Sunday 24 January 2016

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920)

Director: John S Robertson
Star: John Barrymore
After two lost films and two more which I’ve reviewed, other versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde were made that are either lost or unavailable to watch today. Herbert Brenon’s take for IMP wasn’t the only one from 1913, for instance; there was a second one directed by Frank E Woods with Murdock MacQuarrie playing the title roles. This is a particularly important version as it was made both in Britain and in colour by the Kinemacolor Company. Joseph A Golden of the Crystal Film Company directed a comedy version in 1914 called Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Done to a Frazzle. That year, the Germans produced Ein Seltsamer Fall too (or A Strange Case), directed by Max Mack and with Alwin Neuß back in a role he had played for August Blom four years earlier. In 1915, the year of Horrible Hyde, directed by Howard Hansell with Jerold Hevener, there was even a genderbent approach to the story, courtesy of the Vitagraph Company of America, with stage actress Helen Gardner playing both Miss Jekyll and Madame Hyde. All seem lost.

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.
With the running time of a feature, this version is able to relax and build the story slowly but surely, not ditch whatever seems least important to fit onto however many reels. Barrymore is vastly superior as Dr Henry Jekyll than anyone earlier whose work has survived to this day. He looks precisely like an ‘idealist and philanthropist’ should, as a gentleman with a cape and a top hat. He’s always the tallest man in the scene, as if he’s just a little closer to godliness than anyone around him. He runs a ‘human repair shop’, as if to highlight how routine such work has become for him but which his dedication has him continue. However, he still experiments and that’s what prompts objections from colleagues. Dr Richard Lanyon, ‘as conservative as Jekyll was progressive,’ doesn’t like his use of a microscope, through which we even get certain interesting shots. ‘You’re tampering with the supernatural,’ he suggests. Science has clearly moved on in the last century and change.

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.
And so is wakened ‘a sense of his baser nature’ for the first time. By the point that the argument reaches its logical conclusion, we’ve passed a leisurely 25 minutes. ‘Wouldn’t it be marvellous if the two natures in man could be separated,’ suggests Jekyll, ‘housed in different bodies.’ Carew claims that as impossible and Jekyll accepts the challenge, even offending his mentor in the process. He works days and nights in his lab to find a way ‘to yield to every evil impulse - yet leave the soul untouched’ until at last he figures it out and he changes in the moment that everyone had been waiting for in 1920. Barrymore hesitates a little, like his predecessors, but with much more power, then reacts violently, contorts, hides his face and emerges as Hyde, all done without make-up to aid the transformation. That concept makes sense to John Barrymore, the noted stage actor, where make-up could only be used in a way that could be highlighted by light filters. Scenes like this on stage required acting, facial manipulation and clever trickery.

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.
And so ‘Hyde set forth upon a sea of license - to do what he, as Jekyll, could not do.’ We know the rest of the story by now, and it proceeds according to Sullivan’s stage adaptation that earlier versions had also used as primary source, but to degrees as never before. Hyde frequents bars and opium dens. The child in the street scene is much better handled and it leads to plot details not attempted before, namely the cheque being signed by Jekyll rather than Hyde. When Carew questions him on it, he replies vigorously, ‘What right do you have to question me? You who first tempted me!’ Then he changes in front of him, with the aid of a double exposure, literally leaps onto him, beats him with his cane and bludgeons him to death. It’s brutal stuff and, in the print I saw, his eyes are entirely white. That may be the first time ever that I’ve benefitted from a lesser quality print of a silent movie. There’s even a freakish double exposure of a spider climbing into his four poster bed to attack his conscience. It’s a ghostly thing but still scary.

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.
As dominant as Barrymore is, he was far from the only actor on screen and others do deserve credit. The most recognisable face today, at least to silent film buffs, surely belongs to an uncredited Louis Wolheim, whose unmistakable features were given to the proprietor of the dance hall in which Carew introduces Dr Jekyll to Miss Gina. Wolheim looked like the stereotypical thug and his intertitles play that up by providing him with a broad Cockney accent, but he was nothing like it in person, speaking four languages, teaching mathematics and earning a degree in engineering. His introduction to acting was by Barrymore’s brother, Lionel, who told him, ‘With that face, you could make a fortune in the theater.’ He acted alongside Lionel, John and their sister, Ethel, on numerous occasions. He’s mostly known for his silent pictures because he died in 1931, but his few films with sound show that he would have easily survived the transition. He was great in All Quiet on the Western Front and Adolphe Menjou won an Oscar for the role which Wolheim was to play in The Front Page.

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.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I have just purchased a 16mm print of this film