Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

*. The first thing you have to do is clear your head of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel. This movie takes Stevenson’s premise and some of its basic elements as its starting point, but it’s really based on a play written by Thomas Russell Sullivan that came out right after the book. There was nothing new in this. Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein were both similarly indebted to stage productions as much as they were to the novels by Stoker and Shelley. It just made things easier.
*. The big addition to the story is a love interest. Or two love interests, if you include Jekyll’s girl Millicent with Miss Gina, the vampish object of Hyde’s desire. There are no female characters in Stevenson’s story, aside from a housekeeper. Hyde is a brute, but not a sexual predator. But while you can get away without having pretty women in a novel, they really are essential for a film adaptation. And thus Hyde as the monster of unchecked libido enters into the mythology. From here on, sex is going to be in the driver’s seat.
*. Another big change from anything in Stevenson has Sir George Carew become a shockingly louche Satan figure given to quoting Oscar Wilde on the need to give in to temptation. In the novel Jekyll is very much the author of his own moral degradation, which results from the bastard breedings of his scientific curiosity with his baser instincts. By making Carew into a tempter figure Jekyll sheds some of this responsibility.
*. Note also that Carew is Millicent’s father. Why is he taking his prospective son-in-law to strip parlours anyway? This is weird.
*. Stevenson famously leaves the appearance of Hyde vague. He is only “deformed” in some hard-to-pin-down way, and much smaller than Jekyll. Needless to say, this is not the way he has been portrayed on screen. Usually he’s just shown as growing a lot of hair, giving away his obvious connection to the Wolf Man (or Wolfman). I think Altered States (1980) was one of the few Jekyll-Hyde stories where Hyde is shown getting a lot smaller.

*. In this film John Barrymore’s Jekyll doesn’t get much help from special effects. The transformation scenes are rendered by way of the usual broad silent-film contortions. Indeed, Barrymore’s gesticulations are so violent at one point that he shakes one of his prosthetic fingers off. But give him credit for doing it all (mostly) on his own. Hyde is a hunchback with long greasy hair and even longer fingers (Barrymore uses those hands well, like a lot of silent stars). He’s not the ape played by Frederic March that would appear just ten years later.
*. I like Barrymore here, but not much else. The story is messy, with too many characters and awkward elements. There’s even a historical flashback to Gina’s poison ring, an item that needn’t have been introduced in the first place.
*. What’s missing is that expressionist note out of Germany, which seems all the more notable for its absence here since it would seem to belong more to such a tale of psychological horror than in Frankenstein. The only flourish in this direction is the very odd appearance of the spider-Hyde crawling into bed with Dr. Jekyll. I’m not sure where that bit of weirdness came from but I wish there were more moments like it.

13 thoughts on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

      1. Alex Good Post author

        Movies have whole departments that take care of things like that. I did need some help for the Hyde stuff. But people thought I was a dead ringer for John Barrymore.

      2. film-authority.com

        I think we have established beyond doubt that you are a very handsome man.

        There’s a classic story of a set-visit, I think it was the March one, and the polite question ‘and which one is he playing now?’

      3. Alex Good Post author

        March was a handsome man in his youth as well. I said just that in my notes on the ’31 J&H, which I should be posting soon. He said I reminded him of Burt Lancaster.

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