scene with a giant tarantula climbing into Jekyll’s bed, symbolising the evil taking over his mind. In fact this scene probably makes this film the first entry into the giant bug genre of science fiction.
One of the problems with this film, as stated earlier, is the screenplay. Not only is it utterly illogical, but it also comes to a bit of a standstill between the first transformation at the 25 minute mark and the murder of Carew at the 65 minute mark. That’s a fairly big chunk out of an 80 minutes long movie. Following the exploits of Hyde is rewarding enough, but that is pretty much thanks to Barrymore. Once you know the story (which movie-goers probably did even better in 1920 than today) nothing really happens during this long sequence that would have any large impact on the plot, and thus the film drags a bit. The psychological and social interactions between Jekyll, Carew and Lanyon are both interesting and insightful, but not much is made of the other two characters. The two female characters are completely redundant. Mansfield as Millicent gets more screen time, but but does little more than look sad or worried, or simply blank. Nita Naldi in her first ever film role is insecure, but that didn’t stop her from being hurled to instant stardom, later billed as ”the female Valentino”, as a pun on the great seducer of silent films. Julia Hurley as the uncredited landlady of Hyde’s makes good use of her small role, though, and is a lot of fun to watch. Despite some good atmosphere, well done effects and a few very dramatic shots, the overall direction is fairly standard fare. But to once again quote the splendid NY Times review, unfortunately uncredited: ”The production, aside fron [Barrymore’s] performance, is uninspired. It is usual. The story has been movie-molded almost into obliteration of its original character, and those who were led to hope that it would escape the moral monger will be disappointed.” And it should be pointed out that this film still has its raunchy moments, although not explicit, they are clearly suggested. This film could not have been made during the Hays Code, introduced ten years later.
If not a cinema masterpiece, it is without doubt a classic, and thanks to John Barrymore still a highly tantalising piece of cinema craftsmanship. He gives one of the most memorable performances in movie history, and seldom has one actor alone been able to raise the quality of a film so drastically by sheer force of charisma and skill.
John Barrymore was the son of actors Maurice Barrymore and Georgie Drew Barrymore, and his brother Lionel (of The Mysterious Island) and sister Ethel were also actors. He appeared in his first major play in 1901, 19 years old. Starting off in both film and on stage in light comedy, slapstick and musicals, he gradually moved to more serious roles. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was his cinematic breakthrough, and as it premièred he was also making big waves on Broadway in the title role of Richard III. On screen he then played a string of high profile leads, including Sherlock Holmes, Beau Brummel, Captain Ahab and Don Juan between 1922 and 1926, later appearing in multiple serious drama films, many of which where huge successes. His portrayal of Hamlet on stage in 1922 was praised as the best Hamlet ever to appear on Broadway. During the 1920’s Barrymore was ”perhaps the most influential and idolized actor of his day”, according to his biographer. His career took a dip in the mid-1930’s due to severe alcoholism. After checking himself into rehab in 1935 he experienced a slight career revival, but never again achieved the same artistic or commercial hights as in his prime.
In 1931 Barrymore acted in what is one of this reviewers personal favourite movies, Svengali – maybe at the absolute pinnacle of his career, before it started going downhill. In this role he does more than slightly evoke his old Hyde character, but now with the added luxury of his beautifully spoken words. He only made one other foray into science fiction, that was with a forgettable performance in the 1941 comedy The Invisible Woman (review). His granddaughter is the now largely forgotten but not so long ago superstar Drew Barrymore, named after her great-grandmother. Despite the unanimous praise for his work, John Barrymore sadly never won an Oscar – although both his brother and sister did. This was largely due to the fact that he worked as a freelancers, and the studios barred all actors not working within the studio system from nominations. Rudolph Valentino did create an award in his name, though.
Director John Robertson had a successful career spanning 20 years, in which he made 57 films, sometimes with greats such as Mary Pickford, Greta Garbo, Nils Asther and Lionel Barrymore, but Dr Jekyll remains his most successful film. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was the first major role for Brandon Hurst. He would later go on to specialise in playing villains, and did so in a number of big movies, and appeared in films like The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923, with Lon Chaney), both the silent (1924) and sound (1940) versions of The Theif of Baghdad (Douglas Fairbanks, Conrad Veidt), The Man Who Laughs (1928, Conrad Veidt), Murders in the Rue Morgue, White Zombie (both 1932 with Bela Lugosi), and two John Ford-films at the end of his career. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde remains Martha Mansfield’s best remembered film. She was tragically burned to death during the filming of a historical drama in 1923. In a break during filming, she went out to her car, when her flimsy and flammable dress was lit by a match – it is unclear whether someone through it out from a window or she dropped it herself when lighting a cigarette. Nita Naldi would later become one of Hollywood’s greatest vamps, especially appearing opposite Rudolph Valentino in many films, as well as in The Ten Commandments (1923) and the second film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, The Mountain Eagle (1925). Louis Wolheim would appear in many films as a burly brute, maybe most famously in Lewis Milestone’s 1930 drama All Quiet on the Western Front.
Another famous 1920 version of the story was the German expressionist film The Head of Janus (Der Januskopf), made by master director F.W. Murnau. Since the studio was unable to obtain the rights for the book, Murnau changed all the names of the characters. The film was a veritable powerhouse of early horror films, and it is an unspeakable tragedy that it is among the lost films. F.W. Murnau, would two years later go on to make the legendary uncredited Dracula-adaptation Nosferatu. The writer was Hans Janovitz, who had the year before been one of the writers for the defining expressionist film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari. Der Januskopf also starred Condrad Veidt, who starred as the murdering somnambulist in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, and who later also became a major star of Hollywood, sometimes dubbed as the German Lon Chaney. It was filmed by master cinematographer Karl Freund, who shot Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), and became a huge influence in Hollywood with his work work in Dracula (1931), The Good Earth (1937), for which he won an Oscar, and Key Largo (1948). He also directed ten films in the US, among them The Mummy (1932) with Boris Karloff and Mad Love (1935) with Peter Lorre. Quite unexpectedly he later became a TV director for I Love Lucy. Murnau would later go on to direct highly influential films such as Nosferatu (1922), The Last man (Der letzte Mann, 1924) and Faust (1926), and is considered one of the pioneers of horror, expressionist and psychological cinema. He directed four acclaimed films in the USA, but remains best remembered for his German masterpeices. In a bit part as Veidt’s butler we se a Transylvanian count of the undead, disguised as a Hungarian actor named Bela Lugosi.
Der Januskopf had nothing to do with si-fi, though, as Veidt’s character was changed by the influence of a two-faced bust, and not by potions. But if there is a singe actor who might have rivalled John Barrymore in the role, it would have been Condrad Veidt.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. 1920, USA. Directed by John S. Robertson. Written by: Clara Beranger, based on a play by Thomas Russell Sullivan. Based on the books Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson and The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde (uncredited). Starring: John Barrymore, Brandon Hurst, Martha Mansfield, Charles Lane. Cecil Clovelly, Nita Naldi, Louis Wolheim, Julia Hurley. Cinematography: Roy F. Overbaugh. Art direction: Clark Robinson, Charles O. Seessel. Produced by Adolph Zukor and Jesse S. Lasky for Lasky Famous-Players.