Monday, 11 April 2011

Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde (1920)

Directed by John S. Robertson
Starring: John Barrymore
Running time: 82 mins
Studio: Famous Players - Lasky
Black & White

The earliest horror film in my collection (yes, I know it should be The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, but to be honest I’m not a fan, masterpiece though it is) this seems like a good place to start. The author Clive Barker once described Robert Louis Stevenson’s original novella as ‘a Victorian conceit with a boring moral dichotomy at its  centre’ (or words to that effect) and nowhere is this more true than in this film version, one of several produced during the silent era. That’s not surprising, really, when you consider that it was based on an 1897 stage version. This is a world where women are “Paradise for the eyes but Hell for the soul” and are banished from the dining room when the wine arrives; but dated though it is, it’s still very watchable.

John Barrymore (Drew’s grandfather) plays the handsome, upright Dr Henry Jekyll, “idealist and philanthropist”. The point is perhaps somewhat laboured; his surgery, for instance, is packed with the kind of poor people usually reserved for a Dickens-style comedy sketch. Here, in his “human repair shop”, Jekyll works tirelessly to justify his belief that a man can truly know himself only when he is engaged in helping others. And the Poor love him for it. Sick old crones gaze wistfully into his eyes, while gum-chewing street urchins regard him with something like awe.

Unfortunately, when Jekyll attends a dinner party hosted by Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst), father of Jekyll’s beautiful fiancee, Millicent (Martha Mansfield), he finds himself taunted by his fellow guests, who regard his avoidance of the baser pleasures in life as a sign of male weakness. Surely, they insist, even a man like Jekyll must acknowledge that he has a dark side to his nature. In an effort to tempt him into sin, they take him to a sleazy music hall in the heart of a London slum, where Jekyll encounters an erotic dancer who, despite not actually dancing that erotically, has a disturbing effect on him. He is horrified but transfixed by her performance. Later, when she is introduced to him and tries to kiss him, the whole experience proves too traumatic for the good doctor and he flees the scene.

As a result of his exposure to the evils of Victorian music hall, Jekyll decides that it would be a good idea if the two natures of man could be separated and the evil side housed in another body (and bundled away under the stairs to be forgotten about, presumably). To this end he develops a potion in his laboratory that he believes will achieve this aim; but having apparently forgotten, or more likely been unable, to find someone willing to act as a receptacle for his nasty nature, Jekyll's evil side takes him over instead and we are treated to the first of the film’s many Jekyll/Hyde transformations. Barrymore’s performance in this scene has been dismissed by some critics as ham; but it is very effective nonetheless.  Apparently performed in one take and without make-up, the change from the good-looking doctor to the hideously bent and dishevelled Hyde is genuinely alarming, for all that there is a tad too much flailing of limbs. The effect is topped off by an excellent dissolve shot of Jekyll’s hand turning into a withered claw.

As Mr Hyde, the doctor can finally take that holiday from morality that he’s been secretly promising himself all these years. He rents a grotty room in a seedy part of town and embarks on a personal mission to indulge in as much working class debauchery as he can. This amounts to drinking, smoking, frequenting opium dens, taunting prostitutes, and trampling on infants in the street. Worse, he begins to neglect the lovely Millicent, preferring instead to spend his time leering over and pawing at the music hall dancer he met. If all this sounds rather tame it’s more than made up for by Barrymore’s performance - of all the Mr Hyde’s that have graced the silver screen over the years, his is by far the most repulsive.

Of course, things only go from bad to worse, and as his depravity deepens - and Hyde’s appearance grows ever more cadaverous - Jekyll finds that he is no longer able to control the effects of the potion. Before long, he is transforming spontaneously. This culminates in him morphing into Mr Hyde in front of Sir George, who has come to Jekyll’s house to determine why the good doctor has been behaving so oddly. As Hyde, the doctor is forced to silence his prospective father-in-law and, in a surprisingly brutal scene, clubs Sir George to death in the courtyard.

“Tortured by remorse for Hyde’s monstrous cruelties” and overwhelmed by guilt when Millicent asks him to help find and apprehend her father’s murderer, Jekyll suffers terrible dreams. In what is probably the film’s most macabre sequence, Jekyll's bed chamber is invaded by a monstrous spectral spider that clambers up onto the bed and merges with Jekyll's sleeping body, transforming him again into Hyde. It’s clearly a symbolic moment, but what makes it so grotesquely effective is that - whether by design or not - the actor inside the spider costume is clearly visible. It sounds risible, but it lends the scene a genuinely nightmarish quality and, for me, it's the high point of the film.

After this, there's little more for Hyde to do except avoid the police and menace poor Millicent. Love does win through in the end (sort of) but the outcome isn't good for the tragic Dr Jekyll.

For all its class stereotyping and old-fashioned moral certitude, this was a fun film to watch. It’s not especially frightening by today’s standards, of course, but  it’s easy to understand why it was a critical success in its day. The camerawork and lighting are excellent throughout, and despite its occasional moments of overt theatricality, Barrymore's performance, especially as Hyde, must surely rank as one of the great performances of silent horror cinema.

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