Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

This silent film is the first feature-length adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's famous novella (though it might perhaps be more accurate to say it is an adaptation of the 1887 stage production of the book).  It stars early screen icon John Barrymore - grandfather of Drew - and his performance is definitely the main reason to check it out.  He's fastidiously prim and proper in his early scenes as Jekyll, and gleefully repellent as Hyde.

There's also some good make-up work, as you might expect from such a production, and a quite nice sequence where a nightmarish spider-beast crawls over the sleeping Jekyll.  So it's not a film without some evocative moments.

Unfortunately, it's also a film with some pretty big flaws.  The first is the clumsiness of the narrative structure.  As you might expect of a silent film, a lot of the plot's forward movement is accomplished via use of text cards.  Which is fine in and of itself, but here they are poorly spaced and paced, sometimes coming in a hurried flurry that gallops things forward, and makes for a very disjointed feel.

Now admittedly this is an early film.  It's the oldest I've reviewed and clocks in at a mighty 95 years of age - to give some context, the release date of this film is 40 years closer to the American Civil War than it is to today - so it's perhaps not surprising that the narrative structure isn't too refined.  On the other hand, there's little excuse for the awfulness of the soundtrack, which burbles jauntily along regardless of the tone of the actual scene.  Dinner party?  Jaunty.  Hyde beats a child?  Jaunty.  A woman is told her father has been murdered?  Jaunty, jaunty, jaunty.

The third weakness of the film is Jekyll himself.  He's a supposedly good man, but apparently one of such weak convictions that he is swayed by the argument "You can only overcome temptation by indulging it".  Which is ... well, it's clearly nonsense.  Anyway, he wants to sample forbidden pleasures but fears for his soul, and so seeks a way to create an alter-ego for himself; one who will bear the sin of all the wicked things he does.  Which frankly, makes him a pretty terrible person.

(In the original novella by the by, Jekyll is a bad man with sordid vices - he creates Hyde as a way to indulge those vices without being found out and losing his standing in society.  So he's a terrible person, but at least we're not supposed to feel sorry for him.)

Plot-wise, you probably know the drill: Hyde proves stronger than his creator and begins to take over, threatening the discovery that the scoundrel has been Jekyll all along.  The film throws Jekyll a love interest that Hyde can menace, too.

I'm glad I've seen this, because it is an interesting piece of cinematic history (and Barrymore really is very good in the lead role), but I wouldn't recommend it to anyone who isn't as bit a film history wonk as I am.

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