Of all the cinematic versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s perennial horror classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (including the terrific Fredric March one with its pathbreaking onscreen transformations) the 1920 silent version starring John Barrymore is my favorite. Because of the timing of when the book was written (the 1880s) there is always the temptation to merge this tale with Ripper lore. Don’t forget that many investigators believed the Ripper may have been a doctor. That Victorian era Whitechapel atmosphere is strong in the art direction in this movie…stronger ironically than in many later versions, when studios theoretically had greater resources at their command. This version also mixes in elements of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray (also of the era) with its theme of divided personality. The dialogue titles even quote Wilde once or twice.
Above all we have Barrymore’s incredible performance (aided by excellent make-up). As Jeckyll the spotless Victorian philanthropist and idealist he has a ramrod straight posture and a pleasant mien. When he takes the potion and becomes Hyde the effect is immediate. Hyde is loathesome, foul, sensuous in a disgusting way. His hair is long and messy, his face dirty, his teeth crooked. Even his hands get bigger, like those of an ape.
It occurs to me now that reading about this film in those old paperback books about monster movies would have been how I first heard about Barrymore in the first place. My feeling about this film still goes — every kid should know this movie!
To learn out more about show business history consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc