1920; Not Rated; 63 Minutes
John Barrymore: Dr. Henry Jekyll/Mr. Edward Hyde
Martha Mansfield: Millicent Carew
Brandon Hurst: Sir George Carew
Charles Lane: Dr. Richard Lanyon
George Stevens: Poole
Nita Naldi: Miss Gina
Produced by Adolph Zukor; Directed by John
S. Robertson; Screenwritten by Clara Beranger
by DAVID KEYES
silent film era is generally considered to be the most inventive
and important epoch in moviemaking, and not just because
it was the first. Perhaps that's because the eyes were more
substantial than the ears back then, since sound had not
yet found its way onto the big screen. Unlike today, in
which moviegoers believe that you cannot be having a good
time unless you're going deaf, filmmakers of the 1920s could
not depend on dialogue or blaring sound effects to help
tell their stories. Every ounce of their strength was in
photography, using a wide array of techniques and camera
tricks in order to capture movie-goeing attention. Likewise,
those in front of the camera had to use body language to
achieve an emotional demonstration.
because of these components, the detail within some of the
silent cinema images is often mind-numbing. They might even
satisfy the typical movie-goers who think loud and obnoxious
special effects are the best thing about going to the movies.
I presume that's because a movie director so presumptuously
loaded with ambition could not concentrate his efforts on
several particular features, and hence forced all of the
creative weight onto what went into the camera shots.
idea is evident in this, the famous 1920 adaptation of Robert
Louis Stevenson's "Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde." Here is something
so widely popular and familiar to people that the true nature
of the story has lost its meaning. Suddenly, the tale of
good conquering evil became a story of societies fear of
ugly, grotesque creatures that morph like werewolves in
the night, satirized and retold in everything from Saturday
Night Live episodes to Looney Tunes cartoons. Sure, the
story's message was delivered into many of the early screen
versions, but other than John Stuart Robertson's adaptation,
can you easily think of a movie which carried the subject
faithfully and believably?
is because the sights in the silent version are loaded with
depth and intrigue--something the later versions lacked.
John Barrymore's performance as the doctor and his alter
ego is simple, straightforward, and yet incredibly haunting.
His presumptuous facial expressions warp the character of
Jekyll to Hyde without the use of makeup changing or camera
trickery. False teeth and long fingers were the only additional
touch. The sight of the transformation is in a way nostalgically
disturbing, because we recognize the transformations from
other movies, yet never have they come through in this overwhelming
magnitude. Barrymore's profile is the most recognized in
cinema history (the Academy Award's was inspired by him),
and seeing his face shift from normal to diabolical is quite
easily surprising and effective. None of these hair-raising
touches feel like caricatures, either.
know the story. Dr. Henry Jekyll, a world-renowned scientist
who is as intelligent as he is handsome, is suddenly at
the height of a prestigious career. He has someone who cares
about him, honor, respect in the world of science and medicine,
love, and admiration. But something is missing--an incessant
need to leap free from the boundaries of his own persona.
To do this, he masterminds a potion of almost fatal potential.
When he drinks it, there is a transformation--one that reveals
not just a new side of the doctor, but perhaps the most
evil and uncontrollable one.
movie's images are detailed beyond belief, but they don't
interfere with the story's subtext, which says that, in
all of us, there is an uncontrollable force that lusts for
sensations beyond the barriers of human decency. Jekyll's
alter-ego, Mr. Hyde, is a formidable force in the movie;
he wreaks havoc wherever he goes, and upon whoever he chooses.
But are we to blame Hyde or Jekyll for this madness? Jekyll
could not have comprehended the damage the force inside
him would inflict upon people around him, and yet, if it
weren't for his curiosity, the force could not have been
unleashed. But I think the movie's message runs deeper than
that; an evil force like this always finds its way to manifest,
no matter how hard we try to avoid it. As is the case with
the Dr., Mr. Hyde shows up as the result of an experiment.
But if Jekyll had not explored this, his alter-ego would
only bottle up for awhile longer. Somehow, in some way,
it would find a way out.
S. Robertson's vision is not boggled down by repetition
or clichés, and he breaks from the shackles of Stevenson's
immortal story in every detail. The scenes preceding the
transformation have a light and delicate touch to them,
but it is the dank and menacing scenes afterwards that seem
to grab our attention the most. Most of the characters,
during the transformation, are seen walking around in damp
alleys, in which the light of a lamppost is the only relief
from the shadows. One might even call these scenes early
examples of the 1940s film noir.
Jekyll And Mr. Hyde" is not just a movie about unleashing
our dark sides, but controlling them. Those who have little
knowledge of Stevenson's story (yep, all six of you) will
be shocked to discover that such a background has not only
inspired many Hollywood clones, but also other big cinematic
achievements, including Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho," among
others. Like Fritz Lang's wonderful "Metropolis," "Dr. Jekyll
And Mr. Hyde" isn't a movie as much as it is a benchmark
for future efforts. Furthermore, it renders the uttermost
strengths of the silent film era, in which the audience
was dependent on what went into the picture instead of what
came out of the speaker.
1999, David Keyes, Cinemaphile.org.
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