Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
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John Barrymore's performance in the silent classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) is described by Barrymore biographer Margot Peters as "a revelation" -- the first real evidence that "a great stage actor could transfer that talent to the screen and be appreciated by a public who had never entered a theater in its life." As it happened, Barrymore's version was one of two silent film treatments of the often-filmed Robert Louis Stevenson story released in 1920. The other was a poorly received vehicle for over-the-top silent actor Sheldon Lewis, set in contemporary New York rather than 19th-century London.
But it was Barrymore's performance that created a sensation. One of the more amazing things about his portrayal is that he accomplishes the intial transition from the refined, handsome Jekyll to the evil, hideous Hyde with no special makeup, camery trickery or cutting. In a continuous sequence that takes up one thousand feet of film, Barrymore simply turns away from the camera with his hands hiding his face, then turns back to reveal grotesquely distorted features. In later sequences, makeup aids his transformation into a horror with pointed head and fangs. Barrymore puts his hands, which he had always considered ugly and "blunt," to effective use as Hyde, wearing sleeves that rise above his wrists as he twists them into claws.
The horrific effects seemed all the more startling to audiences of the day who thought of Barrymore as a handsome, romantic figure. "Underlying the horror of Hyde," Peters writes, "is the astonishing beauty of Dr. Jekyll: the contrast shocks, like a maggot at the heart of a rose." The New York Times was equally impressed by Barrymore's double-edged performance, calling it "one of pure motion-picture pantomime on as high a level as has ever been attained by anyone."
This adaptation, written by Clara Beranger, was the one to establish the convention, followed in most versions since, of having Hyde interact with a "good" and "bad" leading lady. Martha Mansfield (who would die after her costume caught on fire during the filming of The Warrens of Virginia four years later) is the virtuous heroine, while Nita Naldi (wearing costumes that were were considered scandalous even for the flapper age) is the naughty cabaret performer who catches Hyde's lustful eye.
Barrymore was performing Shakespeare's "Richard III" onstage at night while filming Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at New York's Famous Players studio during the daytime. In addition, he was pressing himself to learn his next role as Hamlet and was involved in a tempestuous romance with poetess Michael Strange (Blanche Oelrichs), whom he married in 1920. The result of all the strain was a physical and nervous collapse.
Tallulah Bankhead would recall in her autobiography that she had been approached as a virginal young actress by Barrymore at the time Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was being cast. When it became clear that a session on Barrymore's "casting couch" was part of the process of becoming his leading lady, Bankhead beat a hasty retreat. The two later became friends, though Barrymore admitted that "our relationship was loathsomely platonic."
Producer: Adolph Zukor
Director: John S. Robertson
Screenplay: Clara Beranger, from novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Cinematography: Roy F. Overbaugh
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Principal Cast: John Barrymore (Dr. Henry Jekyll/Mr. Edward Hyde), Martha Mansfield (Millicent Carew), Brandon Hurst (Sir George Carew), Charles Lane (Dr. Richard Lanyon), George Stevens (Poole, Jekyll's butler), Nita Naldi (Miss Gina, Italian Singer).
by Roger Fristoe