Movie Critique – Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Stars: 5 / 5

Recommendation: Well made adaptation of a horror plot that entertains as well as gives chills even after a century. A gem of a movie from the golden age of silent era of cinema which can come toe to toe against any of the talkies that have come since then. 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a 1920 American silent horror film starring John Barrymore, Brandon Hurst, Martha Mansfield, Charles Willis Lane and Nita Naldi in the lead cast. It is one of the earlier film adaptations of 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.

Directed by John S. Robertson, the screenplay was written by Clara Beranger who based her work also on the 1887 theatrical presentation of the novel by Thomas Russell Sullivan. Produced by Adolph Zukor and Jesse L. Lasky, although Lasky's name is not seen in the opening title. Also note that screenplay is termed as "Scenario". Film is set in late Victorian London, sometime in 1850s. This was revitalized by Paul Killiam. 

Dr. Henry Jekyll (portrayed by John Barrymore) is a doctor and a scientist engaged to be married to Millicent Carewe (portrayed by Martha Mansfield). A dinner table conversation leads Dr. Jekyll to experiment on finding both the good and evil sides of a person within themselves, and to see which side would dominate eventually. Unfortunately Dr. Jekyll conducts the experiment on himself resulting in bringing out Mr. Edward Hyde, his evil self. Rest of the film follows how Mr. Hyde wants to dominate Dr. Jekyll while the doctor is trying to control Mr. Hyde; and the consequences he faces as a result of all this experimentation.

I had recently watched Spencer Tracey's 1941 version of the film and was very disturbed at the way the novel was presented bordering on sadism and cruelty towards women. So when John Barrymore's version aired later, I watched it with much hesitance. It still had the sadism and sexuality in the film but it was much more toned down for that time it was made. 

John Barrymore, as I mentioned in the previous post about 1937 American mystery film Bulldog Drummond Comes Back that he was a master of disguise. However, we get to see that he also has the ability to contort and change his face and body as needed. So some of the scenes in the film were not makeup or disguise but in fact Barrymore's contortion making him change from Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde. The scenes he had used makeup and disguise to become the evil Mr. Hyde were considered one of the ghastly creations ever at that time. 

Again we see deviations from the novel, as the screenplay for this film leaned heavily on the 1887 theatrical presentation instead. Hence we see female characters for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde supporting them, as opposed to not being in existence in the novel. Because of the presence of Millicent and Gina (portrayed by Nita Naldi) and the cruelty towards Gina gives a sexual edge to the plot which was absent from the novel.

Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll was not as pious and holy as Beranger presented in her screenplay. In her version, she created a clear line of difference between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde; almost giving it the feel of black and white. While Stevenson's character was complete grey be it he was Dr. Jekyll or Mr. Hyde. We see in here an extremely handsome Dr. Jekyll and a very hideous Mr. Hyde, clear contrast to each other. 

I failed to connect this when I was watching the 1941 version. However, both the films reminded me distinctly of Dorian Gray from the 1945 American horror-drama film The Picture of Dorian Gray, which again was based on Oscar Wilde's 1890 classic of the same name. Just as Dorian Gray degrades to his evil self as his life moves on, so does Dr. Jekyll becomes more and more like Mr. Hyde as the plot progresses.

Released a century ago, it amazes me how much depth and flavor the film makers could bring to screen just by expression, silence and poignant music in the background with title cards alone for dialogues. It proved a very commercial successful film for Barrymore and also the rest of the cast including Naldi who was cast by Barrymore after he saw her performance at Winter Garden Theater in Manhattan.

The opening credits shows only John Barrymore's name. And five of the actors supporting in the film and their character names - Poole (portrayed by George Stevens, although only his character name is shown), Dr. Richard Lanyon (portrayed by Charles Willis Lane), Sir George Carewe (portrayed by Brandon Hurst), Edward Enfield (portrayed by Cecil Clovelly) and Gina (portrayed by Nita Naldi) - appear as inter-title cards right before they appear on-screen.

There is no mention of any other cast in either the opening or closing credits. However the restorationist added a slide at the end with the details of the star cast so far known. There is additional new background score to the restored film too.

Filmmakers for some reason used a variety of title cards in the film, which I felt different from other silent films I have watched so far.

They have different tinted lens for the title cards and scenes pictured outdoors (two colors to differentiate between day and night) vs indoors. Interestingly enough one crucial scene doesn’t have any background score giving a certain chill to the conversation. Whether it was a loss in restoration or the original carried it the same way, the chillness prevailed. 

However one of the title card in essential gives the crux of the plot just by a few lines. 

Despite the supporting cast, the film solely centers on Barrymore's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde just as the story should be. We get to see how great an actor John Barrymore was. Certainly evokes some strong emotions from the viewers. The supporting cast including the heroines only made him better and elevating the picture. 

Well made adaptation of a horror plot that entertains as well as gives chills even after a century. A gem of a movie from the golden age of silent era of cinema which can come toe to toe against any of the talkies that have come since then. 

Spoiler Alerts:

1) Movie Trivia:

a. Carewe's line to Dr. Jekyll in the film "the only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it" is a quote from Oscar Wilde. It never appeared Stevenson's novel.

2) Grammatical / Historical / Location / Character Errors:

a. In the scene when Dr. Jekyll has his first transformation, the glass from which he drinks the potion from changes in size from small to tall between shots, and also its contents changes from full to half full to empty before he even drinks it.

b. After the first transformation is done, when Mr. Hyde changes back o Dr. Jekyll, you can see one of the prosthetic fingers flying off.

c. There seems to be a scene missing sometime around 40 mins into the film. We are shown that Millicent is tired and disappointed of waiting for Dr. Jekyll. And the very next scene shows are clutching a letter and running upstairs while her father is handing his coat and hat to his butler. And then immediately the title card for next scene appears of the next scene. The connection between Millicent waiting for Dr. Jekyll, and then receiving a letter, and the contents in it seems to have been lost in restoration. 

d. The actor portraying the giant spider who climbs on to Dr. Jekyll's bed, you can see his legs under the costume clearly.


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