Daily Archives: October 4, 2021

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912)

*. You’d be forgiven for assuming a 12-minute adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would be a fairly radical abridgement. Actually, most of the familiar moments are here, including the little girl being knocked down at the beginning (however quickly). These are familiar only in the backward-looking sense of our knowledge of the tradition of screen adaptations of the story though, which is just as much based on a stage adaptation by Thomas Russell Sullivan as Stevenson’s book.
*. The big change in Sullivan’s version of the story is to give Jekyll a fiancée, which is something most film adaptations held on to. Sullivan also plays down Jekyll’s own culpability in his degeneration. In Stevenson he’s an ambiguous figure, carrying within himself the seed of evil even before he begins taking the magic potion, someone who is drawn to the dark side. In the movies he’s more of a fallen angel.
*. Jekyll’s motivations, however, can’t be developed much here. Indeed, one wonders how great a scientific breakthrough he is making since “his theory” (as it’s called on a title card) is apparently drawn straight from the pages of a chemistry textbook, Graham on Drugs.
*. You shouldn’t expect much in the way of dramatic transformations, though I think they’re very well handled. We get to see the first two (from Jekyll to Hyde and back again), and they are achieved by simple cuts. Hyde is a hunched, darker figure with what look to be fangs. The later transformations, however, are very nicely handled. They happen offscreen while cutting between different locations and each is dramatically perfect. Jekyll runs away from his fiancée, feeling a change coming on. We see her sitting alone, then cut back to a now transformed Hyde. In another scene Jekyll enters one doorway and comes through the other side as Hyde. For 1912 it’s very fluidly done, and in terms of the editing I don’t think could be improved on much today. A tip of the hat to director Lucius Henderson.
*. I think it’s usual in most versions of this story, most notably John Barrymore’s 1920 film, Frederic March’s 1931 version, and the Spencer Tracy 1941 movie, to have the dead Hyde revert to being Henry Jekyll, just as a final reveal for the benefit of the other players in the drama as well as the audience. That doesn’t happen here, even though I think we expect it, again by virtue of that rear-view mirror. As in the novel, Hyde stays Hyde even in death and one presumes the police and others remain none the wiser.
*. James Cruze plays Jekyll and I believe is also Hyde in most scenes (though apparently Harry Benham stood in some of the time). Assuming it’s Cruze in both roles I think he does a good job selling the different characters just through their mannerisms. It’s not only that Hyde is a hunchback but it’s also the excessively erect way Jekyll carries himself. He often seems to be stretching himself up. That must have been a conscious way of playing up the difference between the two.
*. For a one-reeler from the early days this may not be that exceptional a movie, but I think it’s very good, quite capably put forward in every department. The editing in particular really moves the action along well with a fast-paced, strong sense of narrative in need of few title cards. It’s as neat a little production as you’ll find from this period.