Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (John Barrymore) 1920

Director: John S. Robertson
"For some time, Jekyll renounced the dark indulgences of Hyde -- until in an hour of weakness, the demon, long caged, burst forth more malignant than before."
And so we call in at number 9 Barnsbury Road, Soho for an adventure in sin and degradation from the evil Edward Hyde!... "The Great Profile" John Barrymore brings Jekyll and his second self to life in this prestige production distributed by Paramount Pictures. 

Dr Jekyll,"idealist and philanthropist", pursues his researches in medicine when not treating London's poor in the free clinic he runs entirely at his own expense. One night there is a social engagement at the home of Sir George Carew, father of Jekyll's fiancée Millicent. Sir George is sceptical of Jekyll's saintly reputation, and gently mocks his principles; "Your really strong man fears nothing. It is the weak one who is afraid of -- experience".

Later that night, Carew takes the men to a music hall where Jekyll catches the eye of an exotic dancer named Gina. Carew arranges an introduction, but the dashing young doctor makes his excuses and leaves. Even so, Carew's taunts have left their mark on Jekyll: he becomes fascinated by the idea that man's evil nature could be wholly separated from the good. "Think what it would mean!" he tells his friend Lanyon, "To yield to every evil impulse - yet leave the soul untouched!" Jekyll withdraws to his laboratory: a potion is concocted, and soon his experiments bear fruit in the form of his hideous alter-ego, Edward Hyde.

Hyde and the music hall proprietor
(Louis Wollheim)
Hyde finds lodgings in a seedy Soho backstreet, and returns to the music hall to claim Gina for himself. But his appetite for debauchery is too strong and he soon tires of her. He throws her out on the streets, trolling the gin mills and opium dens in search of new diversions and other women. The next time he comes across Gina she is a haggard ruin; he responds to her sorry state with cruel mockery.

Meanwhile, Jekyll's friends are growing concerned about his long unexplained absences, and about Hyde's influence over his affairs. Millicent confesses to her father that she hasn't heard anything from her fiancée for days, and Sir George resolves to hold Jekyll to account for his actions. He and Lanyon later cross paths with Hyde, preventing him from violently attacking a small boy who got in his way. Their suspicions grow deeper when Hyde produces a cheque in recompense that bears Jekyll's signature.

Sir George finally confronts Jekyll in his laboratory, demanding an explanation. Jekyll refuses, saying; "What right have you to question me - you, who first tempted me?" As Sir George looks on in horror, Jekyll transforms into Hyde before his eyes. He tries to escape, but is overpowered by Hyde and bludgeoned to death.

Hyde, over Sir George's
dead body
Lanyon discovers the body. Jekyll's colleagues pursue Hyde back to his lodgings in Barnsbury Road, but he evades capture by returning to Jekyll's house and consuming the transforming potion. Jekyll is reunited with Millicent, but his promises of devotion ring hollow; he knows that it is only a matter of time before Hyde once again gains control...

The transformation scene had been the centrepiece of any actor's portrayal of Jekyll and Hyde ever since Richard Mansfield first astonished theatregoers with his before-your-very-eyes metamorphosis in T.R. Sullivan's 1887 play. Some found Mansfield's homicidal Hyde a bit too astonishing: in a perverse tribute to his skill, he was for a time suspected of the Jack the Ripper murders by audience members who refused to believe that any sane man could fake psychosis so convincingly.

John Barrymore's big scene comes half an hour into the 1920 film version. Alone in his laboratory, Barrymore's handsome Dr Jekyll raises a glass vial to his lips and hesitantly swallows its contents. Immediately he stiffens, clawing at his throat with an expression of mingled pain and fear. His hair falls over his face as he convulses violently, doubled up in agony. When he raises his head, the Great Profile is twisted into Hyde's leering countenance. Only then does the camera start to work it's own magic. It cuts away to show Hyde's elongating fingers, then returns to a face rendered more hideous by the attentions of the make-up man.

By 1920 there had already been five screen versions of the Jekyll and Hyde story, but Barrymore's efforts surpassed them all. He was at the time the most prominent member of America's foremost acting dynasty, one that continues to the present day with his granddaughter Drew. Respected equally on stage and screen, he performed on both concurrently -- Jekyll and Hyde was shot during the day while Barrymore appeared as Richard III by night, an exhausting schedule that reportedly brought him to the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Players-Lasky's adaptation was put together in their Long Island studios with a scenario expanded to six reels and production values increased to match. The good-girl / bad-girl female leads invented by Sullivan for his stage play (named Millicent and Gina this time around) were allowed more screen time than before, offering insight into Jekyll's motivations and adding a lecherous tone to Hyde's formerly one-dimensional villainy. This sexual subtext is underlined by frequent borrowings from Oscar Wilde's 'The Picture of Dorian Gray'. Several of Wilde's epigrams appear as intertitles, and the rakish Sir George Carew comes across as a thinly-disguised clone of Dorian's Lord Henry Wotton.

Nita Naldi
Worthy of note here is the bad-girl half of the pair, ex-Zeigfeld Girl Nita Naldi in her first major role, two years before she set the screen on fire alongside Valentino in Blood and Sand. Naldi's earthy sex appeal as the "fimous h'Italian dancer" Gina far outshines the pretty but bland Millicent (Martha Mansfield), and her scenes alongside the lecherous Hyde are some of the film's best.

Barrymore's Hyde mostly avoids the histrionics of his cinematic predecessors (see the1913 King Baggott version for details). He's not the simian brute of earlier (and later) films, but a stealthy arachnid, menacingly motionless until stimulated into sudden outbursts of violence. And if the scuttling walk and spindly fingers were not enough of a clue to Hyde's true nature, viewers are referred to the dream sequence late in the film, when a gigantic spider with Hyde's face crawls onto the sleeping Jekyll's bed.

On its release at New York's Rivoli Theatre in March 1920, the critics lavished the film and its leading man with praise. The New York Times called Barrymore's performance "one of pure motion picture pantomime on as high a level as has ever been attained by anyone". Variety called it "a fine, dignified production", despite labelling the story "ridiculous, by modern standards".

Another reviewer enthused, "one leaves the theatre with the belief that motion pictures are on the verge of a new era", and perhaps he had a point.

End Credits:
John Barrymore (Dr Henry Jekyll/Edward Hyde), Brandon Hurst (Sir George Carew), Martha Mansfield (Millicent Carew), Charles Lane (Dr Richard Lanyon), Nita Naldi (Gina), J. Malcolm Dunn (John Utterson), Cecil Clovelly (Edward Enfield), George Stevens (Poole), Louis Wolheim (Music Hall Owner), Julia Hurley (Hyde's Landlady).
Producer: Adolph Zukor, Scenario: Clara S. Beranger, Art Direction: Robert M. Haas (architecture) and Charles O. Seessel (decorations), Cinematography: Roy Overbaugh, Assistant Director: Shaw Lovett. Based on the novel 'The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde' by RL Stevenson, and the play adapted by Thomas Sullivan.
Famous Players-Lasky, USA
Running Time 79 mins.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Kino Video)

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