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.