Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Who’s in it?: John Barrymore (Drew’s grandpa)

What’s it about?: Oh, you know.

How is it?: I judge adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on two things: the ability of the lead actor to play both characters, and the doctor’s motivation for conducting his experiment in the first place. The first one’s a challenge for obvious reasons and not every movie star pulls it off (cough! Spencer Tracy), so it’s a great deal of fun to watch it done really well.

The motivation is more serious business though. I grew up loving the Victorian setting of the story and the idea of the transformation, but baffled about what in the world would make Jekyll want to conduct his experiment in the first place. Too many adaptations don’t help with that. He does it for the same reason any other mad scientist conducts his experiments: because he can. But while that works for 98% of the mad scientists out there, it doesn’t work for Jekyll, who’s supposed to be a shining model of goodness. Why would this perfect example of moral uprightness knowingly transform himself into an evil monster? It’s a difficult question that I’m not sure even Robert Louis Stevenson answers very convincingly, so it’s a rare adaptation that pulls it off.

As far as the material transformation goes, the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the best. John Barrymore is second only to Fredric March’s classic, extremely physical performance in the 1931 version. Barrymore’s makeup is outstanding, but he also does a lot with his posture and other body language to become an entirely different character when he’s Hyde.

Fortunately, Barrymore’s version also does really well with the spiritual transformation too. It presents Jekyll not as a naturally upright man, but as someone who works hard to be good. That’s more believable in the first place, as are the cracks we see in his facade when some of his friends coax him into situations that test his virtue. The desire to remain virtuous in spite of temptation is especially strong in a Victorian gentleman like Jekyll, so it’s completely understandable that he wants to develop a scientific loophole to that dilemma. Transforming himself into Hyde allows him the release of being bad, while keeping Jekyll’s conscience clean.

There are all sorts of arguments about how that’s not really a loophole at all – first among them being that Jekyll takes the serum voluntarily – but that’s sort of the whole point of the film. Jekyll doesn’t get off that easy and once he lets his selfish side run loose, it becomes increasingly difficult to put him back in his cage. This version makes it more clear than most that Jekyll’s trouble with Hyde is simply a representation of an experience that most people can relate to: the battle between selflessness and selfishness, and the danger of giving in to the latter. Fredric March’s version is also good at explaining this, but it’s more subtle than Barrymore’s. There are advantages and disadvantages to that.

One of the disadvantages of the lack of subtlety in Barrymore’s version is that the person most responsible for tempting Jekyll to selfishness is the father of his fiancée. Sir George Carew is known to all of his acquaintances as an especially worldly man and one character claims that Carew’s worldliness has made him a great protector for his daughter. I’m not clear on how that logic tracks in the first place, but even if it’s generally true, Carew doesn’t seem to be acting in Millicent’s interests by trying to convince her fiancé to screw around on her.

It’s the result of the movie’s wanting to be as explicit as possible about Jekyll’s dilemma. Carew becomes the demon on Jekyll’s shoulder, pushing him towards wanting to become Hyde. March’s Jekyll doesn’t need someone literally telling him how nice sin is. He’s sees a woman’s naked leg swinging hypnotically over the side of her bed and he knows without having it explained. And so does the audience. Barrymore’s version doesn’t trust us enough to get it without having Carew outline it. Still, I’m glad to have the 1920 Jekyll and Hyde spell everything out really clearly, because it ultimately helps me better understand March’s more sophisticated version.

Rating: Good.


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