Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Sheldon Lewis) 1920



Director: J Charles Haydon

"An Apostle of Hell!"

Among the many fine vintages in the Manor's cellars we find the occasional bottle fit only for the least sophisticated of palates, and so it is with our cinematic offerings. Dr Jekyll - no longer himself - lurks in the back alleys of 1920 New York in this quickie thriller designed to cash in on the success of Paramount's rival (??) production with John Barrymore. It's a horrid affair all round...

Synopsis:
In this present-day variation on the story, Dr. Jekyll is intrigued by one of the patients at his free clinic, a child suffering from an unexplained malady, "dead and yet alive", living proof of his theory that man has no soul. Jekyll's research follows the familiar and inevitable path -- a night at the opera with his fiancee Bernice is forgotten as he toils in his laboratory, finally drinking the elixir of transformation.

His alter-ego Edward Hyde revenges himself on Jekyll and his acquaintances, embarking upon a crime spree that climaxes with a fatal assault on Bernice's "chum" Danvers Carew. As the police dragnet closes around Hyde, Jekyll summons Bernice to his laboratory to hear his confession, but Hyde takes over and Bernice is murdered. The police capture Hyde, and though they are later startled to find Jekyll in his place, he transforms back into Hyde during interrogation and is sent to the electric chair. As the switch is pulled, Jekyll awakes in his study, relieved to find it has all been a dream.

Notes:
Under normal circumstances, we would regard giving away a film's ending as a despicable act of callousness on a par with stealing a kitten from a blind orphan. In our defence, there must be few people reading this far who don't know how Dr Jekyll's life story is supposed to end, and fewer still whose enjoyment of the current film would be marred in any way by knowing that it turns out differently.

Before and after: Sheldon Lewis as Jekyll and Hyde
This Jekyll and Hyde was a low-budget response to the Paramount production starring John Barrymore, which found it's way into cinemas only a few weeks behind the other, far classier film. It was released by the Pioneer Film Corporation, an undistinguished distribution company operational between 1918 and 1921, and was overseen by producer Louis Meyer, not to be confused with the more famous Louis B. Mayer whose company later became the last 'M' of MGM.

Meyer relocated the story to the present day, ostensibly to ward off any accusations of copyright infringement from Paramount but more likely for the purpose of keeping down production costs. Unfortunately, that tight budget shows though on screen, and the whole package can't help but look like the hastily-assembled cash-in that it obviously was. Horror historian Denis Gifford makes the valid claim that Pioneer's production was a throwback to the James Cruze - starring one-reeler of almost a decade earlier - and during that decade, movies had come a long way.


The main offender was director and scenarist J. Charles Haydon, who was disappointed enough with the finished film to have his name removed from the credits. You could excuse his by-now customary re-arrangement of the cast (Jekyll's fiancee, previously known as Alice, Agnes or Millicent, is now called Bernice, and is the niece of Dr Lanyon and 'chum' of Danvers Carew - who was her father in the Sullivan stage play), but not the staggering lack of imagination that tarnishes the rest of the film.


Jekyll's theories seem to hinge on a few vague notions of atheism, prompting much simplistic sermonising in the intertitles. "Henry, Henry," Bernice scolds him at one point, "why do you distress yourself with morbid thoughts - let God's sunshine into your heart."  Hyde's motivations aren't much more profound. His crimes amount to little more than petty theft and arson, which result in a few semi-farcical chases with a bumbling police force.

Sheldon Lewis grimaces
Sheldon Lewis, known to serial fans as the 'Clutching Hand' who imperilled Pearl White in The Exploits of Elaine (1916), is not particularly inspiring in either of his roles. His Jekyll looks understandably insipid when compared to Barrymore's, and as Hyde he uses a primitive wig-and-fang ensemble, limiting his characterisation to a fairly standard collection of twitches and grimaces. With a few exceptions, (D.W. Griffith's 1926 Orphans of the Storm for example), Lewis relied heavily on similar cartoon villains for the rest of his career, and was still recycling his Clutching Hand routine in The Phantom in 1931.


And so we come back to the ending, which is all you need to know about the film in a nutshell. To those of us who find ourselves defending silent movies to unbelievers who routinely find them dull and faintly comical, this Jekyll and Hyde commits the unpardonable sin of conforming to all the worst stereotypes. The whole 'why, it was all just a dream!' cop-out (surely already growing stale by 1920) comes after forty-five minutes of over-the-top acting and simple-minded moralising, and still the point is driven home one more time for good measure. "Bernice - Bernice -", cries Jekyll on awakening from his nightmare, "I believe in God - I have a soul - and - and I still have you!"  


Whether he still has the audience by this point is another matter entirely.


End Credits:
Sheldon Lewis (Dr Jekyll / Mr Hyde), Alexander Shannon (Dr Lanyon), Dora Mills Adams (Mrs Lanyon), Harold Forshay (Edward Utterson), Gladys Field (Bernice Lanyon), Leslie Austin (Danvers Carew).
Scenario: J Charles Haydon, based on the novel by R.L. Stevenson, Producer: Louis Meyer.
Pioneer Films, USA
Running time 46 mins.

Availability:
For completists only: Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (Alpha Video), which also contains the Thanhouser version of 1912.

5 comments:

  1. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a such a classic!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Hi Queenie (can I call you Queenie?), thanks for visiting. You're right, 'Jekyll and Hyde' is a classic. But THIS Jekyll and Hyde? Not so sure. I'm reminded of the words of the immortal Groucho; "I've had a wonderful evening, but this wasn't it."

    ReplyDelete
  3. Mary Reilly22 April, 2012

    Hello i am Studying Interior Design and currently doing my final project for the university on scenography in the Jekyll and Hyde movies. For that i have to watch every single movie i can find and frankly i don't have the money to buy each and every one. Isn't this movie public domain yet? If yes where can i download it from? If not is it uploaded somewhere where i can watch it?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tricky one, Mary. I can't find this one online - at least not for free. You can find a brief clip here; http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HzngoCcLWJA
      Otherwise, the DVD can still be found on Amazon for about three pounds / five dollars, though the picture quality is not great.
      Email me if you're stuck; thedevilscaretaker[at]gmail[dot]com

      Delete
  4. Dottor Livia Tecchi Jekyll
    http://i41.tinypic.com/5f0s9f.jpg
    Mister Tecchi Livia Hyde
    http://i42.tinypic.com/wasl1v.jpg

    ReplyDelete