During the silent era, the reinvention of visual horror allowed filmmakers and producers to experiment in film techniques that would become a mainstay in the genre’s mode of expression. Many of these relied heavily on makeup (Frankenstein, Dracula) or early pioneering special effects (The Haunted Castle, The Phantom Carriage), but some relied on more human sensibilities. Mere movement and facial expressions dominate the horrific tone in F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu; Max Schreck’s grotesque, almost Korinian features have remained a cornerstone of vampiric imagery for nearly a century. In the same vein, John Barrymore managed a horror portrait in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that has left John S. Robertson’s vision of the Robert Louis Stevenson story a target for restoration and preservation against countless other Jekyll remakes. Barrymore’s future star power is present in his depiction of the familiar transformation scene — overacting by today’s standards perhaps, but the contortions and physical limits he is willing to break to make the change memorable has solidified Robertson’s interpretation as a milestone in early horror.
The narrative devices and interesting elements of Stevenson’s story has far outlived discussion of any particular adaptation, rooting itself in cultural discussion so its themes, names, and connotations are familiar to even those who haven’t indulged in the story. Yet, it may still be worth summarizing as a silent film with a linear narrative will be sure to deviate from modern adaptations as well as the tricky roundabout plot structure of the story itself.
Dr. Jekyll (John Barrymore) is a well-respected scientist excited by the new possibilities of chemistry, much to the dismay of the his old, conservative partner, Lanyon (Charles Willis Lane). Although Jekyll is as charitable as he is curious, often stopping by a free clinic to help the feeble and poor, he is a nervous gentleman of the 19th century — privy to swanky gatherings of the rest of the city’s elite minds and partially courting a beautiful Millicent (Martha Mansfield, with the visual serenity of Lillian Gish), daughter of nobleman friend George Carew (Brandon Hurst). His meekness being tempted out of him after a late-night dance-hall run, Jekyll’s scientific mind races to confront a moral dichotomy through practical means: if he can physically separate his tempted self from his virtuous self, surely his soul will still be preserved. Through experimentation, Jekyll changes into Hyde, allowing him to visit the dance halls, opium dens, and seedy women while his Jekyll self can continue his gentlemanly affairs. However, the more he drinks the potion, the more potent Hyde becomes, leading to battery and murder as well as an overtaking of the body of Jekyll for good. Relieved with sanity for a final moment, Jekyll takes a dose of poison, killing himself and his monstrous creation.
While the story is ripe with religious undertones and predictable (at least as predictable as a familiar story can be) melodrama — a tale of the duality of human behaviors is visually actualized within context of a frightening scientific advancement and the evolution of temptation is played down too slippery a slope to almost be a mockery of these fears — Barrymore’s performance is so grand that his name takes up a large portion of the original poster and the new Blu-ray cover. His transformation scenes allow him to topple over, surely causing injury in the process, his hair shifting from dainty perfection to sloven madman, his face unrecognizable even without makeup, his posture referencing deformity and malnourishment. There is a close-up to blatantly give the audience access to camera effects, as makeup cakes his fingers into ghastly claws, yet no amount of cinematic advancement could follow up Barrymore’s dedication to the role. Sadly, Mansfield is left to a form of weeping beauty for the camera; a pre-pre-code male gaze dominates her light close-ups as she is shown only in respect to worrying for Jekyll’s troubles and absence, her life dedicated to making the man happy. The supporting players also feed into Barrymore’s performance, evident only as characters who playfully dabble in their sin, their apathy occupying a higher moral standing than the innocent yet curious Jekyll and his crimes by way of science.
Kino Classics’s restoration of the tale on DVD in 2009 has now been upgraded to a deluxe edition available on Blu-ray. Its tinted black and white is discernibly mastered in high definition, yet much of the restoration suffers from the ailments of silent-era transfers — blotchy yet quite visible, certainly better than an average disc transfer. Musical accompaniment is provided by a compilation by Rodney Sauer and performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Usually in silent pictures, musical accompaniment may be substituted and rearranged, labeled as nonessential. Yet this orchestra provides not just a moody horror-like score, but an assemblage of Victorian aesthetics sonically aware of the importance of the transformation scene, while non-intrusive when slow action is key. Also included on the disc, perhaps in an effort to highlight the relative success of Robertson’s interpretation, are several other tales of Dr. Jekyll: a 1912 interpretation by Edwin Thanhouser, another 1920 version produced by Louis B. Mayer, a slapstick short entitled Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride, as well as a very short audio piece from 1909 depicting Jekyll’s transformation scene. These extras are rare and valuable, certainly essential to to silent enthusiasts, yet do little to highlight or champion the feature work unless promoting Barrymore in comparison.
Despite its on-the-nose moralizing and determination to voice its concerns over the oncoming age of scientific advancement, the tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has remained close to Western cautionary tales, its themes embedded and matured in later cultural tales (everywhere from Hitchcock’s Psycho to Marvel’s Hulk). John S. Roberton and John Barrymore’s interpretation of the immortal character at least gives a haunting portrayal that rivals most monster movies at the time — a menacing Victorian-era devil being the embodiment of lust and desire, able to spawn out of the most saintly and unsuspecting beings remains a prelude to the cinematic psychological horror of the 20th century.
— Zach Lewis