Star: Sheldon Lewis
The most interesting thing that can be said about this version is that it was produced by Louis Meyer. No, I didn’t say it was interesting, just that it was the most interesting. And no, that’s not Louis B Mayer. That one formed MGM and co-founded the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. This one presented a 1919 western called Impossible Catherine and then produced this. End of career. Amazingly, Hyde was not the end of Sheldon Lewis’s career, but it feels like it should have been. He’s not too bad as Dr Henry Jekyll, the usual dapper and dedicated saviour of the poor and needy. Sure, his idea of thinking is to look directly at us through the camera and do nothing, but I’ve seen worse. He’s also a little old at 52 to woo the 31 year old Gladys Field, the inappropriate boundary of half your age plus seven years explains that she’s two years too young. She amazingly came out of retirement to portray his fiancée, Bernice Lanyon; she had made 42 films in 1910 and 1911, four more by 1915, then nothing until this. End of career.
But then we do meet Edward Hyde, after Jekyll drinks his potion and changes. The transformations in this version are simplistic, being handled by editing rather than careful placement or double exposure. Hyde is somewhat like a combination of every one of the prior portrayals that I’ve seen. He has James Cruze’s hunch, King Baggot’s spastic lack of control and, well, Barrymore’s hat. That’s about all there is from the Barrymore version because there’s no subtlety here at all, at least not that I could tell in a relatively poor print that blurs facial details into white. I really do wish that I could see his face, but as it is, he’s like the stereotypical paedophile menace. He wears a hat, a raincoat and a mad grin to lie in wait to seize young ladies in the street. I was honestly surprised when he grabs an adult woman rather than a pre-pubescent girl. ‘An Apostle of Hell,’ suggests the intertitle, but I got nothing of evil here. I saw more of a Mike Myers playing a kangaroo with the DTs sort of thing.
The intertitles also highlight how this version carries a religious message. In Barrymore’s, science clearly trumped religion as the focus of the script, even during discussions about good and evil or the ability to split the soul. Here, science is almost never mentioned, because it’s all about religion. The point at which this is hammered home is when Jekyll explains to Bernice that he’s puzzled by an odd case of a child who is currently in his care. ‘The child is dead and yet alive,’ he says. ‘It almost proves my theory that there is no soul.’ Quite how he got there, I have no idea, and quite how that progresses on to ‘my theory that man has two natures - good and evil’, I have no idea either. However, it does, and the religious angle is driven home by the intertitles. ‘Oh God, help me!’ Jekyll cries. ‘Save me from the penalty of my disbelief.’ These get more verbose. ‘Surrendering himself to his evil genius,’ he becomes, ‘Convulsed with remorse for the crimes of his demon nature,’ I’d certainly read a novel by whoever wrote these cards!
I wonder if anyone’s done a scholarly study of ‘but it was all a dream’ movies, perhaps in the wake of the furore over the ninth season of Dallas in 1986. Robot Monster almost got away with the concept because of the consistent childish innocence and ridiculous sci-fi shenanigans of that movie, but I’m not sure that anything else ever has. Certainly this one makes us feel cheated, but it was probably explained as a way to give Dr Jekyll a second shot at a life doing God’s works after the Tempter visited him in his dreams and demonstrated in no uncertain terms what his ‘theories’ would lead to. He only had to start thinking about the two natures of man and he was out there raping and murdering like an animal. I guess this is a happy ending. Jekyll looks at his beloved and states, ‘I believe in God - I have a soul - and - I still have you.’ All’s right with the world, ladies and gentlemen. Thank you, Dr Jekyll, for this hilarious lesson in morality. Elvis has left the building. Goodnight, John Boy. That’s all, folks.