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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) Movie Poster
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  •  USA  •    •  69m  •    •  Directed by: John S. Robertson.  •  Starring: John Barrymore, Brandon Hurst, Martha Mansfield, Charles Lane, Cecil Clovelly, Nita Naldi, Louis Wolheim, Alma Aiken, J. Malcolm Dunn, Julia Hurley, Jack McHugh, Blanche Ring, May Robson.  •  Music by: Lee Erwin, John Scott, Hugo Riesenfeld.
        Based on the Robert Louis Stevenson story: Doctor Henry Jekyll's enthusiasm for science and his selfless acts of service have made him a much-admired man. But as he visits Sir George Carew one evening, his host criticizes him for his reluctance to experience the more sensual side of life. Sir George goads Jekyll into visiting a music hall, where he watches the alluring dancer Gina. Jekyll becomes fascinated with the two contrasting sides of human nature, and he becomes obsessed with the idea of separating them. After extensive work in his laboratory, he devises a formula that does indeed allow him to alternate between two completely different personalities, his own and that of a brutish, lascivious person whom he names Hyde. It is not long before the personality of Hyde begins to dominate Jekyll's affairs.


Image from: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Image from: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Image from: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Image from: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Image from: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Image from: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Image from: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
Hyde" DVD I took from the library featured both the 1931 and 1941 version. To be honest, after finishing the two films, I didn't feel the need to watch any other version. Not that I thought the 1941 version broke any particular ground, but I said in my review that it was enhanced by the performance of Ingrid Bergman while undermined by the Hays Code. It was good but the 1931 version was the definite one as far as I was concerned.

But I'm a movie trivia buff and checking on the list of memorable screen-characters nominated for the American Film Institute's Top 100 Heroes and Villains, I saw that both Dr. . Hyde were nominated. But it was Fredric March' Hyde vs. John Barrymore's Jekyll, so there had to be something pretty heroic about Jekyll to deserve that spot and I wanted to make up my own mind. And given how slightly disappointed I was by the 1941 film, I thought maybe the 1920 version explored some realms omitted by the 1931, maybe that the rise of the talkies didn't permit or made obsolete.

I knew I could easily find it on Youtube, so I watched it and I'm glad I did. It is perhaps one of the earliest classics of the horror genre (two years before "Nosferatu") and while made by a rather unknown director named Robertson but it features a very recognizable face from Golden Age buffs: John Barrymore, who's probably to American movies what Jean Marais was to French Cinema. By that I mean he probably possesses one of the best-looking male profiles I saw recently, of course, he's more than a pretty face. John Barrymore embodies through his performance as Jekyll the torment of a good man, Jekyll is a figure supposed to represent the uptight Victorian man, but it's not as a symbol as we feel sorry for him.

In an era where men were supposed to hide their feelings and impulses, and maintain their facade of respectability while indulging to the darker calls of human soul, Jekyll is an abnormally decent man. He's presented as a 'philanthropist' by nature, because he's a doctor in medicine, but it's not just about his chosen professional path. This is a man who's innately good, who maintains an old repair shop at his own expenses to treat the poor people. He's a good man and not even devoured by ambition, one would think Mr. Carew already had the perfect son-in-law but the man couldn't believe a man was so good as he looked, his cynicism set up the story... and backfired at him.

So it's during a banal dinner conversation that the father-in-law raises the idea of the battling between good and bad self, the metaphor used is left or right hand, just because he doesn't use one for writing or eating, doesn't mean he can't ever use it. The man also encourages the young chap to live his young age, and stop dedicating him time to the others, he quotes Oscar Wilde: "the best way to resist a temptation is yield to it". This plants in Jekyll's mind the idea of separating the two parts of the human soul, letting a man fulfill his worst desires while leaving the soul untouched. Quite fascinating to have a Jekyll about someone being ashamed from being 'too good'.

But the merit of this "good" Jekyll is that he's about to become a real contrasting personality to his Mr. Hyde alter ego. Edward Hyde is basically as hideous and menacing as Jekyll looked good and romantic, and Hyde's face keeps on going more and more bestial looking until the final scene where he's a real monster of a man. The duplicity is powerfully suggested and makes the figure of Jekyll a real tragic one. In both the 1931 and 1941 version, the tragic figure was Ivy Pearson, the 'bad company' woman, but this one gives more latitude and substance to the figure of Jekyll, maybe to show that a man can be victim of his impulses or victims of his own attempts to resist them.

The film's power totally lies on John Barrymore's performance and the other characters are eye candy but only valuable players at his periphery, Nina Naldi (said to be the female Valentino) plays the woman of exotic charm and Martha Mansfield (who died tragically as a freak accident) is the obligatory female woman but the real arc belongs to Barrymore. It is also worth noticing that, being a silent film, the film provides more ominous sights of Victorian London, perhaps because they didn't need to "stage" it in 1920 and the texts are more impacting than all the speeches from the other films.

Again like many old silent movies, the looks or sounds depend on the versions, I watched one without the sepia tones and with the organ music, but I don't think they were integral to the film's enjoyment. I still consider the 1931 one to be the best, but this one comes closer.

Review by ElMaruecan82 from the Internet Movie Database.


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