Doctors Jekyll and Messers Hyde: An Unconscionable Number of Versions

A Halloween post, celebrating the many cinematic versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

The original book was some of the first straight-up “literature” I ever read and enjoyed as a kid, preceding even Poe, whom I discovered when I was around 11 or 12. I went as the pair to a Halloween costume party once, going as Jekyll, then at midnight drinking a “potion” and returning as Hyde. (Unfortunately, no one witnessed it.) I think most actors want to play the parts for real at some point in their careers. As you’ll see below, a dizzying number have given it a go. Here now as part of our Gothic horror series, a post on some (but scarcely all) stage and screen versions of the ultimate psychological mad scientist thriller.


Original Stage Version

The great actor Richard Mansfield was the first to create the role on stage, in an adaptation by Thomas Russell Sullivan which toured America and Britain for 20 years, premiering in 1887, and remaining in repertory through Mansfield’s death in 1907.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908)

The first screen adaptation of the film was made by the Selig Polyscope Company. It is presently considered lost.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912)

This version by the Thanhouser Company is the first to be officially based on the Sullivan/Mansfield stage version. It starred James Cruze (most famous today for having directed The Covered Wagon) and Florence La Badie.  At 12 minutes long, it’s an efficient, fast-moving pocket version of the story. The first transformation happens at about the 1:30 mark. Cruze is most effective in the lead role. It’s available on Youtube. You should check it out!


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913)

The following year Universal (IMP) made their own version — this may truly be called some of the first Universal Horror. Jekyll/ Hyde was played by King Baggot, a big star in the silent years, and was co-directed by Carl Lamemle (Universal’s founder) and Herbert Brenon, known for such classics as Peter Pan (1924) and Laugh, Clown, Laugh (1928). Miraculously, it too is available on Youtube.


Der Januskopf (1920)

This was a pirated version of the tale, directed by F.W. Murnau and starring Conrad Veidt. Two years later, Murnau would use this same technique (um, piracy) to adapt Dracula into Nosferatu. Sadly, today Der Januskopf is considered a lost film.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Of all the cinematic versions of the perennial horror classic the 1920 silent version starring John Barrymore is probably 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!


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

This is the also-ran in the 1920 Jekyll and Hyde sweepstakes. Louis B. Mayer produced this version for Pioneer Pictures. Like Murnau, he fudged a little, in this case by transplanting the tale to New York. Director Charles Haydon wasn’t happy with the results and had his name taken off the film. Clips are available on Youtube; the entire film is available to purchase on various web sites.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932)

A strong case can be made that this is the best of the three classic Hollywood re-tellings of the tale. The earlier silent one starring John Barrymore is without a doubt a classic of the genre (and an example of great silent film acting), but it is a bit literal in its transcription of the story. The 1932 version, starring Frederic March (who won a Best Actor Oscar for it) and directed by Rouben Mamoulian, brings out thematic, psychological elements. It is very racy, very disturbing.

Is it the first horror film to use Bach’s Toccata in Fugue in D Minor, subsequently overused so much in horror that it became a self-parody? March plays it on an organ at the top of the film, probably to cement the film’s connection to the newly popular horror genre—a bit of a Phantom of the Opera reference.

The film uses lots of experimental techniques. Lots of p.o.v. business—shows what Welles’ aborted Heart of Darkness might have been like. Also –appropriately—lots of split screen. And of course its innovative dissolves and use of filters to achieve Jekyll’s onscreen transformation into Hyde, a technique that would later be borrowed for endless werewolf movies.

Like the pre-code entertainment it is, this version dwells on sex, and that’s one factor that makes this movie that much more powerful than the one that preceded it — and much more powerful than the later one with Spencer Tracy. Jekyll is eager to marry his lady-love, but the girl’s Victorian father doesn’t want to rush it. This brings out an element of sexual frustration, and social commentary. Their Victorianism drives the saintly, philanthropic Jekyll to seek lurid thrills when he might have otherwise enjoyed a normal marriage. A scene in which Jekyll puts a dance hall girl to bed is very racy indeed.

Unlike Barrymore’s long haired version, March’s Hyde has a an ape-like skull-cap, with pointed wolf-like ears and pointed teeth. His brutality to the girl is truly sick: he terrorizes her, whips her for pleasure. When he kills her, it is “loving”, sexual, truly demented, very disturbing. In the end the unthinkable happens—he changes into his evil self against his will and attacks his fiancé and kills her father. You know how it all ends — the same way all monster movies end.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

This is easily the least of the three major classic Hollywood adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s influential horror tale. Far better are the silent one with John Barrymore and the 1932 Frederic March version. Still, this one remains worth watching at least once, and may be seen as a kind of indispensable experiment. This is the Spencer Tracy “realistic” version, directed by Victor Fleming. The make-up is much more subdued, as is Tracy’s performance as Hyde. There is a sort of quiet menace about the character, but it doesn’t really possess the scenery chewing one wants and expects. Tracy is best in the early scenes, when we get to know and like Jekyll. The dinner table scene where he defends his work always stands out in my mind. After the opening scenes, the screenplay clings VERY closely to the 1932 version, at times, almost like they were filming the same script, scene by scene. An unrecognizable Lana Turner plays Jekyll’s nondescript fiancé. Donald Crisp is her father (one of the film’s better elements). Ingrid Bergman is horrible as a dance hall girl, with her combination Swedish-Cockney accent. And silent film comedian Billy Bevan is a lovable cop!


The Son of Dr. Jekyll (1951)

This is the first attempt at a Universal-style sequel, produced by Columbia Pictures as a B movie starring Louis Hayward. Hayward plays Dr. Jekyll’s illegitimate son, who takes up his father’s experiments when he comes of age (a scenario requiring quite a bit of revisionism).


Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953)

Interestingly, though the story of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had been filmed many times, it was not a story associated with Universal Horror (the classic sound era versions were by Paramount and MGM). While Abbott and Costello’s comedy scenes are the usual repetitive stuff, there are several elements that commend it: its atmospheric Edwardian London setting, the presence of Boris Karloff as Jekyll, and cast members like Sid Fields and Reginald Denny.


Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957)

Written by Jack Pollexfen, the same guy who wrote The Son of Dr. Jekyll, this one has better horror movie street cred (theoretically), as it was directed by Edgar Ullmer and stars Gloria Talbott, star of The Cyclops (1957), I Married a Monster from Outer Space (1958) and The Leech Woman (1960). Unfortunately, the Daughter of Dr. Jekyll disappoints — not much happens. It has much in common with The Curse of the Cat People, which has no cat people. And if that spoils it for you, I’m more than okay with that!


The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960)

This is Hammer Studio’s inevitable entry into the field, with Paul Massie as the title character. Here, the premise is altered somewhat. Jekyll is a bore being cuckolded by his wife. His potion turns him less into a monster than a swinging and suave ladies’ man. In light of that twist, it was most surely at least a partial inspiration for this:


The Nutty Professor (1963)

Stay with me now. Actually this is probably Jerry Lewis’s best film and I’ve come to realize I don’t need to apologize for my enthusiasm for it. There is some extremely clever direction in this film and it’s probably Lewis’s (and his writing partner Bill Richmond’s) best screenplay. They turn up the heat on the theme of The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll for comic purposes of course. And I’ll understand if you have problems with Lewis’s performance although it amuses me to no end. But Lewis’s transformation scenes from Professor Kelp to his alter ego Buddy Love are little masterpieces of art direction, shooting and editing, I think…very evocative of classic expressionistic horror, yet in gorgeous color (which is a new element) and very, very funny (while still disturbing).


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1968)

A US/ Canadian TV co-production with Jack Palance in the title role(s), co-produced by Dan Curtis of Dark Shadows. 


Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

Another Hammer adaptation, this one quite racy and ahead of its time. It’s the first to tack a hot trans fantasy onto the story, further clouding the issue by making Jekyll himself a murderer (Jack the Ripper it seems), and hiring the services of grave robbers Burk and Hare to boot. When Jekyll (Ralph Bates)  wants to lay low, he takes a potion to become the attractive female “Sister Hyde” (Martine Beswick). Naturally Hyde gets out of control and the two personae struggle for possession of the body. At the climax they die dramatically at mid-point between male and female.


I, Monster (1971)

Another British production, originally intended for 3-D which might have justified yet another version (you’ve probably noticed there are quite a few versions by this point) but the process was abandoned mid-shoot. Christopher Lee plays the Jekyll/ Hyde character although those names have been changed here, and Peter Cushing plays his friend and colleague Utterson, whose name for some reason has remained UNchanged from the original.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1973)

I like the idea of Kirk Douglas in the role — seems very much in the tradition of casting Frederic March and Spencer Tracy. Interestingly this tv movie is a musical, with songs by Lionel Bart (Oliver!). Michael Redgrave, Stanley Holloway and Donald Pleasance are also in the cast. It is available to watch on Youtube.


Dr. Black Mr. Hyde (1976)

The inevitable blaxploitation version, directed by William Crain (Blacula). In this one, Dr. Pryde (Bernie Casey) is a black doctor who volunteers with the poor in Watts. His new serum to reverse liver damage turns him into a monster who kills pimps and prostitutes — and, brother, that ain’t cool.

dr jekyll and mr hyde

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1981) 

A British TV production starring David Hemming (Blowup).


Jekyll and Hyde…Together Again (1982)

It’s interesting to me that in may cases the comedy take on a classic story can be more astute in drawing out latent themes. In this case…substance abuse. Believe or not, this silly comedy is the first version that brings that major aspect of the story to the fore in a stark and obvious way. Yes, all versions talk about the beast inside us all, and it’s a chemical that unlocks that. But this is the first version that reminds us…uh, there are real life chemicals here on planet earth that do that very same thing. I remember this movie well from when it first came out. Mark Blankfield was still relatively hot from his stint on Fridays (hot enough to star in a movie, at any rate. At this stage he was roughly as hot as Bill Murray was when he made Meatballs). While Blankfield does have range, his specialty seemed to be playing wacked-out drug freaks. And this is a movie calibrated to showcase that skill. His mad professor discovers a form of sex cocaine that turns him into a monster. Real enough for ya, 1982? I don’t make any claims for the brilliance of the writing in this movie but nobody is funnier than Mark Blankfield doing a drug freak-out.


Edge of Sanity (1989)

Latter day British horror film (which doesn’t take itself seriously) in which Anthony Perkins (Psycho) is Jekyll. One day, in his research to develop a better anaesthetic he mixes cocaine and ether. It turns him into a homicidal monster. And then, to further his enjoyment, he starts giving it to other people so that he can watch them kill each other.


The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1989)

A tv movie version starring Anthony Andrews (Brideshead Revisited) as the title character, his Hyde of the dashing persuasion. Laura Dern plays the love interest.


Jekyll and Hyde (1990)

I saw this two part tv movie version when it came out. It stars Michael Caine in what must have been his Victorian Period. Two years before this he played a Scotland Yard detective in a TV movie about Jack the Ripper. And two years later he played Scrooge in the Muppet Christmas Carol. His make-up as Hyde is one of the most extreme I have seen. Bald-headed and lumpy, it looks almost like the Elephant Man. Another interesting feature of this version is that Jekyll begins to cross the line, here having an affair with his sister-in-law (Cheryl Ladd).


Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995)

A rather bad comedy. Timothy Daly plays Dr. Jekyll’s great-grandson who works for a perfume company, mixing new fragrances. When he inherits his ancestor’s scientific notes, he makes an elixir that transforms him into the go-getting Helen Hyde (Sean Young) who does much better in the corporate culture of his job than he ever did.


Mary Reilly (1996)

What the-? Who? Don’t you fret, it’s still the Jekyll and Hyde story and quite an interesting version, as the events are  seen through the eyes of one of his house servants (Julia Roberts). Based on a novel, directed by Stephen Frears, adapted for the screen by playwright Christopher Hampton, and starring John Malkovich as J & H ( basically the same team responsible for Dangerous Liaisons), the film was nevertheless poorly received by both critics and the public. And who can blame the public for not attending? Look at that poster! Do I see Jekyll? No! Do I see Hyde? No! Do I think Julia Roberts is pretty? Sure, but that’s not enough to sell me a ticket to a movie.


Jekyll and Hyde (1997)

1997 was the Broadway premiere of the musical Jekyll and Hyde although it had been in earlier productions as early as 1990. It ran for four years.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1999)

Francis Ford Coppolla produced this version starring Adam Baldwin. It has almost nothing but the title in common with the Stevenson story. It concerns a San Francisco doctor out to seek vengeance for the murder of his wife in Hong Kong, with the aid of certain Chinese herbs.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2002)

John Hannah essayed the role for British television — this time with no make-up as Mr. Hyde.


Jekyll (2007)

British TV series written by Stephen Moffat (Dr. Who, Sherlock). James Nesbitt plays a modern day descendant of Jekyll who mysteriously starts turning into Hyde.


Do No Harm (2013)

An NBC tv series featuring a complete updating, with different names, a different setting but still the same premise of a drug that transforms a personality. Steven Pasquale plays a plastic surgeon…with an alter ego.

And now I’ve been working on this post for six hours. I have sprouted hair and fangs, and I’m about to go on a killing spree. Time to hit “publish”.

3 Responses to “Doctors Jekyll and Messers Hyde: An Unconscionable Number of Versions”

  1. Barrymore’s transformation in the 1920 version is, to this day, some of the best acting I have ever seen. Even when his prosthetic finger flies off. 😀

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: