Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde

US (1920) Dir. John S. Robertson

There have been many, many adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic 1886 novella The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, spanning all forms of entertainment. Despite the vintage of this celebrated effort, it wasn’t the first – or even the only one to come out in 1920 – yet is apparently the oldest surviving film version.

For this reason, it remains an early benchmark interpretation and reference point for all future adaptations, the primary concern being how to top or differentiate from the seminal performance of leading man John Barrymore, in what proved to be his coming out party as a major cinema actor.

Barrymore is the respected, hard working and charitable Henry Jekyll, a doctor of such selfless repute he’ll even be late for a dinner with his fiancée Millicent Carew (Martha Mansfield) and her pushy father Sir George (Brandon Hurst). When Jekyll does finally arrive, Carew teases him about being married to is work and not having enough fun in life through his chaste and philanthropic demeanour.

A trip to a seedy nightclub with Carew doesn’t sway Jekyll’s outlook but it does make him wonder if he has a darker, free spirited side, so he begins to experiment in his laboratory. Jekyll eventually creates a concoction which, when drunk, literally transforms him from a handsome, principled man to a grotesque, immoral crone he names Hyde, whose perfidious side slowly begins to dominate the goodness of Jekyll.  

Stevenson’s story, or at least the basic premise, is as familiar to most people as any fairy tale in terms of being a perennial classic, the term “Jekyll and Hyde” having entered the everyday lexicon as a way of describing someone with severe contrasting personality issues. The surrounding narrative will differ from version to version but the concept is most notable as a staple of the horror genre.

In fact, the original story is more of a mystery thriller with a philosophical bent, using a transforming human being to explore the notion of one’s inner duality, supposedly based on a friend of Stevenson’s who, out of character had murdered his wife. It is really through the physical interpretations of Hyde on stage and screen that it is considered a horror fable, an acceptance hard to argue against given the evidence.

With its typically foggy Victorian London setting an eerie vibe is established immediately, something the old scratchy transfer does much to heighten. When Jekyll stops by his surgery, the dishevelled and hopeless looks of the waiting patients suggest poverty over illness in contrast to his well-groomed top hat and tails, which also has an ominous aura about it.

For reasons never revealed, Jekyll being a kind-hearted philanthropist and dedicated doctor seems to bother Carew, but surely a knight of the realm should be above such lurid and prurient laddish behaviour as hitting the nightclubs and ogling the female dancers? Apparently little has changed in 100 years but I digress.

Carew is the one who proposes to Jekyll that we have two souls within us that both needs developing which, if we read between the lines is a father suggesting his future son-in-law sows his wild oats before marrying his sheltered, virginal daughter. Anyway, the sensitive Jekyll takes this all to heart and can’t even be tempted by Italian exotic dancer Gina (Nita Naldi), but is curious about finding his “other self”.

Perhaps the most remarkable achievement of the film is the first transformation scene, in which Barrymore turns from Jekyll into Hyde without any make up or prosthetics whatsoever – he simply contorts his face and body to go from the tall, chiselled featured young doctor to an evil looking older man with a hunch. Only afterwards his hands change to sinewy claws, which are prosthetic and amusingly, one of the fingers falls off later on during the convulsions when Hyde changes back to Jekyll!

Over time Hyde becomes more hideous in appearance – his hair becoming lank through growth, his cranium distends upwards into a peak, and his face is more distorted and grim looking than before. His personality is lascivious and unscrupulous, wanton and decadent, eventually developing a violent streak that has everyone question how he associated with a gentleman like Jekyll, who mysteriously has vanished.

Because Jekyll becomes addicted to his new life via Hyde, it is easy to read this as a parable on the dangers of drug abuse – ironic given the accusations that Stevenson took cocaine when writing this while others say it was merely a fever – as Hyde’s personality becomes the dominant one, compelling the weakened Jekyll to take the potion against his better judgement.

Another famous scene is that of Jekyll lying in bed with a fever trying to expunge Hyde from his body (cold turkey?) when a giant spider representing Hyde crawls up onto Jekyll (you can seen the actors legs beneath the suit) and morphs with Jekyll so he no longer needs the potion to transform. Naturally this battle between good vs. evil has a tragic ending again supporting the notion that this is an allegory for addiction.

This film may be almost 100 years old but it still manages to be an urgent and unsettling interpretation of Stevenson’s tale, remaining compelling and stark in its depiction of man’s lust for rampant depravity. Certainly it is tame compared to today’s explicit content but that doesn’t make this any the less efficacious is providing a few chills whilst provoking discussion about its themes.

Film fans might consider the 1931 Oscar winning version of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde as definitive for the technical innovation of Frederick March’s famous transformation into the simian-esque Hyde, but for a true masterclass in transformation acting, Barrymore’s largely make-up free performance here as Hyde arguably deserves that honour.

You’ll need to indulge the slightly creaky production of the period but the reward is a vivid and evocative slice of cinema history that raised the bar for cinema horror.