Daily Archives: April 4, 2011

BIFF 2011 #16: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (US 1920)

Barrymore as the repulsive Hyde inveigling his way into the club where 'Miss Gina' (Nita Naldi) performs

This year’s silent feature at Saltaire’s Victoria Hall, with the ‘Mighty Wurlitzer’ accompaniment of Donald MacKenzie, was the 1920 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. This is the John Barrymore version directed by John S. Robertson. I confess to never having come across Robertson before and I was amazed to learn via Wikipedia that he was the inspiration for the Byrds’ track ‘Old John Robertson’. He was a Canadian director who made several films a year between 1915 and 1935. In this film, however, he was easily upstaged by the amazing performance of John Barrymore in the lead.

Since I’d watched Helen of Four Gates (also 1920) only four days earlier, I spent some time reflecting on the difference between the Hollywood and the British approach to production at this time. The first few scenes of this adaptation of Stevenson’s story didn’t grab me straightaway and this gave me the opportunity to think about sets, acting styles and camerawork/editing. The Hollywood film has far more characters, more sets/locations and more rapid cutting. However, there is no location shooting and one of the limitations for me was that the sets were not really designed for movement/choreography. The still above is nicely composed, but several scenes are just played in medium shot. The film is lifted by the performance of Barrymore and by the exploitation of the more sensational aspects of the story. Barrymore’s transformation from the noble scientist Jekyll to the predatory and animal-like Hyde is astonishing. It is conveyed as much through the actor’s use of his body as by the make-up and prosthetics and on the first occasion the editing achieves an almost miraculous continuity. As several commentators have pointed out, Barrymore’s Hyde is less ‘monstrous’ but far more debauched and loathsome than some of the later characterisations.

Barrymore in Jekyll mode being advised by his partner and his solicitor.

In the still above (lifted from IMDB) there is much more detail in the decor than can be seen in the Kino DVD print but Barrymore’s stare is still very evident in the latter. Again, I think I agree with the commentators who have suggested that Hyde, though loathsome, is also strangely beguiling, while Jekyll is rather disturbingly priggish with a very odd look of concentration.

The film is now in the public domain in the US, meaning that a full-length version is available on YouTube – with an organ accompaniment. The whole thing is available here:

Overall, I think the film doesn’t manage the eroticism so evident in the 1931 Rouben Mamoulian version with Fredric March. However, it does capture the other aspects of debauchery including the degradation of the nightclub singer and the fall into opium smoking. The negative image of Chinatown is still there in the 1920s film – almost a throwback to the earlier films of ‘yellow peril’ and ‘white slavery’. I’ve not read the original story – was the opium den there as well?

The organ accompaniment was, of course, very accomplished. Most of the time I suspect that I didn’t properly appreciate it, but in the transformation scenes it seemed to heighten the effect very well.