Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) ***
At least four screen adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appeared in 1920. Of these, F. W. Murnau’s The Janus Head is believed lost. Two others, a Louis Mayer four-reeler and an apparently disastrous comedic interpretation from Arrow films, might as well be lost for all the attention anyone has paid them over the ensuing 80-odd years. That leaves Paramount’s adaptation, featuring international matinee idol John Barrymore in the title roles, as the last version standing from the year 1920; some would surely argue that this is an example of meritocracy in action. For though it can’t really compete with the same studio’s sound remake from 1931, or with MGM’s equally brilliant reworking of the same plot from ten years later, the Barrymore Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde doesn’t fall too far short of deserving the epithet that I have frequently heard applied to it: the first great American horror film.
In many respects, this movie has had more influence on subsequent film versions than the novel itself. Of the greatest importance, this was the first Jekyll and Hyde film to introduce the character of the music hall girl who serves as a counterpart to Jekyll’s fiancee, just as Hyde is the doctor’s counterpart. (The novel, as if you couldn’t have guessed, features not the faintest hint of a romantic subplot.) It also introduced a plot element that Rouben Mammoulian’s remake and those following from it would run with— by lopping a good twenty years off of Jekyll’s age, it makes the brashness and inexperience of youth an essential factor in the equation that turns Hyde loose to terrorize the populace of London. Nevertheless, a first-time viewer who comes to this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from one of the better known subsequent remakes will likely be taken aback by some of what didn’t make it into the later adaptations.
For starters, this is not at all the Henry Jekyll we’re used to. In contrast to Mammoulian’s impatient idealist, or to the pious hypocrite portrayed by Spencer Tracy, we have here a man who would be a candidate for sainthood, if only he were a missionary instead of a physician. He has a certain propensity for radical scientific thinking that his colleague, Dr. Richard Lanyon (Charles Lane), finds highly unnerving and even faintly blasphemous, but he is also extremely dedicated, extremely generous, and so totally chaste and abstemious that it’s very difficult to believe there’s any real relationship at all between him and Millicent Carew (Martha Mansfield), the girl who loves him, and whom he supposedly loves in return. The most noteworthy example of Jekyll’s eagerness to improve the world, and of his willingness to put his money where his mouth is in order to accomplish that end, is the free clinic he runs in Soho. For at least a couple of hours every afternoon, Jekyll treats the ailing indigents of London at his own expense, and frequently spends so much time doing it that it impinges upon the social life that is more or less mandatory for every Victorian gentleman. For instance, though Millicent’s father, Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst, from White Zombie and the 1923 version of The Hunchback of Notre Dame, playing a much bigger role than he could ever get in the sound era), frequently includes Jekyll on the guest list when he entertains, Jekyll just as frequently shows up late and misses dinner because he’s been so busy administering to the poor. It is through one of these parties at the Carew house that the second big change to the story wrought by later adaptors comes into view. Though the familiar pattern in which Carew disapproves of Jekyll’s singleminded dedication, while Millicent loves him all the more for it, is indeed present here, Carew’s motives are entirely different from what we are accustomed to. It isn’t that Carew’s conservatism leads him to consider Jekyll’s almost obsessive charity toward the poor unbecoming for a man of his station, but that he doesn’t think it’s healthy for any man Jekyll’s age to be as pure and good as the doctor seems to be. In Carew’s view, there is time enough for virtue in middle and old age; youth is the time for indiscretion, and if Jekyll doesn’t allow himself a bit of hedonism now, he’ll grow into a bitter old man at best, and a perverted old sociopath at worst. Jekyll should follow Carew’s own example, and feel free to give vent to his baser passions. With that in mind, Carew, Lanyon, and another friend of theirs named Edward Enfield (Cecil Clovelly) decide to take the young doctor out to a music hall, so that he can get a little taste of what he’s missing.
It ends up being a life-changing experience for Dr. Jekyll, but not at all in the way that Carew intended. The principal attraction at the music hall is an Italian dancer named Gina (The Man from Beyond’s Nita Naldi), and it is only while Jekyll is watching her ostensibly titillating performance (I personally can’t imagine anybody getting turned on by a woman who moves with as little grace as Nita Naldi, but maybe I’m just weird) that the doctor feels the first real stirring of his stunted and repressed libido. He goes home profoundly disturbed, and while he and Lanyon are chatting in Jekyll’s parlor about what a dirty old goat Sir George is, the younger doctor comes up with another of his scandalously unorthodox ideas. What if it were possible to complete the split in the moral nature of humanity, separating good and evil not just into different layers of the mind, but into different bodies as well? Think of it, says Jekyll— “To do evil freely, and yet leave the soul untouched!” Lanyon predictably condemns Jekyll’s musing as sacrilege, but the younger man thinks he knows just what to do to make that “sacrilege” a reality.
Over the ensuing weeks, Jekyll works obsessively in his laboratory, neglecting not only his friends, but also Millicent Carew and apparently even his free clinic as well. The end result of all this toil is a chemical concoction that, when Jekyll drinks it, transforms him into a man of fiendish countenance and even more fiendish character. Fortunately, the drug also has the effect of changing him back to normal. It may not be quite the perfect cleavage of human good and human evil that Jekyll was looking for, but it’s close enough to serve his purposes. Jekyll, you see, doesn’t like the new feelings that Carew and his amusements have awakened in him, but neither can he muster the willpower to fight off the temptation to indulge them. So the doctor compromises, continuing to lead a morally exemplary life as Henry Jekyll while catching up on a lifetime of uncommitted sins in the guise of Edward Hyde. As Jekyll, he outmaneuvers his friend and attorney, John Utterson (J. Malcolm Dunn), for an engagement to marry Millicent; as Hyde, he conducts a short, cruel affair with Gina from the music hall. The trouble with moral compromises, though, is that they tend to leave one compromised. In Jekyll’s case, what that means is that he finds it ever more difficult to keep his two lives segregated, and to live with the knowledge of the crimes he commits as Hyde.
The worst of those crimes is the murder of George Carew. As Jekyll’s behavior becomes stranger and stranger (long, unexplained absences from his home; frequent refusals to admit visitors when he is around; the odd new will he has Utterson draw up naming Edward Hyde as his sole heir), Millicent, Lanyon, and Utterson become increasingly concerned for the doctor’s well-being. Eventually, the men unexpectedly meet Hyde face to face, under circumstances which lead them to believe that he is somehow blackmailing their old friend. That gets Carew involved— a little illicit pleasure here and there is one thing, but he’ll be damned if he lets any man who is susceptible to blackmail marry his daughter! When Carew confronts Dr. Jekyll about his connection to the mysterious Hyde, he gets a much clearer answer than he bargained for. The intense fear and anger that Sir George’s threat evokes in Jekyll is enough to trigger a spontaneous transformation, even without the drug. Hyde chases Carew from the laboratory, tackles him to the ground in the alley out back, and then clubs him to death with his thick, heavy cane. And that, as usual, is the beginning of the end for both Jekyll and Hyde; with every cop in London on the hunt for Hyde, with those policemen’s quarry liable to pop into being unbidden whenever Dr. Jekyll gets mad or horny, and with Jekyll’s supply of the drug that can turn him normal again dwindling, the doctor and his evil alter-ego are pretty much cornered.
As many a reviewer before me has pointed out, the real reason to watch Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is John Barrymore’s performance— particularly his performance as Edward Hyde. Honestly, whenever I think of the character, it’s Barrymore’s Hyde I see. (Although in my imaginings, he carries himself more like Boris Karloff in The Body Snatcher and speaks with the voice of Armin Shimmerman...) Physically, this Hyde is noteworthy for how unlike Jekyll he appears, despite the fact that Barrymore (at least at first) uses hardly any makeup to effect the transformation. In fact, the first time Jekyll transforms into Hyde, the only element of the villain’s makeup that Barrymore is unable to apply surreptitiously to himself during one of his many convulsions and doublings-over is the set of finger extensions the actor used to make his character’s hands look as fearsome and degenerate as his face. Later transformations are accomplished by means of the usual dissolve, however, because Barrymore’s Hyde gets uglier as the movie wears on in much the same way that Fredric March’s rendition of the character would eleven years later. This is an awfully cool effect, especially in the context of the time, but to some extent, I sort of wish they hadn’t used a progressive makeup design— Barrymore’s appearance in the scene where Hyde first comes to see Gina dance is probably as close as any movie has ever come to capturing Stevenson’s vision of the character, whom he frequently describes as conveying the impression of ugliness and deformity without being at all noticeably ugly or deformed. But even beyond looks, Barrymore makes a terrific Hyde, equally convincing whether the scene calls for quiet malice or an outburst of sudden savagery, as when he bludgeons Carew to death with his cane.
As for Carew, that gets us back to the other main point of interest in this version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As the first truly feature-length film adaptation of the novel, this was also the first that was forced to deal with how much of the action in it happens offstage. Earlier Jekyll and Hyde films could afford to limit themselves to just the tiny handful of Hyde-related vignettes that Stevenson included, but to do so here would have left an awful lot of time to fill. Thus it is that the relationships between the characters have become much more complicated, while the roles of the supporting cast have expanded tremendously. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Carew’s case. In the book, Carew enters the story at the same moment that he leaves it, existing for no reason other than for Hyde to murder him. He is an almost complete stranger to everyone else involved, a member of Parliament with whom Hyde has a random altercation on the street. By making him an old acquaintance of Jekyll’s— and eventually the doctor’s future father-in-law— the filmmakers are able to derive far more dramatic impact from his death, especially since, in their telling, Carew also becomes the man whose great experience and intimate familiarity with sin serves as the ultimate inspiration for Jekyll’s fatal experiment. And while his death in this context might at first glance look like just another instance of that old standby, the monster giving his creator his just deserts, the subtext is actually much more complicated than that. For what Jekyll does after their trip to the music hall really proves that Carew was right. It is precisely Jekyll’s unwillingness to give his bad side its due that leads him to become a monster and destroy not only himself, but many of the people he cares about, and several totally innocent strangers as well. Nor can we honestly say that Carew’s life of measured debauchery has had any ill effect on him; he is obviously successful at whatever it is that he does, and he has taken great pains to shelter his daughter from his own vices. Even the stodgy and reflexively disapproving Richard Lanyon agrees that Carew has been a model father to Millicent. Only after Carew exposes the dangerously asymmetrical psyche of Dr. Jekyll to the sleazy pleasures of London night life is there a problem, and that problem stems from Jekyll being too good! This is a fascinating departure from what Stevenson wrote, and though it has the effect of turning the message of the story in a drastically different direction, it doesn’t— to me, at least— come across as a perversion or betrayal of the novel, but an expansion of it. “Sure, hypocrisy is bad,” it seems to be saying, “but sometimes you’ve got to be even more careful of the people who really are as spotless as they seem.” I can only imagine the paroxysms that would have given the Legion of Decency’s lobbyists!