Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920)


is scary as hell

The rest is not

Maybe it’s unfair of me to compare this very early, very silent version of Robert Louis Steven’s story to Rouben Mamoulian’s rather brilliant version made eleven years later, that version having the advantage of sound, bitterly realistic performances (I maintain that that film’s one of the all-time great horror films not because you’re afraid of what you see, but because you’re afraid for Miriam Hopkins), and Fredric March’s dual performance – brilliantly understated and suave one moment, brilliantly maniacal and imp-like the next.  Robertson’s version is obviously much different, relying on expressionism, faces, and image alone, and for me it just didn’t really work, no matter which direction it tried to go in.  When it tries to be lofty and philosophy/story/dialogue-driven, it spirals into a mindnumbing series of title cards in which Jekyll explains his views on man’s inherent good and evil and the secrets of the cosmos – I was quite shocked at how reliant this film was on title cards and the written word (and extremely long-winded and overly-heady word, I might add) when you’d think that silent films should be reliant on faces and images.

And on the flipside, when this film abandons that over-reliance on words and goes for images, it’s little more than those characters that Jekyll’s spurned – his woman, his colleagues – looking at the floor all forlorned that their friend is either missing or acting strangely, and this gets old really quickly (although the innovation of changing the camera’s filter color to simulate light vs. darkness was rather nifty and cool in this film).  When it isn’t that, you’ve got John Barrymore – at least give the man an A for effort in playing the duel role as separately and distinctly as the silent medium would allow him to, but while Fredric March’s transformation into Mr. Hyde 11 years later would be as smooth as silk, Barrymore just drinks his Jesus Juice, clutches his throat and starts twitching and careening around his laboratory like he’s Joe Cocker – every single time he transforms.  And then whenever he’s Hyde, he pretty much just puts his hands up, fingers bent quasi-Judo quasi-Nosferatu style, and looks into the camera with this expression…

I suppose I was severely spoiled having seen the far-superior Mamoulian version first, but even if I hadn’t, I still probably would’ve been bored by the sheer repetition of Robertson’s version.  Despite an ending involving a certain ring that’s actually quite poignant, this never-shifting pattern of first a textbook’s worth of title cards explaining every nook and cranny of the complexities of the duality of man, and then the supporting cast looking sad while John Barrymore mugs for the camera like he’s at the Greenwich Village Halloween parade makes a mere 75 minute film feel like an eternity.  I suppose Barrymore’s makeup is actually quite good and certainly would’ve given 1920 audiences a good fright, and his mannerisms are what you’d expect from silent-era horror, but as Rouben Mamoulian and the impossibly suave, funny, and terrifying performance of Fredric March would prove 11 years later, the best of Dr. Henry Jekyll and Mr. Edward Hyde was yet to come.


3 comments so far

  1. Allison Almodovar on

    Apparently, you know, Barrymore didn’t even have much makeup on. It was him. I’m still waiting to see Mamoulien’s version but it will be soon.

  2. Richard Whitney on

    Actually both versions have something to recommend them. While March’s version is the best version, including both the Spencer Tracy as well as Jack Palance’s T.V. movie version, which were both great,there is still something creepy and unnerving about the Barrymore silent version. Its’ all good.

  3. Faisal J. on

    Reblogged this on That Dark Alley.

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