Tuesday, 22 December 2015


DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (1920). This fourth version based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ was released through Paramount and starred the highly-regarded stage actor John Barrymore as Jekyll and his bestial counterpoint. Barrymore was known as ‘the Great Profile’ for his screen handsomeness but for his hugely-acclaimed theatre HAMLET was dubbed ‘the greatest living American tragedian’. He was part of the distinguished Drew and Barrymore acting dynasties whose bloodline has continued to the present day with busy screen actor Drew Barrymore. It was after his run as Shakespeare’s Dane that Barrymore quit the theatre for a long time, preferring to work in film.

DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE was one (well, two) of his earliest screen roles made back in the silent era. It was filmed in New York in the day-time while at night he was appearing on stage in THE JEST. The film opens with a quoted theme of self-determinism that “…what we most want to be - we are”. The film, as the novella, posits that if we have a baser nature, and the desire to express it, it must not be denied expression. Barrymore is an urbane Henry Jekyll, a scientist possessed of an insufferably good nature according to Sir George Carew (Brandon Hirst), the somewhat unfairly suspicious father to his fiancé Millicent played by Martha Mansfield. Carew argues that: “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”. This inadvertently reveals more about him than his future son-in-law if one thinks about it, but no matter. The provocative discussion and the sexy gyrations of Nita Naldi on stage stir up ponderings in Jekyll that soon have him into his silk dressing gown and out of his comfort zone making a flask of steaming serum in his laboratory. He is obsessed with the idea of dual identities being allowed separate freedom: "Wouldn't it be marvellous if the two natures in man could be separated - housed in different bodies?

One draught of Potion Number One and he’s transformed into his buried evil alter ago - Mr Hyde.
Barrymore excels in the Hyde scenes. Here manages his metamorphosis almost entirely by physically changing his expression and assuming a hunched, monstrous bearing. The only real augmentation is the use of double-exposure photography to show his fingers and nails elongating – aside from later where we see his exposed bare head raised to a grotesque point . His cross-eyed anguish is a little comical during his trial-run ‘birth pains’ but after this, his Hyde is a bravura sinister brute. He slopes off to the local music-hall, a Dickensian den of ne’er-do-wells, sneering lasciviously under a long mane of stringy hair. “Set forth upon a sea of license”, he embarks upon a campaign of vice, most of which is only suggested, protected as the delicate sensibilities of a 1920 audience were even before the Hays Code. Eventually, the acts on stage don’t prove to be as depraved as the ones festering in his mind, so in search of the harder stuff this Burlington Bertie of depravity soon shows up banging his gnarled cudgel on the door of a Chinese opium den. There we see a pitiable casualty of the pipe, ferociously scratching his skin, imagining he is being consumed by red ants.

Jekyll’s consumption of the catalyst serum gradually intensifies to the point where he turns into Hyde without even taking it. A hair-raisingly effective symbolic nightmare sequence illustrates this - a giant, hideously human-headed spider crawls across his bedroom floor, mounts his four-poster and makes for his face, fading as he metamorphosises into his demonic twin in his sleep.

Whilst temporarily under control as Jekyll, his prospective father-in-law demands to know about his unsavoury public association with Hyde, unwitting as to their true connection. Sir George threatens to stop the intended wedding unless his intentions are revealed. This invasion of privacy infuriates Jekyll: "What right have you to question me - you who first tempted me?" He no longer recognises any responsibility for the danger he is unleashing on London. This rage triggers another Hyde transformation, after which Hyde bludgeons Sir George to death with his cudgel.

Returned to Jekyll mode, the good doctor is horrified to discover there is no more of his drug available to buy in the whole city. (This is a perplexing moment in the plot as surely Jekyll was concocting it from ingredients? If not, what were people using it for in its ready-made state? Hopefully it contained the kind of normally fatuous ‘Do not drink’ warning label we find on modern printer cartridges!). Nevertheless, Jekyll is now forced to hide in his lab out of fear of uncontrolled Hyde rampages. Unfortunately the visiting Millicent will not leave him in his hour of need. The pressure on the doctor reaches transformation point, but he manages to down poison taken from the ring of Nita Naldi’s dancer character just as the effects take hold and dies sacrificing himself to save his betrothed. Millicent is heartbroken. Jekyll’s friends and his butler Poole conclude that Hyde had killed Jekyll, not knowing the truth of how right they are…

DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE is an excellent adaptation of the novella for thrill-seeking horror fans of the bygone era and now. The London sets have a cramped, atmospheric foggy look denoting a decent studio budget spent, the performances are good and Barrymore accounts himself well. The material also serves him well as the title cards have a much more literary quality inspired by Stevenson’s original text than a typical horror film, adding to the quality lustre of the production.

Barrymore was assured of an easy transition later to sound by virtue of his classically-trained voice. What he could not perhaps have predicted was the gradual decline of his career later in life as his alcohol addiction sabotaged his work, reducing him to playing parodies of his real life problems in such admittedly renowned films as TWENTIETH CENTURY (1934) and struggling with multiple marriages and financial issues before his sad death at age 60…

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