The 1920 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, directed by John S. Robertson, scripted by Clara Beranger, and most importantly starring John Barrymore, seems to me to be a decent piece of work with some outstanding elements. It relaunched Barrymore’s film career, and demonstrates his range admirably. This may be the start of the idea of Jekyll as a tour de force role for movie stars — very few subsequent versions have used more than one actor to play the two psychically conjoined characters, as the 1912 version (kind of) did.
Barrymore’s work here looks back to Richard Mansfield’s acclaimed stage version, and forward to both Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 film and to F.W. Murnau’s 1922 NOSFERATU. In all three movies the “monster” grows physically more extreme as the story goes on — very subtly in the Murnau film, much more noticably in the two JEKYLLs. The Murnau classic also seems to owe a lot to the Barrymore in the general appearance and manner of its villain — and Barrymore’s Hyde has vampiric connotations, apparently biting the neck of one fallen victim.
(Murnau, incidentally, made his own version of Dr. J. the same year as this one, but DER JANUSKOPF [THE JANUS-FACE] is a lost film, alas, like all of Murnau’s early work.)
American actor Richard Mansfield wowed Victorian theatregoers with his performance in a stage version of the Stephenson story, which was so chilling that Mansfield closed the London production down during the Jack the Ripper scare in 1888. (A silly version of these events is presented in the 1988 TV production JACK THE RIPPER, made to “celebrate” the anniversary of the unsolved mutilation-killings. Britain is so steeped in history and nostalgia. Oh, and misogyny.) Mansfield was said to have accomplished the transformation scene by acting alone, and it is this feat that Barrymore attempts to recreate. Here he is, filmed from a jaunty angle by somebody with a camcorder, calling herself Janedoppelgang:
Well, if we’re being kind, we could say that there’s a lot of detail in that performance. The overall effect may be somewhat ludicrous today, but it’s not really to do with the transformation itself, which Barrymore effects by adopting one of his trademark grimaces (referenced, along with most of his other major roles, in Howard Hawks’ TWENTIETH CENTURY), so much as the exuberant spasms and athletic pratfall.
It’s a shame, because Jekyll is played in a very low-key, muted way. Barrymore was quite capable of being restrained, but seldom yielded to the impulse. His only other bad laugh in this movie is when sprawled on a couch, listening to his sweetheart Millicent give a piano recital. He looks bored to death, and we feel for him as we laugh in recognition of that emotion, but it’s not really the emotion the filmmakers are aiming for.
As Hyde, Barrymore has fun, without getting too carried away. Hyde’s deteriorating appearance is quite upsetting — like a Lucio Fulci zombie, he gives the impression of being genuinely fucked up, physically and mentally, whatever the makeup is doing. Maybe he just thought back to particularly drunken moments of his life (Barrymore was rumoured to have drunk and slept his way through the great San Francisco earthquake, emerging sore-headed onto the shattered sidewalks the next morning and thinking, “My God, what did I get up to last night?”). Throughout the film, Hyde’s hands are hus most repellent feature — long ragged nails are appended to the luminous, undulating and elongated Barrymore members, which flutter and ripple like great underwater plants.
This movie introduces to the screen the idea of two women, one virtuous (and a bore), one down-at-heel and raunchy. This became a feature of both the 1931 and 1941 movies — though Stephenson’s book contains precisely NO women, apart from an unnamed maid, who weeps when Jekyll dies (see Stephen Frears’ MARY REILLY for an elaboration of that little vignette). Nita Naldi, in her first movie, is voluptuous and seething with sin as the Bad Girl. In real life she was something of an exhibitionist, forever getting them out at parties. Co-starring with Rudolph Valentino in BLOOD AND SAND sealed her rep as vamp, and immortalised her. In the original, mostly modern-dress (!) version of THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, her character exults in the name of Sally Lung, but Nita Naldi was so famous for playing herself she sometimes had character names like “Nita”, or “Rita Rinaldi”. No versatile Barrymore, she.
Apart from the decaying Hyde, the movie also sports two deeply disturbing cameos. First is THIS GUY (excuse the quality, I photographed him off the TV while the crummy VHS tape played!), who seems to have something severely wrong with his head. It looks like an Oxo cube with the edges filed off. He’s in an opium den, so he should perhaps be viewed as a sort of human health warning.
And then there’s the GIANT GODDAMN SPIDER. This is a rather brilliant visualisation of Jekyll’s first involuntary transformation. The drug, having tainted his system, causes a vile fever dream in which a large, white-ish, superimposed spider crawls around his bed, then onto it, and engulfs him. As it fades from view, we see that Jekyll has become Hyde again. This is such a great scene I can’t think why it hasn’t been incorporated into subsequent versions, like so many other story elements here. It captures exactly what arachnophobes fear: I asked one once, what is the great terror OF, and was told “The worst thing possibly is it might GO ON YOUR FACE.”
The fact that a pair of trousered legs can be briefly glimpsed sticking out the back of the Hyde-spider, does not, for me, make it any less disturbing.
Hyde’s penultimate change, achieved by slow match-dissolve, also courtesy of Janedoppelgang, who seems to have changed seat for this bit: