Star: John Barrymore
All were also shorts, though running times varied from the split reel of Horrible Hyde to the fifty minutes of Ein Seltsamer Fall. The first feature length adaptation wouldn’t show up until 1920 and that’s the one most people remember from the silent era. It was a Famous Players-Lasky picture, a company formed by the merger of eight independent companies and which would acquire its best known name, Paramount, in 1927. It was directed by John S Robertson, a Canadian who apparently never did better, though he did go on to make films like Tess of the Storm Country and The Phantom of Paris. The star was a major one, John Barrymore, but he was best known at this point for his stage work. This role cemented his fame on film and he became one of the biggest names of the decade, playing the title roles in Sherlock Holmes, Beau Brummel and Don Juan. He didn’t pick up his nickname of ‘The Great Profile’ until around 1924, so it’s surprising to see him almost always from the side here, as if to live up to that future name.
All this is keeping Jekyll busy, so he has precious little time for social engagements like the dinner at Sir George Carew’s, to which he arrives late. Except for his equally gentlemanly bearing, Carew, supposedly Jekyll’s mentor and certainly the father of Millicent, the young lady whom he is vaguely wooing, is close to being his opposite. He reads the gossip pages and The Sporting Life and, while he has brought up his daughter ‘in sheltered innocence’, is clearly no innocent himself. ‘There isn’t much in life Sir George has overlooked,’ his servant tells Jekyll. Carew raises the dual nature of man over wine, claiming that Jekyll is neglecting himself by being so devoted to others. He taunts him with the suggestion that his strong self is fearless but his weak self is afraid of experience. ‘A man cannot destroy the savage in him by denying his impulses,’ he proclaims. ‘The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.’ And off they all go to the music hall, where Carew can have an Italian dancer, Miss Gina, embrace Jekyll to tempt his dark side.
Enhancements are clearly added for the next shot, after a cut, as his frame becomes more skeletal and his fingers elongate. He hunches but with more control than Cruze had. He leers, his eyes remaining his most prominent feature until he takes off his hat to display a conical cranium. His pristine hair falls wildly. Unlike the spastic chimpanzee take of King Baggot, Barrymore becomes like the stereotypical Jew, surely taking Fagin as an influence. He’s controlled, very knowing, always planning. He’s much closer to an evil character than the previous adaptations had attempted, at least to our modern way of thinking. We don’t generally think of evil as an animalistic urge nowadays, instead seeing it as a deliberate choice to not do what we know is good. Prior takes on Mr Hyde had been of monsters who aren’t able to understand what they’re doing, characters who we might even categorise as victims. Barrymore’s Hyde refuses to follow suit; he’s an evil soul through and through, a creature with the good in him deliberately removed.
Throughout Barrymore dominates, but he’s given some great assistance from the crew. There are more and better sets. There are actual costumes. There’s thought given to how the shots were made. We see people from three distances: framed within a set, framed together in a group and up close as individuals. There’s some real art in how those groupings are put together too, with composition of frame very much in mind. We might take such concepts for granted today, but the two prior versions that survive are from an era when the camera was a static creature, in front of which actors did their jobs. It recorded what it saw rather than played a part in telling a story. The gap between 1913 and 1920 might have been only seven years but it marked a couple of generations of technological improvements and a century in the understanding of cinematic art. Comparing this version with those from 1912 or 1913 is like comparing apples and oranges, but it was still a pretty decent apple even for 1920.
The ladies are notable too, though it focuses much more on the men. Martha Mansfield looks much more like a suitable prize for Dr Jekyll than the ladies in earlier versions, believable as a beautiful society lady. She gets some opportunity while awaiting his arrival at her father’s party, neatly demonstrating a strong disappointment to us while trying not to show it to those around her. She also gets to play a decent part in the ending, in which she’s menaced by Hyde, who, from the front, looks bizarrely like Iggy Pop playing Nosferatu, but is released by Jekyll seizing enough control to take poison. Nita Naldi, Rudolph Valentino’s most frequent co-star, gets some opportunity too as Miss Gina, even in this, her screen debut. I enjoyed an odd bar scene more, though, where not one but two uncredited ladies (presumably of the evening) try to come on to Hyde and he manipulates them both magnificently. It’s great choreography, from him and them both, but as he leaves that scene triumphant, so does he leave the film. A new star was born.