Thursday 31 December 2020

A Centenary of Fantastic Films - 1920 #4 Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde (USA 2020: Dir John S Robertson)

Time for another look back at a fantastic film made 100 years ago. There had already been a number of adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's famous novella before this one, which uses as its basis the 1887 stage play of the same name adapted by Thomas Russell Sullivan, a source which had also been used for a 27 minute version of the same story in 1913, directed by Herbert Brenon.

We open with a card which states 'In each of us, two natures are at war - the good and the evil. All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer. But in our own hands lies the power to choose - what we want most to be, we are' (the assumption here is that by now the viewing audience will already know that Jekyll and Hyde are one and the same person). John Barrymore plays both Jekyll and Hyde and Charles Lane is Dr Richard Lanyon, Jekyll's more conservative scientific colleague in contrast with the progressive Jekyll. "You're tampering with the supernatural!" Lanyon says as he looks into Jekyll's microscope (footage of microscopic activity on film had been a thing for twenty years already). 

Jekyll's lab is fully stocked and both he and Lanyon are well dressed; we are told that Jekyll self funds medical services for the poor, and his duties mean he'll be late for dinner. No such problem for Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst), announced in his title card as 'always as far from misery and suffering as he could get', who finds Jekyll's philanthropic tendencies (which are ladled on to enhance the difference in Jekyll's Hyde incarnation) incredible. Unfortunately his daughter Millicent (Martha Mansfield) is Jekyll's intended; although incorrigible, Carew's life experiences have led him to shelter his daughter from any moral harm.

When Jekyll arrives, Carew, clearly trying to test the good doctor, goads him: "The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it," he says, and invites Jekyll to a music hall, where he introduces him to a dancer, Gina (a first role for Nita Naldi, who would go on to be a great star of the silent screen). The meeting sees the first stirrings of a baser nature within Jekyll and the desire to separate the good and bad in a person; and Gina is clearly a woman for hire.

After a period of intense medical experimentation, Jekyll develops a potion that he believes will achieve the separation; Barrymore's first transformation into the being he will call Edward Hyde, mainly achieved via facial contortions and a little makeup, is still powerful to watch, and the administration of the antidote produces equally ghastly physical results. While the first experiment is pretty uneventful, Jekyll asks his butler Poole to give Mr Hyde permanent access to his home, and secures separate accommodations so that Hyde will have a base; he also changes his will to leave everything to his evil alter ego.

Jekyll, as Hyde, sets forth on, as the title card describes it, 'a sea of license', neglecting Millicent and focusing his attention instead on Gina, although he will soon tire of her. Jekyll briefly attempts to lay off the drug, trying to patch things up with his fiancée, but Hyde bursts through without chemical stimulus. On his nightly tours through opium dens and flophouses, Hyde discovers a broken Gina in a bar and revels in her fallen status. 

It seems that Hyde has completely taken over Jekyll, who is effectively missing. In an incident which, in print terms, is the first scene in the novella, Hyde knocks down a child in the street, and is restrained by several of Jekyll's colleagues. Hyde agrees to pay a sum to recompense for the injury, but the cheque he presents is in Jekyll's name; the men find out from Poole that Hyde has been given the keys to Jekyll's house, circumstances which confuse them.

Carew confronts Jekyll, returned to his 'good' persona, and asks him about his relationship with Hyde, claiming that continued friendship with the 'fiend' threatens Jekyll's impending marriage to Millicent. Jekyll's response is to blame Carew for tempting him in the first place and making him ashamed of his goodness. He then transforms into Hyde in front of his friend, pursues Carew and bludgeons him to death.

All roads lead to Hyde as the culprit for Carew's murder; the police are alerted and search Hyde's lodgings, fruitlessly. Back at the lab Jekyll struggles not to let Hyde take over again. He attends Carew's corpse in the street and Millicent implores him to help find the killer. But Jekyll is powerless to resist. The evil appears to him at night in the form of a huge spider which creeps onto Jekyll's bed and into him; he awakens as Hyde. Unable to trust himself, Jekyll imprisons himself in his lab. Millicent arrives but just as he's about to let her in he changes, and it is Hyde who admits and confronts her. Millicent escapes, and Jekyll regains his body one last time before he expires, killing himself by administering poison from a ring stolen from Gina.

Arguably the first horror feature, in terms of the grotesquery on display, Barrymore's performance as Jekyll and Hyde still remains powerful 100 years on. His increasing deformity as Hyde is rather hideous, and the scene where, as the Hyde spider, he crawls onto Jekyll's bed to occupy (seduce?) him, is a very fine early example of weird cinema. The injection of a 'love interest' for Jekyll was a cinematic creation and one picked up in later adaptations, but the striking thing here is the contrast between Jekyll's wealthy existence and the poverty surrounding him, and how Hyde bridges the gap between those two worlds.

1920 saw a number of other adaptations of the novella. F W Murnau's Der Januskopf (aka The Head of Janus) was an unauthorised version of the story, now a lost film (Murnau would do the same thing to Bram Stoker's 'Dracula' in Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens two years later). A month after the release of Robertson's version, J Charles Haydon cast veteran actor Sheldon Lewis in the Jekyll/Hyde role, a rather threadbare production with a decidedly histrionic central performance. And finally two comic burlesques of the same story were also released in the same year: Hank Mann starred in a two reeler version, and comedian Charlie Joy was in the four reel When Quackel did Hyde. Busy year!

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