Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Danny no longer writes for Can't Stop the Movies, and can be reached at his fantastic site Pre-Code.com

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Danny LIKEGood and evil.

Yes, I'm going to talk about that old maxim. For a good majority of people, I'd wager that life could be defined as the pursuit of being labeled as "a good person." Sure, there is love, money, and plenty of other vices that you can yield to for a temporary pleasure, but the desire to attain some sort of inner peace with oneself can either make or break someone.

Robert Louis Stevenson's perennial novel, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, was always a testament to the human urge to do away with their own unsavory side, and it gleefully pinpoints just how wrong such a pursuit for purification can go.

One of the earliest adaptations into film is this 1920 silent classic. There are quite a few differences between the novel and the film (most of the differences adapted from the popular stage version), but the spirit remains.

Dr. Henry Jekyll, here played by thespian John Barrymore, is an astute and radical scientist. He baffles his colleagues with his studies of the human mind, and enrages them as he spends his free time working in a free clinic for the poor and destitute.

Jekyll is engaged to a prim but demure Millicent Carew, and her father, George, is skeptical of Jekyll's do-good nature. One night over dinner he taunts Jekyll, telling him that living his life without selfishness makes him weak. According to Carew, you have to indulge both of your own halves or you never know what it truly is to live. To demonstrate, he takes Jekyll and some friends to a dance hall, and invites the dancing woman to tempt Jekyll with a bit of flirting. Jekyll almost acquiesces before regaining his composure, and ends up leaving in a huff, much to his bemused future father-in-law's satisfaction.

Jekyll becomes angry at himself for even feeling a strand of temptation and resolves to remove this impure part from himself, using science to allow it to roam free while his soul can remain untouched. He undergoes this experiment not because he wants to for scientific curiosity, but for his own propriety.

Barrymore's transition to Hyde is mostly a physical one, and he honestly looks a bit silly-- less like something horrifying and more like that guy with the long black hair and the Pantera shirt two sizes too small for him. But it's Hyde's creep and nasty smile that help overcome the bad makeup effects, as Hyde soon begins to reek all manner of havoc over town.

This sets up the film's two best scenes, as Jekyll soon finds himself indulging in his darker side more and more often, and soon after that almost uncontrollably. As he seems to have had no limits to his virtue before, now he's found he has no limit to his vice. After he sets Hyde up as a friend, Hyde's terrible patterns of abuse and cruelty soon have people questioning Jekyll; when George Carew finally comes to tell Hyde that his unsavory connections will force him to quash the engagement, Jekyll, in a frothing rage quickly turns back into the Jekyll persona and beats Carew to death. He barely manages to return to Jekyll in time for him to escape detection.

The next best scene is when Jekyll finds himself haunted in his sleep that night. We see an enormous spider with the face of Hyde crawl into the window and merge itself with Jekyll's helpless body, reverting him to Hyde as well.

Okay, that's just freaking creepy. Moments like that are few and far between in this adaptation, but it was never meant to be a straight visual horror story. The ideas beneath, focusing on man's need of both good and evil, are both fascinating and revelatory.

As for the film itself, it's talkier in its motivtions (ironic for a silent version) and focused less on the effects of the transformation than any of the other adaptations that have come along. Personally, my favorite is still the 1931 version with Frederic March, though that lacks some of the clear cut moralism portrayed here.

As for the base of the story, the good versus evil that resides in men, it's still as relevant and as fascinating as it was to Stevenson when he first dreamed it up. Nowadays the internet has allowed all manner of Hydes to reek their havoc in this world, and you have to wonder where that leaves all the Jekylls in the world, if there ever were any to begin with.

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is currently available on DVD and on Netflix Instant.

Directed by John S. Robertson
Based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Starring John Barrymore

Posted by Danny

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