Friday 22 January 2016

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1913)

Director: Herbert Brenon
Star: King Baggot
The 1912 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde featured James Cruze in the lead, a former snake oil salesman from Utah who appeared in over a hundred films between 1911 and 1919. However, he’s remembered a lot more today for being a director, making 72 films between 1919 and 1938, plus a couple more earlier. This seemed to be an odd trend for early Jekyll and Hyde films, as Hobart Bosworth, who played the role first, directed almost sixty films himself, and King Baggot, who succeeded Cruze in this film, is also best known as a director today, even though he was more prolific as an actor and had carved out a name for himself. He was especially fond of playing roles in disguise and even played all ten parts in Shadows, an innovative 1914 short. Six of them appeared in the same scene at one point, thus requiring the camera to be exposed six separate times, a full decade before Buster Keaton’s Sherlock, Jr. As a director, though, he made films as important as the 1925 Raffles and especially Tumbleweeds, a William S Hart western.

Watching immediately after the 1912 version, it’s obvious that this 1913 one, from IMP, the Independent Moving Pictures Company of America, has the benefit of length and it uses that well early on, with a few scenes that involve much character development, surprising but welcome. This was a two reeler, which at 26 minutes ran over twice as long as its predecessor. A bunch of characters appear on screen from the outset and Dr Henry Jekyll is underlined as a good man because he devotes a great deal of his attentions to charity patients. Absolutely none of this was in the previous version which began with Jekyll drinking a potion and turning into Hyde. We’re not given much reason why he turns here, though, just one intertitle suggesting that he plans to set free his evil self in ‘the dead silence of the night’. I should add that this is suffering magnificently from delusions of poetic grandeur, which sadly fails to extend to the performance of Baggot, who consistently overdoes it as Jekyll, compared to Cruze, and goes truly wild as Hyde.
While Stevenson did describe Hyde as a ‘shrunken man’, Baggot takes that to ridiculous extremes here. I really don’t know what he was going for, but his take on Hyde suggests not evil but a spastic who has lost the control of his limbs. He doesn’t merely hunch, he waddles, somewhat like a demented duck, or, given that he has a cane that’s almost as tall as he is in such an extreme crouch, maybe he’s more like Yoda on acid. He grimaces too, outrageously. I can only imagine that he went for the sinister look of a yellow peril Chinaman and the motion of a chimpanzee. Whatever he did, it failed utterly in my book. Wikipedia says that he used ‘a variety of different greasepaints and a tangled mass of crepe hair’, but that’s not obvious in the print I saw, especially as Hyde wears a hat throughout. No wonder those who see him, such as club patrons and a new landlady, recoil from his presence. They’re less scared as bewildered. What could this creature be that’s leaping down the stairs at them?

So I hated Hyde. What I liked here was the rapid loss of control. Unlike most versions, including the prior one from 1912, Jekyll is in control of his transformations for a while until Hyde gradually takes over. Here, we take a while to get to the first change but, once we’re there, Hyde’s dominant from then on. He does change back into Jekyll, who promptly gestures toward the heavens and swears that, ‘Never again shall I tempt fate!’ Then he sits down to rest, watches his twitching hand tell him that he’s still not himself and changes right back into Hyde again. I liked this, but felt that it provided a different message to the usual standard of the era. Usually, Victorian horror tales or scientific romances warn us that we shouldn’t step into God’s shoes. Here, it’s more like the hysterical drug films that suggest that just a whiff of marijuana will give us jazz hands and prompt us to murder people. Baggot’s Hyde has much in common with films like Reefer Madness. ‘Dr Jekyll is a martyr to science,’ an intertitle suggests and we think Timothy Leary.
I realised a few other things watching this film. Had I played it first tonight, I might well have cut it some slack for its overacting, which is quintessential 1913. However, watching after the James Cruze version, I realise that I can’t do that. Cruze was far superior to Baggot as Jekyll and, as bad as he was as Hyde, he was far superior there too. While the first reel laughed at how it had time to build character, the second struggled to cram in the story before it ran out of time, meaning that the pace is wildly inconsistent; it’s leisurely for half its running time, almost as if that first reel was of a feature, then frenetic for the other half, as if it was a one reeler all along, just with a long prologue. Characters don’t play right either. One scene features Hyde attacking a crippled boy in the street, which, of course, prompts a mob to form on the fly. However, even though they have the perpetrator right there in their grasp, that mob is so polite that it lets him leave to write a cheque to the boy’s father instead of simply beating him to a pulp.

Finally, it’s worth mentioning that this film could be regarded as the first Universal monster movie. IMP was founded by Carl Laemmle in New York in 1909. Over three years he battled Thomas Edison’s patent infringement thugs, defending against no less than 289 legal actions filed by the Motion Picture Patents Company, while his fellow independents moved across country to Hollywood, where they could use fists and guns instead. He eventually emerged victorious in 1912, then relaunched IMP as the Universal Film Manufacturing Company and, after two final pictures in New York, moved to Hollywood. Laemmle’s son, Carl Laemmle Jr, was the real driving force behind the Universal monster movies, which began with The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, but really found their niche with Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931. Junior famously had to convince Senior to green light Dracula but, eighteen years earlier, it was Senior who produced Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, the real beginning of the Universal monsters.

The 1913 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde can be watched for free online at YouTube (here’s another version with an interesting modern score) and the Internet Archive.

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