Robert Louis Stevenson
John Barrymore as Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Edward Hyde
Martha Mansfield as Millicent Carewe
Brandon Hurst as Sir George Carewe
Dr. Jekyll is a progressive scientist constantly attempting to push the boundaries of knowledge and human potential. His experiments make his future father-in-law, Sir George Carewe uneasy since they have the potential to upend ‘natural law’. Jekyll shows know humility before the awesome powers he tampers with, but also devotes his leisure hours to treating for the indigent free of charge at the local clinic. Yet, when Sir George and his colleagues tempt him into devoting some time to more pleasurable pursuits, Jekyll suffers a crisis of decision between allowing his good self or evil self free reign. Not deterred, he devotes his chemical prowess to devising a solution that will allow him to experience both worlds. After many weeks of long hours in his lab, he produces a potion capable of transforming his person physically and mentally into someone devoted to satisfying baser urges, but also capable of reversing the effect. After a couple trials, he appears to have succeeded in his endeavor to enjoy the full breadth of human experience. However, as time marches on, his baser self – self-designated as ‘Mr. Hyde’ – becomes more violent and demanding – eventually overwhelming Dr. Jekyll completely and bringing terror and tragedy to everyone in his life.
A word about the print version: This classic Robert Louis Stevenson tale, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was first published as a novella in 1886, yet the first edition was also the first remake. The original novella was only read by one person – Stevenson’s wife. She was so horrified by its content that she asked Stevenson to burn it and he immediately did so. A few years later he rewrote a tamer version of the original, which met with instant success upon publication and became the iconic story of man’s internal struggle with his more primal instincts. To this day, it is still a good read.
Strangely, the first film adaption of Stevenson’s novella has also been lost – William Selig’s 1908 Hollywood production. If it was still around we may also look back on it as the first horror film, but as it is, we are left with the only adaptation to survive time’s march out of the silent era. Although silent, it is still marked by good visuals and a stellar performance by John Barrymore (grandfather to Drew Barrymore). The story is uniquely suited for film in that the transformation of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde is not only mental, but physical – providing a challenge to early makeup artists. Although, they rose to the occasion, more than any other factor, Barrymore did a fantastic job of selling the transformation with his posture and facial expressions. As Mr. Hyde, Barrymore’s wild gaze and mad grin are almost as memorable as Lon Chaney’s horrific visage in The Phantom of the Opera (1925). They also required a sustained effort on Barrymore’s part as he had to awkwardly contort his lips, nose and jawbone for hours at a time.
In addition to the disturbing transformation scene and appearance of Mr. Hyde, this one was considered almost scandalous for its day. Mr. Hyde gallivants with whores and beats women regularly. Naturally none of these activities made it to the silver screen in the 1920s – a time when showing one’s shoulders was considered lewd and lascivious. Yet they are inferred through more subdued actions. For example, Mr. Hyde is depicted embracing a dancer in a form-fitting topless dress (leaves little to the imagination) and gripping two women around the neck so violently that he nearly strangles them. Additionally – even shockingly, the camera does not shy away from showing Mr. Hyde beating a man to death. The scene does not come close to the violence depicted in The Body Snatcher 25 years later (another Stevenson screen adaptation), but it is still vicious.
The novella was written in response to a rapidly transforming world, where chemists were concocting new elixirs and pills purporting to remedy almost anything. In this context, it explores man’s struggle between his animal instincts and his more civilized self. The film captures these themes, but takes one step further – delivering a message critical of scientific progress from the perspective of Christian virtue.
Like most silent films, this one starts slow and steadily builds to a thrilling climax. Be patient. Things will get interesting. The background music, however, is not in the least unsettling and should be muted for a more pleasurable early horror viewing experience. (It wouldn’t be a bad idea to play some dark soundtrack of your own choosing, for appropriate ambience.)