(1920) Directed by John S. Robertson; Written by: Clara Beranger; Based on the novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson; Starring: John Barrymore, Martha Mansfield, Brandon Hurst, Charles Lane and Nita Naldi;
Available on: Blu-ray and DVD
“Wouldn’t it be marvelous if the two natures in man could be separated – housed in different bodies!” – Dr. Henry Jekyll (John Barrymore)
“All things therefore seemed to point to this: that I was slowly losing hold of my original and better self, and becoming slowly incorporated with my second and worse.” – Dr. Henry Jekyll (excerpt from The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson)
A tip of the beaker to Christina Wehner (visit her website at: https://christinawehner.wordpress.com/) and Ruth of Silver Screenings for hosting the Movie Scientist Blogathon, taking a look at the good, the mad and the lonely scientists in cinema. Naturally, a classic theme deserves a classic film, with John Barrymore’s portrayal of Dr. Jekyll, and his nefarious counterpart, Mr. Hyde.
First published in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson’s venerable tale of duality, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, has been interpreted and re-interpreted for the big and small screen countless times. No matter how many permutations of the source material, it never seems to lose its relevance. Over the years, filmmakers have taken some license with the formula, with some amusing comedies (the Stan Laurel short “Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde” and the Bugs Bunny cartoon “Hyde and Hare” are notable examples) or Hammer’s entertaining, gender-bending take, Dr.Jekyll and Sister Hyde. The vast majority of interpretations have chosen to go the more traditional route, sticking with Stevenson’s original story as canon. The year 1920 saw two different versions appear in the theaters. The Paramount version, with Barrymore, has stood the test of time, while the other has faded into obscurity.
We’re introduced to the virtuous Dr. Jekyll as he toils in his laboratory, intent on unraveling the mysteries of humanity. This doesn’t sit well with his older, more conservative colleague Dr. Lanyon (Charles Lane), who cautions about tampering with the laws of nature. Of course, our intrepid young doctor decides to meddle, because, we wouldn’t have a story otherwise. When he’s not in his lab doing science-y things, he immerses himself in charity work. After a fateful meeting with his more seasoned cronies, who encourage him to experience the baser elements of life (“A man cannot destroy the savage in him by denying its impulses. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.”), he sets out for a taste of the life he’s been missing all these years. The conversation, along with a late-night visit to a more disreputable side of town, helps plant the seed for his experiment. Jekyll promptly retires to his lab to find a way to split the two sides of himself, while keeping his separate identities. In the ensuing scene, which has become a necessary, albeit clichéd component of Jekyll and Hyde lore, he drinks the potion which will bring out his other half.
Hyde, as he appears in Stevenson’s story is vague and indistinct in appearance, but with an unsavory air about him. The burden has fallen upon filmmakers and actors to imagine the rest. In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Jekyll’s alter ego transforms into a hideous creature with a simian gait, long fingers, pointed nails, scraggly hair, and a pointed scalp. But Hyde is much more than makeup – he comes alive through Barrymore’s facial expressions and movement. He exudes menace from every pore, an expression of Jekyll’s id, wielding his phallic cane like a weapon. When Dr. Jekyll becomes enamored with Gina (Nita Naldi, in her film debut), a dancing girl in a seedy London music hall, his inhibitions keep him in check, but as Hyde it’s a different story. Gina meets him with revulsion, but succumbs to his forceful overtures. Almost as quickly as Hyde claims Gina for himself, she’s discarded. In one unsettling scene, Hyde denigrates her in front of another woman that strikes his fancy, but we know his new object of infatuation will meet the same awful fate.
Barrymore turns out a sympathetic performance as a well-intentioned researcher who travels down the rabbit hole and can’t find his way out. His experiment is the culmination of his hubris that he could split his psyche into two separate identities. If they enjoy a separate existence, the arrangement is short-lived. As we soon learn, one can’t help but influence the other. As time goes on, Jekyll and Hyde begin to merge, until they become inseparable. This fractured duality is reinforced in one of the film’s most memorable scenes, a nightmare sequence, in which Jekyll grapples with his unconscious. A hideous apparition of a spider with Hyde’s face appears on his bed, reminding him they are one and the same. It’s simple effect, done well – enough to give even seasoned horror fans the creeps.
Many versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have come and gone, but few approach the raw energy of Barrymore’s masterful performance (the 1931 Fredric March version is my personal favorite, but this one comes awfully close). It’s only a matter of time before some enterprising young filmmaker decides to take a crack at this enduring story again (hopefully without the use of CGI), but one can learn much from Barrymore’s virtuoso interpretation of one of fiction’s most intriguing dual roles. It’s a firm reminder, if we needed more proof, that elaborate makeup and expensive special effects are no match for great acting.