Everybody has a favorite “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” For some it’s the 1941 MGM version, starring Spencer Tracy with minimal makeup, terrorizing Ingrid Bergman. For others, it’s a Pre-Code Fredric March looking almost simian as he rapes then imprisons Miriam Hopkins as the saloon singer/prostitute Ivy in 1931. If not these two, there are still over 120 other filmed versions; from Jerry Lewis’ comedic adaptation, The Nutty Professor, to the 1976 Blaxploitation classic Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde. Even the most well known that set the standard, 1920’s John Barrymore classic, wasn’t the first. Thankfully, Kino Classic’s latest Blu-Ray release offers up a treasure trove of versions and options for anyone who wanted to know more about one of the most iconic horror characters in history.
Writer Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was an instant sensation, with a successful play that toured Britain for 20 years, opening just a year after the book was published. That version, adapted by playwright Thomas Russell Sullivan, took several liberties with the story and became a more familiar rendering through the decades than Stevenson’s original plot line.
Thirty-four years, and almost as many stage and film versions later, John Barrymore delivered his first “virtuoso” performance on film as the scientist battling with split personalities in 1920. There’s no question that the acting is “creaky,” and Barrymore as Hyde performs such melodramatic poses and histrionics that it’s snicker inducing, but there’s more to his performance than the clichéd gurning the role became known for.
As the philanthropic Dr. Jekyll with a sweet bedside manner, Barrymore offers a naturalistic performance. He enters a room with obvious heavy thoughts on his mind, but rather than forcing attention, he draws it by taking his time, shuffling slightly, giving a smile or a recognizable nod. In fact, until he becomes Hyde, the viewer is lulled into the false hope that he will draw his performance from deep within his recesses, and really “become” Hyde.
Instead, once he swallows that famous potion, he claws at his throat, pulls his mouth and eyes into crazed contortions and even flips in the air. Now transformed, he gnashes his teeth, and rubs his hands like Simon Legree. His makeup, however, is still quite effective. Far from the cro-magnon “look” the character became identified with, this Hyde has arched and sinister eyebrows, his fingers, frighteningly long and crooked phalanges, and his head, a misshapen point under his crumpled stovepipe hat.
Moving at a brisk 79 minutes, the film delivers many thrills, and sets the tone for the coming decade of great silent cinema. It also includes many “firsts” in the Jekyll and Hyde canon. While Stevenson’s Victorian novella only hinted at Hyde’s depraved activities, this was the first version to reveal Hyde not only visited prostitutes, but physically and emotionally abused them, and even suggested he forced some into (gasp!) group sex.
Interestingly, Stevenson’s book held off on revealing that Jekyll and Hyde were the same person; something of a third act “twist.” Originally told from another person’s point of view; a lawyer friend of Jekyll’s “wonders” at the strange comings and goings of Hyde. Again, it was the T.R. Sullivan stage adaptation that changed to Jekyll’s point of view and almost all subsequent versions ended up using this device thereafter. (The most well-known rendering of another perspective was the 1990 book, Mary Reilly, taken from the maid’s point of view, and made into the film of the same name with Julia Roberts and John Malkovich).
Possibly the most exciting elements of Kino Classics Blu-Ray release, however, are the extras, which include a beautifully restored 1912 version (originally meant for viewing in nickelodeons, and only running 12 minutes), as well as a 15 minute segment from a rival 1920 production hastily pumped out by Louis B. Mayer in an effort to capitalize on the smash Barrymore hit. The 1912 short uses many tricks inspired by George Méliès, including dissolves and in-camera edits. The result is a surprisingly fun and fluid version that features James Cruze as the venerable Jekyll & Hyde. (Another great surprise is seeing Cruze as an actor, since he went on to become one of the most respected directors of the 20s and early 30s. )
The Blu-Ray also includes the 1925 Stan Laurel parody Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde, which allows incredible insight into his solo work before joining forces just two years later with Oliver Hardy. And for real lovers of nostalgia, there’s an audio recording lifted from a 1909 cylinder of actor Len Spencer “dramatically” reading from the book’s “Transformation” scene.
Of all the versions I’ve seen, my personal favorite remains the 19321 Fredric March starrer. But for any lovers of silent film, or even those curious to see this famous story in its many early manifestations, Kino Classics’ Blu-Ray of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a must-have.