(From now until Halloween, the Canadian Cinephile will be taken over by pure, unadulterated FEAR. No, I’m not commencing an Adam Sandler marathon. I will be reviewing some of the most spine-chilling, bloodcurdling horror movies, with this year’s trip covering those freaky films released prior to 1970. There will be a special focus on Universal’s classic monster pictures, so bring your hot cocoa. It’s going to be a dark and scary ride. Sort of.)
Directed by Ontario’s own John S. Robertson, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of many silent film adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The 1920 motion picture is also one of three from the same year, what with F.W. Murnau’s now-lost version and J. Charles Haydon’s interpretation also on the books.
Robertson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is probably the most well-known, however, and it’s certainly a compelling adaptation of Stevenson’s work. It explores the duality and conflict of the tale through Clara Beranger and Thomas Russell Sullivan screenplay, underlining the notion that the possibilities for good and evil exist in all human beings and using John Barrymore’s enthralling portrayal to detail this aspect.
The inimitable Barrymore stars as Dr. Henry Jekyll, an upstanding idealist and philanthropist and all-around good guy. He treats the poor for free (imagine that) and is engaged to be married to Millicent (Martha Mansfield). Dr. Jekyll’s future father-in-law Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst) doesn’t believe the altruism. He insists that man has two natures and believes his future son-in-law is denying himself.
Dr. Jekyll experiments and subsequently develops a potion that will allow him to explore his baser nature in the form of the hideous Mr. Hyde, a monster of his own creation. He lives a double life, exploring the underbelly of London as Hyde and letting Jekyll continue his work. But the lines become blurred and Hyde starts taking over, the sinister nature of man devastating everything in its path.
Robertson and cinematographer Roy F. Overbaugh use some great contrast and framing to explore the dual worlds of Jekyll and Hyde, with the lavish London interior’s contrasting with the seedy shadows of the opium dens and “gentlemen’s” clubs on the wrong side of town. At first, the burlesque house serves as a simple dalliance. Soon, it’s second nature. Eventually, it’s not good enough for Hyde.
Barrymore, “the Great Profile,” is ideal as Jekyll and Hyde. He accomplishes the latter with a slight dose of makeup, but most of the transformation is done with facial contortions and lighting. This underscores how Jekyll is capable of slipping into Hyde with the minimal hardship. The transformation is toxic to Jekyll’s nature, but it’s also a remarkably easy shift. Dancing with the devil is enticing, after all.
But the dance takes over Jekyll and the changes become more intense, with a dissolve technique used to reveal that Hyde has almost become a completely different entity. Barrymore has the base nature of Hyde impose itself on Jekyll with slender revelations that build into agitated, overwrought actions and dramatic manifestations of the good doctor’s intensifying anxiety.
By the time Hyde takes over, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has waltzed down the avenue of immorality with glee. It’s one of the only adaptations of Stevenson’s tale to feature the eminent child-stamping scene, for one, and it features the beautiful Nita Naldi as Hyde’s hot Italian mistress. She’s a hallucination of disparity, with Mansfield’s Millicent as the ever-waiting vision of morality and Victorian decency.
There are also scenes of misery in an opium den, with shot after shot of drugged-out addicts sagging and sleeping it off before starting all over again. Hyde dips into this Limehouse pool after the burlesque theatres and gin joints lose their sheen, signifying an expanding degeneracy of nature that has no end. This all builds to Robertson’s intense use of double exposure to have a giant spider torment Jekyll.
From Barrymore’s astounding transformation to Robertson’s inventive if inconspicuous direction, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an important example of silent era horror. It’s one of the gloomiest versions of Stevenson’s tale of duality, landing as a near-classic of the genre and a sure bet for chills on a dark and stormy night down at the neighbourhood opium den.