Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde
Rating -

Horror (US); 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

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Written by DAVID KEYES

The 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.

And 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.

The 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?

This 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.

You 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.

The 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.

John 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.

"Dr. 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. Please e-mail the author here if the above review contains any spelling or grammar mistakes.
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