There were a fair few adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s famed horror story the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in the early years of cinema, probably because it was written only a few decades earlier and was well known to most cinemagoers. This 1920 version is not the most well-regarded adaptation (that probably goes to Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 version) or the earliest (that was in 1908), but it does have the benefit of a performance from John Barrymore, an early scion of that famous acting dynasty. The screening I attended was in the atmospheric surrounds of the Barts Pathology Museum on the grounds of the ancient St Bartholomew’s hospital in London, whose walls filled with many jars of preserved anatomical specimens certainly added a potent atmosphere to this Victorian story.
The film itself has all the trappings of early silent cinema, very much still within the frontal theatrical tradition. There are very few close-ups, with the camera remaining still for most of the shots. The only effects we get are some dissolves when Jekyll is transformed into Hyde. However, Barrymore’s performance in the dual role also makes little use of effects, with Hyde’s prominently jutted jaw and deranged appearance almost entirely down to the physicality of Barrymore’s acting (although he does benefit from dishevelled hair, a distinctive hat and some prosthetic fingers). Certainly he throws himself around with abandon during the transformation sequences.
As for what happens in the film, the heart of the story — the upstanding philanthropist and medical practitioner Dr Jekyll experiments with drugs to bring out his deranged alter ego Mr Hyde — is accompanied by a romantic subplot featuring Millicent (Martha Mansfield), the daughter of Sir George Carew, an acquaintance (and in this version, a sort of patron, as far as I can tell). She shows concern for Jekyll when he disappears after his initial transformation, at which point we see Hyde cavorting with dancehall vamp Miss Gina (Nita Naldi, not the most convincing of dancers but certainly a fascinating presence), whom he appears to keep as a live-in mistress at his apartment. The morals of the era ensure a lot of this activity is no more than implied, and Hyde’s criminality is never really seen, aside from one brutal act of violence.
The film may take its time to get going, but it’s fond of the duality in the characters (Jekyll/Hyde matched by Millicent/Gina) as of a nicely-balanced sense of justice for their actions. Jekyll’s antagonist is Sir George, who prompts Jekyll to experiment with a split personality in the first place, so inviting an appropriately matched fate. There’s also of course a coda where Jekyll must suffer for the crimes of his alter ego, and all of this is nicely tied up by the end. Whatever its merits as an early piece of genre filmmaking, it’s all carried through by Barrymore’s game mugging for the camera.
Director John S. Robertson; Writers Thomas Russell Sullivan and Clara Beranger (based on the novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson); Cinematographer Roy F. Overbaugh; Starring John Barrymore, Martha Mansfield, Nita Naldi; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at Barts Pathology Museum, London, Wednesday 29 January 2014.