This post does discuss some sensitive subjects that may be potentially triggering. So please read on at your own risk of maybe unleashing an evil alter ego. Ya just never know.
Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel has become one of the most famous novels of the English literary canon. It has been adapted numerous times for film, television and radio, and inspired other authors through homages and alternate universes.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has much in common with Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bram Stoker’s Dracula. All three novels explore the notions of man’s capacity for good and evil, as well as how in the 19th century, science began to challenge long held beliefs about religions and superstition. For the first time in man’s history, he did not have to look at the idols of his religion. He could look within himself, within his own body and mind, and unlock so many secrets and answer so many questions. But he could also raise more questions, ones that once answered may not hold the answer he wanted.
However, unlike with Frankenstein and Dracula, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde shows man’s split self in very definite terms. The Monster is the outward reflection of Dr Frankenstein’s darker self, his hubris and flaws, and Dracula is the clear dichotomy of the brothers of light, ancient and evil. But Van Helsing can go to bed at night knowing that he never snacked on virgins and Dr Frankenstein can perhaps assuage his guilt by saying he didn’t kill anyone directly. But Jekyll can make no such claim as a balm for his conscience. Everyone that Hyde hurts, maims, kills and who’s lives he destroys, is on behalf of Jekyll.
And this is why the story is still so popular and relevant today. Humans have been obsessed with the notion of good and evil, especially within themselves, since antiquity. And people still wonder if Jekyll had evil in his heart all along and the potion is just a metaphor for this, or if suppressing ones baser urges can only lead to tragedy, as well as how one can balance ones “good” and “bad” sides. Most importantly, Stevenson seems to be saying that there are not really two sides to humans after all. There is nothing clear cut about our biological make up. We are not this or that. We are everything, inseparable and necessary for the survival of all parts of ourselves, black, white and gray areas.
While Stevenson seems to answer many questions, he also seems to raise one vital question: if man did not have the dictate of society to restrain him, his reputation and standing, if he could commit evil under the guise of another form, would he really choose not to?
Drink it all down, not a sound
Dr Henry Jekyll (played by John Barrymore) is the paradigm of goodness. This is not only apparent in the fact that he is physically beautiful, but also in his deeds. He forgoes a lavish dinner party held by his future father in law, Sir George Carewe (played by Brandon Hurst) in favour of extending his hours at the weekly clinic he funds and runs for the poor.
When he does eventually arrive, Carewe mocks him for his goodness and expresses doubts in whether or not this sainted behaviour is a sign of true goodness or repression. Jekyll is greatly disturbed and upset by this, but agrees to accompany Carewe to a rather seedy drinking establishment in Soho to prove that Carewe’s mockery is unfounded.
When they arrive at the drinking hall, Carewe arranges with the shady owner to have Gina (played by Nita Naldi), the beautiful dancer who performs for all the drunks and deadbeats, to come over and dance privately for he and Jekyll.
Gina instantly puts the moves on Jekyll, and while it seems like he’s very interested, he resists and leaves the establishment.
But something has been awakened in Jekyll. A part of himself that he never acknowledged. A very dangerous idea starts to come into his mind based on the scientific work that he’s been researching. He tells his friend and colleague, Dr Lanyon (played by Charles Willis Lane), about his unsettling encounter in the beer hall, and how he wishes that man’s evil self could be separated from his better half. Lanyon admits that that would be ideal, but impossible.
Lanyon had previously warned Jekyll of dabbling in science that defied the laws of man and nature, but Jekyll is so consumed with the idea that has come to him, that he cannot let it go. And so he dedicates days to perfecting a way to achieve what he has proposed to Lanyon.
He finally perfects the serum that will potentially achieve his desire. He feels terrible fear and trepidation at going through with it, but he eventually downs the serum and experiences a terrible change.
His fingers elongate, as do his face and eyes, and his hair becomes long and stringy. He goes into the house to make sure that he has indeed transformed and then returns to his laboratory to turn back into Jekyll once more.
When he goes to the house again, he beholds his normal form in wonder, before instructing his faithful manservant, Poole (played by George Stevens) to allow his “friend”, Mr Hyde, complete access to the house and laboratory.
Jekyll transforms into Hyde once more goes out into the night. He rents a small, shabby room in Soho from an old woman. He then returns to the dance hall, and as Carewe did, gets the shady proprietor to call Gina over. She is understandably reluctant as his appearance and shies away from him, but he forces her to sit down with him. He then covets a large hollow ring she wears on her finger, which she explains, with the help of an explanatory flashback, once was used to hold poison. Hyde snatches it away from her.
And so Jekyll lives a double life as the respectable, sainted doctor by day and the libertine Hyde at night. Each time he transforms he becomes more and deformed and monstrous, his head and hands elongated further, until he is also hunched over. He visits an opium den where he is amused at the state of the addicts. He humiliates both Gina, who has become an addict because of him evicting her from the room they shared, and a young girl who works at the den, presumably as a prostitute. He then forces himself on the girl, who has no choice but to give in to his demands after one of the Chinese proprietors takes her to Hyde.
It is revealed that Jekyll has a rival for his beautiful young fiancée, Millicent’s (played by Martha Mansfield) affections. Another young man, Edward, proposes marriage to her, but she refuses him due to her love for Jekyll. Millicent is despondent because she thinks that Jekyll no longer loves her. Carewe goes to confront his would be son in law in order to find out why he has been so long absent. In the meantime, Jekyll has once again transformed into his evil alter ego, and injures a small child playing on the street. Carewe and Edward witness this and demand that Hyde pay for the treatment of the child’s injuries. When Hyde produces a cheque with Jekyll’s name on it, Carewe and Edward are confused and horrified at the thought of Jekyll’s association with such a man.
When Hyde transforms back into the good doctor, Jekyll feels terrible guilt and sorrow over how out of control his alter ego has become. He visits Millicent and reaffirms his love for her and his commitment to their impending marriage. He also absolves to no longer indulge in his double life as Hyde.
Soon after, Carewe goes to visit Jekyll once more and says that he has no choice but to break Jekyll and Millicent’s engagement because of Jekyll’s involvement with an undesirable like Hyde. Jekyll becomes so enraged and desperate, accusing Carewe for being the reason that Hyde came into his life because Carewe mocked Jekyll’s goodness, that he transforms into Hyde without the use of the serum. Carewe is horrified, and after being repeatedly attacked by Hyde, runs out into the courtyard, but Hyde beats him to death with his own cane before he can escape.
Knowing that the police will track him down and blame him for the killings due to Poole’s knowledge of him, he rushes to Soho and destroys any evidence that links him to Jekyll before the police arrive. Once that is done, he returns to the laboratory and becomes Jekyll once more. After the police visit Soho and question the mentally imbalanced old land lady and find nothing but Carewe’s walking stick in the fire that Hyde used to destroy evidence, they return to Jekyll’s laboratory. Jekyll is horrified to realise what Hyde, and therefore he himself, has done.
Guilt continues to consume him, and he locks himself away in his laboratory. He is also petrified that he will suddenly become Hyde once again due to his weakening self control and mental state. Despite his search for the vital ingredient for the serum that will ward off the transformation, Pool informs his master that he has been unable to obtain the ingredient anywhere in London. Jekyll is distraught, and goes into a rage before collapsing into desperate prayer.
Poole fetches Millicent in the hope that she will restore Jekyll to his old self. When she arrives, she is almost successful in getting Jekyll to come out, but to his horror, he begins to transform into Hyde once more. He begs Millicent to leave, but Hyde takes over and lets her into the laboratory. He stalks her once she is in the room and attempts to assault her, but he has not realised that Jekyll took poison from the ring that they took from Gina. He begins to convulse, allowing Millicent to escape.
Edward and Dr Lanyon arrive and find Millicent sobbing outside of the laboratory. Lanyon enters whilst Edward comforts her. He realises that Hyde is Jekyll and vice versa when he finds Hyde’s corpses that slowly begins to transform into Jekyll’s. He is horrified, but protects his friend’s name, knowing suicide was Jekyll’s attempt to atone for Hyde’s sins. He tells Millicent, who sobs beside Jekyll’s body, that Hyde killed Jekyll.
Barrymore: A master class
I was inspired to watch this movie thanks to the Ticklish Business podcast’s wonderful episode on the 1931 version starring Fredric March as the titular characters. I was very intrigued to watch both films, as Samantha, from Musings of A Classic Film Addict, who is one of the three lovely hosts, mentioned Barrymore’s powerhouse performance in the 1920 version.
I love John Barrymore. I only really became aware of his iconic status in the last few years, but his performances in Midnight, Grand Hotel and Dinner At Eight have convinced me that his reputation as one of the greatest actors, both on stage and screen, of his generation is very well deserved. And this film has only served to solidify that belief.
Barrymore was twenty eight years old in this film. He is stunningly beautiful. The heavy make up of the silent film era only seemed to emphasise his looks, especially in the medium shots.
He manages to be saintly as Dr Jekyll without falling into parody. His portrayal shows that Jekyll is a good man trying to make a difference for the poor, and to banish ignorance through science. But he also shows that Jekyll is fallible. In the scenes where Jekyll becomes more and more aware of the extent of the depravity of Hyde’s, and by extension his own, deeds, he conveys such real, heartbreaking anguish. His facial expressions are exquisitely framed, his eyes show the agony that he is experiencing at knowing that he can blame no one but himself for his actions. There is also a wonderful tenderness to his portrayal of Jekyll, especially in his scenes with Martha Mansfield, and his brief scene with Nita Naldi, where he also shows in a moment how difficult it is for him to resist her sensuality.
As Hyde he is a revelation. I almost didn’t dare to breath during his initial transformation scene. It was astounding how he contorted not only his body as if he were truly possessed by some terrible, intangible presence, but also his face. I could not believe that much of Hyde’s look was achieved with very little make up, and almost entirely thanks to Barrymore’s ability to contort his face and body. He somehow manages to elongate his jawline, and the tricks his plays with his eyes are both disturbing and masterful. This is particularly apparent in the scene where Hyde murders Carewe, and his eyes appear as sightless and white, completed devoid of pupil and iris. He is also manages to drop his eyes in their sockets so they are only half seen when the camera does a close up on his face when he is about to attack Millicent in the lab.
His posture as Hyde changes as the film goes on, becoming more stooped and hunched until he is almost in an inverted L shape, and his hands and arms become stunted and claw like. His gait also conveys the growing evil and debauchery that Hyde is the vessel of. He drags himself like a reanimated corpse towards the end of the film, hobbling after Millicent in a terrifying and menacing fashion.
Barrymore embodies two disparate characters to perfection. He is not weaker or stronger as either. He strikes a perfect figure as Jekyll and Hyde. When it is becoming almost impossible to resist the powerful pull of Hyde, Barrymore changes his physicality when portraying Jekyll as well as his make up, which becomes less refined and more blurred and bruised around the eyes. His hair, which is gorgeously coifed at the beginning of the movie, becomes a wild tangle as he runs his shaking, beleaguered hands through it as he paces his laboratory, which has become darker and more tomblike as the film progresses.
The supporting cast is also very good, especially Brandon Hurst who portrays his sleazy, decadent father in law very well, especially in the part where he takes Jekyll to the dance hall and gloats over his ability to corrupt someone so pure. Charles Willis Lane as Dr Lanyon also gives a solid performance, and the final scene of the film is given an added poignancy by his embodiment of the sorrow Lanyon feels at his friend’s fate. Martha Mansfield is lovely and gentle in her portrayal of Millicent, with her delicate finely featured face. Nita Naldi is wonderfully sexy and alluring as Gina, but she also shows the terrible decay of her character. You do not see Gina’s death, but Nita conveys everything in her performance.
I highly, highly recommend this film. It is a brilliant example of why early cinema is not deserving of its inferior reputation. There is much in this film that shows early film maker’s desire to experiment and their ability to convey things in a creative, and impressive way. This is especially apparent in the scene where Jekyll is possessed by the creeping giant spider of Hyde’s evil. The film is widely available online as it is in he public domain, which is both a blessing and a shame, as I would love to see a pristine restoration of the film.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on the film as well as Barrymore’s performance. You can watch the film here.