I thought I’d watched all the silent versions of DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE but I’d missed a doozy, the 1913 feature with King Baggot. K.B., who has a fantastic name, proves to be quite the performer. His Jekyll is a stiff plaster saint in the Fredric March mould, for sure, but his Hyde… OH, his Hyde!
Now we see where Jerry Lewis drew his inspiration for Professor Julius Kelp. Baggot dons a set of comedy teeth and spasms at will. Most actors playing the role have assumed that the physical transformation of one’s entire body and face, brought on by consumption of a fuming flagon of peculiar poison, would be painful, and effect their metamorphosis by writing about in agony. Baggot stands stock still and transmutes via slow dissolve into his alter ego — THEN goes into paroxysms of contortion and crouching. He plays the whole part in a crouch, buttocks scuffing the pavement as he shuffles along, like Toulouse-Lautrec with intestinal cramps.
It’s an arresting spectacle. Director Herbert Brenon assists the weirdness by framing his shots for an erect man, so that his star wriggles wormlike across the bottom of the screen, great tracts of empty discomfort occupying the frame above his head. He also inserts some wonderfully confusing intertitles, with a less-is-more approach to grammar. Nearly every bit of text provokes minutes of head-scratching, greatly enhancing the overall effect of baffling strangeness.
Rather than the “vague sense of deformity” Stevenson’s characters attest to feeling in Hyde’s presence, the supporting players here either start in horror at the mere sight of Baggot, or fail to notice him altogether as he wiggles by like a Russian dancer.
Baggot was one of those silent stars who stuck it out but wound up an extra, probably unrecognized by the new generation of actors and directors he worked with. He’s an unbilled Courtroom Spectator in THE POSTMAN ALWAYS RINGS TWICE, and Man on Subway in Minnelli’s THE CLOCK. I like to think that this fall from stardom was occasioned by a perverse decision to play all his rolls crouching, almost curled into a ball, hopping and staggering around and gesticulating spasmodically with splayed, twitching fingers. Sadly, that’s just a fantasy, easily disproved.
But if I say that Baggot liked to polish his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame by doing his patented Mr Hyde walk over it so that the seat of his pants dusted the shiny sidewalk emblem, who among you can prove I speak false?