Thursday 21 January 2016

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1912)

Director: Lucius Henderson
Star: James Cruze
This month marks the 130th birthday of one of the pivotal stories of horror literature, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson, which was first published on 5th January, 1886. Of course, it’s seen many adaptations to film, averaging almost one per year even though the first didn’t arrive until 1908, but the earliest are sadly lost today. That first version was a one reeler from Selig Polyscope, which was probably directed by Otis Turner, who also directed the earliest surviving version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, made two years later. It wasn’t an adaptation of the novella per se but of the stage version first mounted at the Boston Museum in 1887 when the original was only a year old. This adaptation was written by Thomas Russell Sullivan, who added the romantic angle which continued on in most versions that would be made over the succeeding century, thus blurring this with the original in popular culture and especially in the minds of those who haven’t read the novella.

The stage version starred Mr Richard Mansfield, who continued in the role almost until his death in 1907, so a new actor was needed for this film. Hobart Bosworth was new to the screen in 1908 but he would go on to make almost three hundred movies as an actor and sixty more as a director. His career successfully survived the transition to sound but decreased in prominence until his last picture, Sin Town, in 1942. Of course, being 1908, it was a one reel film which compressed the four act play to a mere sixteen minutes. The next version ran seventeen and was made in Denmark in 1910 by August Blom for the Nordisk Film Kompangni, with Alwin Neuß in the lead. The former is known today primarily for Atlantis, his pioneering feature from 1912 and the latter for playing Sherlock Holmes in a string of movies in the 1910s. I don’t know if Blom’s version was closer to the original novella or the succeeding play, but it wouldn’t be much of a shock to find that it, along with most later versions, was based more on the latter.
The first version still extant today is the 1912 version from the Thanhouser Company, directed by Lucius Henderson and starring James Cruze in the double roles of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. In an interview in 1963, an actor by the name of Harry Benham, who had played many lead roles for Thanhouser, claimed that it was actually him in some scenes as Hyde. If you wonder why he didn’t own up sooner, it’s probably that the role is historically important but artistically pretty awful. Cruze impresses as Dr Jekyll, endowing the character with a surprising amount of natural emotion for the time and letting him flow well through the film. Neither he nor Benham impress as Mr Hyde, who is an overblown clutching hunchback with horrible teeth. We see both quickly, as this attempts to recount the story in a mere twelve minutes! They could fit more than that onto a single reel in 1912 and the biggest problem the film has is that it’s condensed too far; it could have done with a few more minutes to allow for a little progression between scenes.

Given the restrictions inherent in the running time, it gets right down to business with Jekyll preparing to test a theory expounded in Graham on Drugs that ‘the taking of certain drugs can separate man into two beings - one representing EVIL, the other GOOD.’ He does so by mixing a formula, steeling himself to the task and then quaffing it down. He changes almost instantaneously, waiting only to sit down, and there’s no doubt that the effect was achieved by having Cruze change costume and make-up and try his best to replicate his prior position so the editor could splice effectively. It’s surprisingly effective, mostly because Cruze found almost exactly the right position. Unfortunately, the subtleties that he shows throughout the film as Jekyll, which include his initial hesitation to drink the formula, his polite wooing of ‘the minister’s daughter’ and even a sad acceptance later in the movie that he can’t keep from changing any more, are threatened by his activities as Hyde, who chews up every piece of scenery he can find.
It’s been a while since I’ve read Stevenson’s novella, but it was never really about good and evil and had depths and analogies to the change. The many plays and movies which adapted it gradually skewed the piece, though, into a horrific morality tale and we’ve lost sight of the original. Back in 1912, apparently, evil wasn’t a subtly creeping thing but a flamboyant raging creature. We hardly recognise this caricature as evil today, and we might easily wonder instead if the wild rampaging fits are due to mental illness or too much drink. Given how unusually natural Cruze plays Jekyll for most of the film, I wonder if his lapse into traditional silent era gesturing towards the end was a deliberate attempt to depict how Dr Jekyll was aware that he was losing control. If so, I’m even more impressed by his performance, but if not, it’s still a surprisingly effective one, especially given the time. Hyde, of course, is a lost cause, so outrageous that the portrayal could only have been accepted in the early silent era.

There’s little else to comment on, because this version is so condensed that it really comes down to the story and Cruze’s performance. The script has Jekyll announced as the ‘accepted suitor of the minister’s daughter’, but only so that an uncontrolled change turns him into Hyde, who scares the poor young lady and then murders her father in cold blood, setting the stage for the final act. It’s notable that this scene contains little but ‘a park, a policeman and a pretty girl,’ as Chaplin described his base requirements for making a comedy at Keystone two years later. This is far from a comedy, even if Hyde’s actions are a bit close to one to today’s eyes, but the formula held (pun not intended) for a thriller too. What’s surprising is that, after the inevitable end, when Jekyll can’t keep Hyde from dominating and takes poison, he dies but doesn’t change back in front of the arriving throng. I can’t remember another version that does that, as it leaves an odd ending. With Hyde agreeably dead, where’s Jekyll? They’ll be searching for years.

The 1912 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde can be watched for free online at YouTube and the Internet Archive.

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