Part of the Series The Silent Artists
Throughout the silent era and into the 1930s, there were more adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde than any reasonable person would know what to do with. A number of them have been lost in the years since, including the 1908 film produced by William Selig that is believed to be the very first, and it’s impossible to guess just what the right total may have been (there were at least four versions apiece in 1913 and 1920 alone). And yet in all that slurry of mad science and tampering in God’s domain, there has been almost universal agreement that the best of them is the 1920 version titled just Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, produced by Adolph Zukor and starring John Barrymore, the most celebrated actor of his generation. It has remained alive all these decades later while its many, many fellows have not for the extremely good reason that Barrymore’s performance of the title characters is one of the subtlest and most intelligent to be found anywhere in a century of cinematic interpretations.
It’s somewhat surprising to note, given the ghettoization of the horror film from the earliest years of the sound era, that most of these early Jekyll and Hydes were actually quite prestigious, serious-minded affairs, attracting the best actors anxious to prove their mettle with a dual role of such variety and melodramatic possibilities. But even by those standards, the Barrymore Jekyll & Hyde was treated with particular respect and care by its makers: at 82 minutes, it was the longest that had ever been filmed at that time, and thanks to Zukor’s deep pockets, the most richly-appointed and well-designed.
Such a tony film deserved a star to match, and Barrymore rose to the occasion with one of the best of his silent performances: his Edward Hyde in particular is a virtually perfect embodiment of what Stevenson wrote way back in the 19th Century. Unlike most of the latex-heavy later iterations of the character, Barrymore’s Hyde isn’t nearly so grotesque and simian; indeed, in his first transformation (a miracle of acting technique – in one long take, the matinee-handsome Jekyll turns into a snarling, hulking monster, and it’s 100% Barrymore’s expressions and a little bit of surreptitiously applied makeup that makes it work), he looks like a normal, everyday human being, only meaner.
Even more impressive, in its own way, is his take on Jekyll: for here he not only had to play a man who is tormented by the uncontrollable acts of evil he commits and enjoys committing, he has to do that while being straitjacked by a screenplay that presents one of the flattest versions of the good doctor ever committed to film. No filmed version has ever made Jekyll out to be so hypocritically Victorian as Stevenson’s novel, but a the same time, no film ever went quite so far in the opposite direction, making Jekyll an inhuman saint driven only by the desire to do good, as this version does. It leaves little interesting to do, and in the very earliest scenes, when Jekyll is at his least nuanced, even Barrymore is helpless to bring any kind of depth or shading to the character, but as soon as the plot gives him something to grab hold of, he manages to give the character far more internal ambivalence than the scenario would otherwise seem to support. All in all, Barrymore’s work is one of the high-water marks of horror acting: just broad enough to remind you that it’s a silent movie, but focused and deliciously unnerving.
The film’s reputation, over the years, has centered Barrymore’s performance to such a degree that one could be forgiven for assuming that it has nothing else to recommend it; and that’s at least partially true. Nobody else in the cast, least of all the two women – blandly virginal Martha Mansfield as Jekyll’s fiancée, Millicent Carew, and Nita Naldi as the undersexed exotic dancer who somehow inspires both Jekyll and Hyde to murderous lust – is operating on nearly the same level as Barrymore, and the film begins to drift in the third act more than some versions of the story (and the third act is almost universally the weakest part of any Jekyll and Hyde feature), consisting of a lot of repetition of things we’ve already seen.
But there’s plenty to love in there, anyway: director John S. Robertson, whose two-decade career is remembered almost exclusively for this film, did an excellent job of turning the nicely detailed Victorian sets into a gloomy, shadowy world of pregnant atmosphere, and it’s one of the few genuinely unsettling American horror movies of the silent era (one scene, in which Jekyll hallucinates a giant spider attacking him and turning him into Hyde, is worthy of the best German Expressionist films of the same period). Moreover, while the filmmaking isn’t unusually sophisticated for 1920, the pacing and the quick cuts between medium shots and close-ups are considerably more active and modern-feeling than most contemporary viewers would probably expect from a movie of such vintage. It has aged tremendously well, in fact, and deserves to be counted among the most thoroughly entertaining and uncanny of all silent horror pictures.
Timothy Brayton writes about film at his blog Antagony & Ecstasy.