Monday 25 January 2016

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920)

Director: J Charles Haydon
Star: Sheldon Lewis
While the Famous Players-Lasky feature adaptation of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde with John Barrymore was the most prominent silent film version of the story by far, it was far from the only one. In fact, it wasn’t even the only one released in 1920. In Germany, F W Murnau made an unlicensed take on the story called Der Januskopf or The Two-Faced Man, which is sadly lost today. Like his unlicensed adaptation of Dracula two years later, Nosferatu, the names were changed to protect from legal action, so Conrad Veidt was tasked with playing Dr Warren and Mr O’Connor instead. This version also featured Béla Lugosi, in the role of Dr Warren’s servant, three years before his first film in the United States. Unfortunately the other version to survive is this one, a forty minute version from Pioneer Film Corporation that’s too long to be interesting and too short to have any substance. Then again, it doesn’t need to be any longer. I’m not sure if I could take much more of Sheldon Lewis’s Edward Hyde.

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.
By the time we meet Edward Hyde, we’ve found that Sheldon Lewis is far from the worst thing about the film. During the early scenes we’re bombarded by intertitles, introducing what seems like everybody in a five mile radius of the characters we’re watching. Many are utterly redundant; do we really need cards to tell us ‘In the afternoon’ or ‘At the country club’? Perhaps the intention of the filmmakers is to distract us from the fact that it fails on every comparison to the Barrymore version, released only a month earlier in New York, but the very same month in California. The sets are notably sparser and also fewer in quantity; the costumes don’t fit as well, mocking the suggestion that these are well to do folk we’re watching; and the cast is so thin on the ground that Jekyll’s non-appearance at dinner at Danvers Carew’s is especially obvious. Mrs Lanyon and her daughter are the only ladies there; Bernice can’t gossip with her friends as the gentleman drink wine in this version. She’s left out to dry.

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 best bits are the intertitles, once they calm down a little, not only because Hyde looks more demonic in chalk than in Lewis’s ill-advised portrayal but because the painted images to illustrate the point aren’t badly done at all. By the time the film ended, I could see every scene shot for the picture being removed and replaced by a progression of intertitles, to make this a sort of motion picture picture book. Alas, that isn’t what happened, so we’re forced to watch Lewis as Dr Evil, I mean Dr Jekyll, gurn like a madman and waggle his fingers like they’re tentacles. Jazz hands, baby, jazz hands! He must be auditioning for a very early version of Reefer Madness, just in case King Baggot’s spastic chimpanzee routine doesn’t land the job first. The more silent versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde that I see, the more I respect John Barrymore’s performance, though I would love to see what Conrad Veidt conjured up for Murnau. While that film itself is no longer believed to exist, scripts and production notes do. I should seek those out.

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!
The other angle that’s new here shows up when we think the film is about to end. Mostly this progresses as we expect, though with the surely unintended comedic element of having Hyde be chased by a bunch of what seem to be Keystone Kops. Jekyll sends Bernice a note to have her come to his lab. He wants the opportunity to explain, now that he’s lost her and she’s marrying another and he’s all pouty, but he turns into Hyde first and kills her, so we expect him to take poison and the film to end, but no! Hyde is actually arrested and locked up. We’re not in Kansas any more, Dorothy! ‘Hours of fruitless anguish,’ suggest the increasingly desperate intertitles. One even reads simply, ‘Despair.’ By the time the cops decide to work the old third degree on Hyde, he’s turned back to Jekyll. An old woman identifies him, before he changes right in front of the cops and confesses. Into the electric chair he goes and... and... it’s all a dream. They have to get moving or he and Bernice will be late for the opera.

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.

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