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From the Vaults: 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1920)

March 1, 2010 | 12:00 am


April 13, 1920: “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde'” at the Million Dollar Theatre... Not for weaklings and mollycoddles!  – with Jesse Crawford at the Organ.  

Note: Since we began in 2007,  the Daily Mirror has wanted to provide posts about historic films, but like the rest of the DM, we wanted to make it a unique, personal view. We found a fresh, original voice in Anne Elisabeth Dillon, who works around the corner from us on the National copy desk. Please welcome her -- lrh

Jekyllpatient I feel unqualified to talk about “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1920). Watching a silent film is like studying a museum piece. It's so stylized that it doesn't feel anything like what we know as a movie; talking about it should require an advanced degree of some kind. But it's still available for movie-watching yahoos like me to just sit down and watch. Which I did the other night, and I loved it.

At first it's just a blast to sit down and watch a movie from 1920. The lighting flickers like a lantern – I kept thinking how great it would look projected on the wall of a nightclub. The costumes are exquisite. Everyone wears fabulous eyeliner.

Also, this was my first John Barrymore movie, and yummm... he was called the Great Profile, but he is truly beauteous from all angles. So tall and regal! And the title cards have gorgeous Art Deco-style designs on them.
April 11, 1920, Barrymore, JekyllSure, the stylization is sort of distancing for the modern viewer, but after a while you do get caught up in the story.

Dr. Jekyll has some out-there scientific ideas, but morally speaking he is extremely virtuous, what with running a low-income medical establishment (the shots of Edinburgh's poor, standing around his waiting room hoping for affordable healthcare, are shockingly familiar, even with the abundance of picturesque shawls) and being engaged to the good and kind Millicent.

Millicent's dad, Sir George (Brandon Hurst, who is no slouch himself in the profile department) is a good friend of Dr. Jekyll's and takes him out for a night at the dance hall. There we meet dancer Gina, who is dangerously Italian – we deduce, from her one-shouldered outfit, that she is not so virtuous as Millicent. Dr. J. is fascinated by her, and shortly thereafter gets cracking on his famous potion.

Drjekylltitlecard Dr. Jekyll's first transformation into Hyde is incredibly impressive. The camera stays on him as he convulses and gradually turns into his hideous, all-id alter ego. In his wonderful book “The Monster Show,” Hollywood historian David J. Skal writes that Barrymore applied his own makeup between convulsions, and if that is true my hat is off to the man. I can barely put on decent eyeliner in the car when it's parked.

Hyde is genuinely alarming-looking: leering, hollow-eyed, malevolent. Barrymore's full-body work is just incredible as he shifts from Jekyll's regal carriage to Hyde's spidery hunchback walk. Every gesture is deliberate – it's like watching a ballet.

There's a great bit toward the end when Hyde pounces on Jekyll's best friend, in what ultimately turns out to be a lethal attack: He's like an animal or a little kid, all gangly arms and legs, merrily waving his walking stick like it's a deadly toy. And the transformational convulsions are pretty violent – this was clearly not an easy part to play. Skal writes that Barrymore was simultaneously playing the also-hunchbacked Richard III onstage in New York, and had to go away and rest in a sanitarium after it was all over. I certainly cannot blame him.

Drjekyllmrhyde My favorite part comes shortly after the midpoint of the movie. Hyde has seduced Gina and then thrown her over -- just because he's a jerk and can do that, I guess. He visits one of his underground haunts and begins his seduction routine on a new girl, pawing her shoulders and clavicle that's actually rather shocking considering the time period.

Gina, who's fallen on hard times, notices him in the bar and taps on his shoulder, apparently hoping to shame him. But Hyde's not a man, he's a monster!

Grinning maniacally, he grabs both ladies and hauls them over to a mirror, forcing Gina to look head-on at her own ruination. Then with his hideous long fingers, he strokes the younger girl's perfect cheekbone, and gestures toward the ruined Gina -- forcing one to contemplate her present and the other, her future. Hyde holds them like that for a moment and then, cackling, ditches them both and heads into the street, pausing in the doorway for a contemptuous lift of his hat (from his ridiculously pointy head). He knows that ruination and decay lie within us all. Hyde is a villain who is thoroughly self-aware.

I also dug Jekyll's patterned dressing-gown. Want!

--Anne Elisabeth Dillon

Images, from top: Saintly Dr. Jekyll tends to one of Edinburgh's downtrodden; one of the early title cards; Hyde forces two women to look at themselves. Courtesy Famous Players-Lasky Corp., Paramount Pictures.