Director: John S. Robertson
Writer: Clara S. Beranger
Cast: John Barrymore, Brandon Hurst, Martha Mansfield, Charles Lane, Cecil Clovelly, Nita Naldi, and Louis Wolheim
Release Date: 3/18/1920
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Dr. Henry Jekyll (John Barrymore)—a philanthropist and scientific researcher—is met with disapproval from the father of his fiancée Millicent (Martha Mansfield), Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst), who claims that one must yield to temptation in order to truly conquer it. Thereafter, Dr. Jekyll performs an experiment that allows him to satisfy his immoral cravings through an alter ego known as Mr. Edward Hyde—with an unanticipated side effect.
The first feature-length adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this offering employs gothic horror tropes to explore the inner struggle between good and evil. Fans of the Jekyll/Hyde legend may therefore enjoy this film, which, though quite primitive by today’s standards, benefits from a dark and terrifying twist on the predicament of its main character(s).
It should be mentioned that certain grotesque make-up appliances (e.g. a cone-shaped piece for the top of John Barrymore’s head) add an air of malevolence to the external characteristics of Mr. Hyde. Especially remarkable, however, are the physical aspects of Barrymore’s performance, which, by emphasizing contortions and convulsions of a most unnatural variety, reinforce the concept of a sinister, implicitly demonic force possessing the body of a once kind and noble figure.
Further complementing the gothic atmosphere of this film, many surreal and dreamlike images embody the spiritual conflict between Jekyll—the exemplification of all things good, holy, and righteous—and Hyde, a manifestation of the selfish and barbaric impulses that mar the human condition. The spider sequence contains a particularly haunting example of such, with an object of great fear and revulsion representing the hideous, unevolved nature of Hyde in his unbridled form.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is hampered by languid pacing, dated visual effects, and melodramatic performances—all drawbacks of nearly every film produced during the silent era.
One should note that this production highlights in tremendous detail the charity work of Dr. Jekyll, who, in the early scenes, forgoes personal pleasure while assisting the unfortunate members of his community, eventually prompting him to seek an outlet for his then repressed urges—possibly a commentary on how one must achieve a balance between both facets of human nature, here described in terms of good and evil, to maintain a healthy and functional existence.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde should be commended for its phenomenal transformation sequences and thoughtful examination of Stevenson’s now iconic narrative premise. The technical shortcomings of this film may, however, receive criticism from the majority of modern audiences.
Overall Quality: 8/10
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