1920's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the oldest surviving truly interesting adaptation of the story. The production values are better than the earlier surviving adaptations but the film's key virtue is in John Barrymore's performance as Jekyll/Hyde, especially for his interpretation of Hyde. The intensely handsome Barrymore makes a far more effective monster who is both strangely charming and surpassingly disgusting.
Adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's story generally see fit to introduce at least one female character. The original story doesn't really have any except for an unnamed maid that witnesses Hyde commit murder. An 1887 stage adaptation introduced the idea of Jekyll having a fiancee, a daughter of a distinguished gentleman, thereby raising the stakes for Jekyll's need to maintain a virtuous existence. It says something about the credulousness of audiences that when the American production came to London its star, Richard Mansfield, was seriously suspected of being Jack the Ripper. Far from being a society that blindly put their faith in appearances, there was clearly an anxiety among Victorians about dark identities hidden inside society's paragons, an anxiety doubtless borne of every spectator's knowledge of his or her own hidden imperfections.
The two surviving pre-World War I American film adaptations (one from 1912 and one from 1913) put the viewer at a distance from the main character, partly due to the limitations of early films, and Hyde generally comes across as a giant hyperactive child or rabid animal. The horror intended seems to be that of the unknown element lurking in the shadows, waiting at any moment to spring with incredible speed and lack of restraint. The John Barrymore film (one of three to be released in 1920--sadly a Murnau version starring Conrad Veidt doesn't survive) better understands the novella's idea of the Hyde persona as a temptation.
As in the novella, there's nothing in this film version that clearly suggests Jekyll and Hyde have fundamentally different personalities--the possibility is always there that the potion Jekyll creates merely changes his physical appearance, enabling the doctor to act out his already existing base desires without damaging his reputation. Time is spent focusing on the good Jekyll does in hospitals for patients and in this version it's Jekyll, in response to the more cynical Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst), who insists on the existence of the soul.
Sir George is one of the key distinctions in this adaptation. The father of Jekyll's innocent love interest, in this case named Millicent (Martha Mansfield), he has the leisurely amoral attitude associated with the likes of Oscar Wilde and Walter Pater, telling the tightly wound Jekyll that the only way to defeat temptation is to give into it. He overrules Jekyll's objections and takes the young man to a den of vice where they watch a beautiful Italian dancer.
But Sir George turns out to harbour hypocrisy opposite to Jekyll's--where Jekyll might be a craven man pretending to be upright, Sir George flirts with amusing amoral ideas but at the end of the day will only stand for the right sort of man marrying his daughter. The film illustrates how the contradictions in Sir George's ideas can be destructive, seemingly intended to warn the viewer of too much idle indulgence in dangerous ideas.
Barrymore gives Jekyll overly artificial manners, giving the distinct impression of pusillanimity. One might put this down to the necessarily broad acting style for silent film except Barrymore's Hyde is incredibly relaxed and contented by contrast.
This is what makes him so much more effective than the bouncing monkey Hyde from other films. The horror of Hyde isn't in his fury but his contentment. This is a man at ease with himself. When he talks to a pimp about the Italian dancer, there's an inviting, conspiratorial look in his eye. He's not the strange shape coming out of the shadows, he's the invitation to relax and indulge.
Which makes his more extreme behaviour all the more effectively horrific. The makeup is fairly subtle but Barrymore gets a lot of mileage from it. A pointed piece for his head alters his famous profile from extraordinarily handsome to just as extraordinarily weird. Some shots from the front where Barrymore tilts his head back to make the best use of his long false teeth look like a great ink drawing of a nightmare.
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