Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) – By Duane L. Martin

Dr. Jekyll is one of those rare people whose goodness dominates every aspect of their life. Not satisfied with simply being a talented physician who has the potential to earn a fortune, he donates some of his time and talents to treating the poor and helpless. He lives a life where goodness and purity…at least he did, until Sir George Carew, the father of his intended, a very sheltered Millicent Carew, told him he should be more worldly. To that end, he took him to what was basically a dive bar that had a dancing girl who Sir George arranged to tempt the young doctor, which she did, but it also gave him an idea. He wondered if it would be possible to come up with a way to split the base nature of a man from his pure nature, basically becoming two different people. That way the base side of him could enjoy all the forbidden pleasures of life while the pure side could remain with their soul untarnished.

He came up with a formula that would turn him into Mr. Hyde, and as Hyde, he could fornicate with women, attack young children, steal and even murder without tainting the soul of the most good and pure Dr. Jekyll. At first it was working out well, but over time he lost control of it and even started changing into Hyde without the formula. As Hyde became more and more pervasive, the life he once knew started falling apart.

I was excited when I got the opportunity to review this one for three reasons. I love silent films, I’ve never actually seen a Jekyll and Hyde film, so I only had a passing familiarity with the story, and finally, I’ve never seen a film with John Barrymore. Those three things had me really jazzed to see this one. I have to say however that I came away from it with mixed feelings.

Silent films are well known for the exaggerated nature of the acting, which was necessary to get the story across without dialog. The problem with this film is that John Barrymore really takes being a drama queen to a whole other level. It seemed like for half the movie he was either staring dramatically or acting like a fat lady looking like she was about to have a stroke because someone just told her the buffet was closing for the evening.

Then we have Millicent. I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen a woman either faint or come close to fainting so many times in a single film. I mean seriously…fainting goats don’t have as much trouble staying on their feet as she does in this film.

Now on the flip side, I do have to say that the Hyde character was a combination of sleezy and creepy that just haunted the screen. The make-up on the character made him look like he’d been created from some genetic leftovers that had been rolled around in the gutter until they turned into something resembling Silly Putty, and then taken back into a lab to be turned into Mr. Hyde. He even had kind of a cone head, which was bizarre looking to say the least.

The general atmosphere of the film was dark and moody. Even during the times where he was himself, we were taken to his clinic where the poor and indigent gathered with their injuries and illnesses, or to the seedier parts of society, like the bar with the dancing girl slash prostitute. His laboratory was another great setting, full of bottles and equipment that made it look like a real doctor’s lab. Even the hole in the wall he rented as Hyde couldn’t have been a more perfect setting for the disgustingly horrible character he’d become.

This release from Kino Lorber looks as spectacular as you’d expect from a company that really respects the classics. It was mastered from archival 35mm elements and cleaned up so the visual qulity is amazing, as it always is with anything Kino releases. Not only that, but it comes loaded with special features including a musical score compiled by Rodney Sauer, performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, a 1912 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde short from 1912 starring James Cruze, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde 15-minute cut of the rival 1920 version, starring Sheldon Lewis, produced by Lewis B. Mayer, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride, a 1925 slapstick parody starring Stan Laurel and The Transformation Scene, a rare 1909 audio recording.

Though it’s frequently overly dramatic, this is a very dark and atmospheric telling of a very famous Robert Louis Stevenson story, and while there were several shorts made of the story between 1908 and 1913, this is one of two feature length versions of the story made in 1920. The other was a German adaptation starring Conrad Veidt and directed by F.W. Murnau, which has apparently been lost.

If you’re a lover of the silent classics, that alone is enough reason to add this to your collection. When you factor in the stellar quality of the release and all the great extras, it becomes a no-brainer. As with many of the silent films I review, I’m happy to give this one a most heart-felt recommendation.

If you’d like to find out more about this release, you can check out its page on the Kino Lorber website here, and if you’d like to pick up a copy for yourself, you can get the blu-ray or DVD from Amazon or from any of the other usual outlets.