Barrymore in Jekyll and Hyde

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920)

Even though I haven’t read Stevenson’s novel in some time, I was immediately aware that this adaptation had taken a lot of liberties. The first detail I remember from the novel is Hyde trampling a small child, and that doesn’t happen until the end of the film. Some of the changes make the story more film-friendly. Jekyll and Hyde the novel is (again from what I recall) told a great deal in retrospect through embedded documents (a common device of the Gothic novel). That wouldn’t work very well in a silent film. Much better to tell the story in order and in dramatic action.

However, other changes transform Jekyll into a far more sympathetic and innocent person, and I’m not sure I care for . I don’t mind transformative adaptations as a rule, but the changes also seem to result in the promotion of some problematic ‘MERICAN stereotypes–or am I way off here? From what I recall, Stevenson’s Jekyll is a fairly typical mad scientist type figure. He wants to experiment with his savage side. However, in this film, Jekyll is a sort of male ingénue (interesting that there is no male equivalent of that term). Although there is no indication that Jekyll is American, he seems a symbolic American to me, especially when his charitable works amongst the poor are juxtaposed with scenes featuring the corrupt British dandies enjoying their cigars and brandy. (And Barrymore would have been known as a famous American actor, later the grandfather of little Drew.) Moreover, Jekyll is much more innocent in this version, falling victim to the temptations of Sir George Carew, the more worldly aristocrat. It’s a common enough trope–innocent New World American corrupted by Old World aristocratic figures–employed in a variety of early American works. But I’m surprised that it remains necessary in 1920.

According to a friend of mine, Barrymore, who had just done some Shakespearean work, said that he imagined Jekyll as Hamlet, Hyde as Richard III. That seems to come through quite well.

Anyway, I’ll end there and leave room for other people’s thoughts, but just some quick comments:

1) Am I the only one who thought that Gina’s dancing fell far short of intoxicating?

2) Why add Millicent? In the book, Jekyll has a friend who tells the tale, right? And isn’t she just a snore? And what kind of father encourages his daughter’s beau to become more corrupt? What the what?

3) How terrifying was that spider?

4) I think it’s safe to say that Hyde’s cane is a phallic symbol, no? Jack?

5) No pinhole fades in this film as in Caligari. Think it’s just a stylistic difference?

17 thoughts on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (John S. Robertson, 1920)

  1. I haven’t read the book in years either, so we’re sailing in foggy waters. Always the best sailing, I think.

    I have plenty of thoughts to put to your post, but first I’d better answer some of your questions. The only term I can think that comes close to male ingénue is milquetoast, a staple figure in film noir. He was a rather nerveless and bland character, mainly there as a plot device for con men. I wouldn’t label Barrymore’s Jekyll that way, but he was definitely a bit of a goodie two shoes.

    I think the straightforward telling of the plot is indebted to Jekyll and Hyde’s long popularity as a stage play or even music hall entertainment. That’s why J&H–not to mention Frankenstein–were some of the most prolific subjects for screen adaptation. The plots tended to fill seats and it’s no secret that abridged and lurid stage adaptations were more popular than the books themselves.

    I really like your view of Jekyll as an American. And that innocent American trope continued up to Henry James, didn’t it? So I suppose the trope isn’t out of place in 1920.

    I’ve forgotten many of the artistic reasons why pinhole fades were used, but I can’t think of anything good to say to that.

    Anyway, to the bulk of my thoughts. Barrymore’s Jekyll was definitely made to be a moral unbelievability. No wonder everyone around him thinks he’s repressed. I think they added Millicent because she creates drama in Jekyll’s waverings between good and evil. Basically, Hollywood had to sex up the picture with a virginal reward for him if he stuck to the clean and narrow. But I don’t think the film did much on that account, almost purely because Millicent gets little screentime, which equals little character traits. She becomes a device that the viewer (and this reviewer) ignores.

    I noticed the dualism of this film. From the first title card the film purports to be about good vs. evil, but I don’t think that was the case. By changing Jekyll’s character, I think the film focuses on the life of the mind vs. “selfish” actions done for the self. He devotes too much time to other people and, in the words of his father-in-law figure, he fits the bill of a “weak man afraid of experience.” So when they take him out on the town, I kind of viewed it at worst as the guys taking him out for a “40 year old virgin” treatment and at best as a way to make Jekyll more fun. You’re right, Karen. What kind of father-in-law does this? Maybe he was just concerned that Jekyll was too work obsessed? He says that Jekyll hardly has time for a personal life, so maybe he’s worried that, once married, Jekyll will ignore Millicent? I dunno, I think the film just became clumsy at this juncture.

    As for the transformation, I read that Barrymore did the initial one without makeup. Just facial contortions and a bit of flyaway hair. (By the by, how significant is it that Hyde’s ape hand is resting on a Bible right after the change?) I noticed parallel’s to Richard III straight off when Barrymore does that ridiculous hunchback. I was just reminded of old concepts of evil being embodied in the physical form of man. You can see the depravity in that leer. I will make a complaint about the hamminess of the silent acting. There’s an old adage that, when playing the villain, one shouldn’t act villainous. The character has to believe they are acting ethically or morally sound by their own subjective definition. Hyde just becomes over the top as a balance to Jekyll’s perfect goodness.

    So what happens? When Hyde starts acting for himself–and his initial actions aren’t that evil, to be honest, just pervy–there is an immediate moral decline. A card shows up to tell the audience of this fact. But here’s the rub, and it comes up with that spider effect. (Yowza, I didn’t see that coming.) Early on, Carew is talking about good and evil existing within all of us, and yet it is our choice which path we take. Yet that spider effect symbolizes that Jekyll is the victim or the prey of Hyde. Evil isn’t so much a choice as an unwilling habit. And who’s the bloke who was “ashamed of [Jekyll’s’] goodness”? Old Sir Carew, who promptly gets murdered by Hyde.

    I don’t actually have conclusions to all this, so…there ya go, poor readers.

    1) Although Gina’s dancing could definitely have been more intoxicating for pre-code Hollywood, her top did seem scandalous for the time. The film is supposed to be set in the novel’s era, after all.

    4) Sorry, I must not notice phallic symbols everywhere. I didn’t notice the cane.

    6) I’m adding this one. Carew was another scientist, and yet he told Jekyll early on to stick to the “positive sciences.” That seems to emotionalize pure scientific experiment, when ultimately the implementation of science is the only area where science can be “negative” or unethical. I tried to connect this to the good vs. evil plot, but I’m going to be frank with you all–I’m tired.

    PS – Damn this got to be a long reply. I watched the film on youtube and I wanted to ask everyone if they had the same ridiculous soundtrack, an endless repetition of Pachelbel’s Canon and Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor (you know, the creepy organ music used for schlock effect)? It’s obvious the original score must be lost. Did someone else have a more interesting soundtrack? I just turned off the volume and created my own.

    PPS – Since you brought up Hamlet and I brought up hammy acting, I’ve always wondered if there’s a connection. Hamlet is the quintessential yak yak character that can be overacted behind recognition.

    PPPS – Seriously, watch Fredric March’s 1931 “Jekyll and Hyde” because it is just so much more interesting:

    1. I know I know, that last post was so long. But I looked up some factoids on this adaptation and found out that it was based on Thomas Russell Sullivan’s stage play of Stevenson’s story. The play opened in 1887, just a year after the book, and it toured in Britain for 20 straight years. Here’s Richard Mansfield, the man who created the stage role:

      So I think we can blame Millicent on Sullivan and his need to restructure this story with a love plot.

  2. The tip-off for me to associate Jekyll with American Idealism was that he was described as an “idealist” and a “progressive,” this being being produced and released in a United States fresh out of the progressive Wilson presidency, and fresh out of the Great War, which a vocal minority of Americans saw as a kind of idealistic, progressive crusade. And just think about how those old-fashioned, corrupt Rich Guys must have compared to how Americans viewed the Old World (and our own upper classes, for that matter) at the time: as a pack of conniving, conservative-leaning troublemakers. I really think this film has boom-era politics (and skepticism about those politics) written all over it. I’m thinking back to Jekyll’s pseudo-climactic accusation of Carew. “It was you—you with your cynicism—who made me ashamed of my goodness, who made me long for a knowledge of evil!” I think that a formerly isolationist American audience could easily take this as an invective aimed at the Old World, for doing what may have been perceived as dragging our innocent, kindly nation in their cynical, evil conflict.

    I was also really interested in all the dichotomies it set up, almost as analogs to the split-personality device: Rich/poor, progressive/conservative, idealist/cynic, Madonna/whore, altruism/selfishness, nobility/depravity. Combined, they all hint at the divisions in people and societies which a lot of recent-ish thinkers like Freud (yes, Freud again) and Nietzsche had written about in the recent-ish past. They thought of human beings and societies as really driven by these dichotomies, which was a fairly controversial claim. But the coolest part of the movie, for me, was the series of shots in Hyde’s microscope early on, something that probably next to no audience-members had ever really seen, and which I have to imagine came off like the creation-of-the-cosmos stuff in Tree of Life. I felt like the director was saying, “If you think the two-natures trope is overdone, have a look at this. You people are all aggregated from little, divided cells that move and act on their own, without your input. And there are a lot of them. Got it?” I can’t think of a better way to say it, actually.


    1) I’m not sure that Gina’s dancing would have been all that scandalous at the time. If the film borrows heavily from the stage plays, I have to imagine that any audience members accustomed to those performances (where you can, gasp!, see the dancer’s hips) would have been pretty underwhelmed by what they got onscreen here. Plus, the film might have been made for a larger (and thus more easily offended) audience. I could be wrong on this, though. What caught my attention more in this scene was the fact that the folks in that fine establishment were, gasp!, drinking alcohol, possibly as a deliberate taunt directed at America’s nascent prohibition lobby.

    I also noticed that Gina was explicitly Italian, which probably reflected American attitudes on Italian immigration, which hit its peak in the years before this movie was released. They were probably seen as mysterious yet overtly sexual and vaguely threatening (e.g. with poison rings) people.

    2) I didn’t have too much trouble with Carew’s attempts to corrupt Jekyll. For one, I get the distinct impression that he does not like Jekyll very much, since he insults Jekyll’s scientific practice early on in the film. So perhaps he deliberately wants to sabotage the marriage and set Millicent up with one of his other Rich Guy friends. Another more speculative explanation is that he wants to test Jekyll. Or, Hell, maybe he just disrespects his daughter enough (notice that he has no wife, thus no female peers who can set any tone of mutual respect) to actually corrupt her husband without her knowledge.

    3) The spider was, for me, just meh. I was more impressed with how they must have pulled off the special effect, and how utterly, mind-blowingly badass it must have been to see on film in 1920. It was probably something like seeing the T-1000 do its liquefied thing in 1991.

    4) I got some vague phallic vibes from the cane, yes. He does accost a sexually available woman with it at around 45:30, and he does use it to kill his father figure (=Carew) in the end. Maybe, maybe not. Unless you noticed any other evidence, Karen, I don’t think that it really adds anything too substantial to the meaning of the film to commit to a reading like this, so I’ll abstain for now.

    5) No, there are no pinhole fades, but there is one random pinholed shot at around 36:30, during the scene depicting Gina’s ring’s Machiavellian history. Maybe it’s just a common technique for stories within stories?

    6) I looked up “positive science,” and it seems to derive from the divide between “positivistic” science and “normative” science. Normative science is value-laden stuff, or at least stuff which is perceived as being value-laden by those whose values it contradicts. I don’t think the distinction exists in these terms today, but the “positivistic” sciences would basically be the natural sciences, as opposed to the more “normative” social sciences. A the time the story takes place, biology (of which, as best as I can tell, Jekyll is a practitioner) would have been more value-laden than other “positive” sciences like physics or chemistry.

    7) Lastly I have a little bit of trouble wrapping my head around the whole Jekyll & Hyde motif at times. It came up when I read the book, and it still happens: if people are really of two (or, in any case, more than one) nature(s) does it really make sense to talk about, usually the good one, one as “primary,” and upon which the evil nature imposes itself? Is this even a valid criticism of the overall narrative? Or is this just my school-of-suspicion-addled mind working in areas that it should not be?

    1. NIce call on the positivistic sciences. I probably should have looked that up rather than assume an ethical judgment.

      I really like your opening paragraph–that sold me on the interpretation.

      People would likely have been awed by the microscope shots. I know that as late as the 1940s there were magnified images of cheese mites preceding the feature films. (Cheese manufacturers actually tried to ban them, figuring the footage would turn people off cheese.)

      I’ll second you on Carew disliking Jekyll. They completely veered away from each other on scientific matters so I could see Carew looking askance at Jekyll’s achievements, even if he is an angel to the poor.

      Yeah, the pinhole was used to make viewer’s aware of a change in time or space. It was just a common effect. Film language had barely started to establish itself by this point, so a transition effect doesn’t necessarily need to be more than that.

      I think the complete separation of good and bad is an old fashioned view anyway, so I get your confusion about the Jekyll/Hyde motif. Everything mingles inside us like a muddy pool, so it doesn’t do anything worthwhile to try and separate the mud from the water and call one pure.

      Eck, I’m tired…

  3. Wow–you guys brought up a lot of great points. I can only respond in list form. First, excellent point about “milquetoast.” Hadn’t thought about that.

    I agree that the movie was influenced by plays, but I suppose that again begs the question of why the changes were necessary from novel to play. Same reason, right: I’m guessing it’s about adding action, melodrama, and selling tickets. Does that mean then that plays were seen as a “lower” art forms than novels then, in the same way that film seems lesser than novels today, and television then lesser than film? Interesting how the art forms get ranked. What is that ranking based on? I’ve been wondering for a while why it is that films based on novels can get some kudos but novels based on films never do.

    I agree that there is some conflict in the film about whether morality is a choice (nature) or environmental (nurture). This film begins with the claim that what we want to be, we are, but I don’t think the film’s plot bears this out. I agree that the moment with the spider makes this case most clearly. But also it seems that Jekyll’s descent into vice is portrayed as an addiction, almost like alcohol and opium. Not sure what to make of that.

    I don’t think Carew told Jekyll about the positive sciences. Wasn’t that Layman? Carew doesn’t seem scientific at all. In the novel, he is a client of Jekyll’s lawyer friend. He just seems a Dorian Gray-ish figure.

    The version I watched did have a ridiculous soundtrack.

    Bob’s interpretation of Gina’s dancing is that she is forced to be wild and seductive within a very small and immovable frame. This seems like an interesting take. Kinda like the dancing scene in Silence of the Lambs.

    Yes, the cane struck me as phallic at one point in the bar when Hyde was caressing a woman with it.

    My thinking about the pinhole shots were that in Caligari, the scene seemed to end on someone’s face (i.e., their emotion, state of mind), which made it seem more like psychological realism. But in Jekyll and Hyde, the whole scene faded out, making it seem more like an omniscient shift. I don’t know if that makes sense.

    I was also thinking about how in modern versions of this film (like The Nutty Professor), the Hyde side is far more attractive and suave. Definitely some shifts in masculine ideologies going on.

    1. I think that plays were highly respected, but we have to remember that Stevenson’s novel wasn’t exactly considered a classic on its publication. Wasn’t it considered sensational fiction, and it sold for a shilling. It was kind of like the pulp fiction of its day. I think it’s “literary” and “high thinkin” qualities weren’t given to it until later. So an adaptation would likely just be for the crowds seeking melodramatic entertainment.

      I’ll admit to not being impressed by novels based on films. I think the stigma is that those are just acts of transcription, requiring less creative work. That’s not exactly my view, I know those “transcriptions” take effort, but I do think there’s something about how film novelizations are more obviously geared towards earning money than “serious” fiction. (Let’s face it, everyone wants a bestseller.)

      See, Karen, there you go explaining my thoughts on the film’s nature v. nurture aspect much more clearly and concisely than I did. Jekyll’s descent into vice is an addiction, but its one that he can’t rid himself of, so I suppose it’s like all drugs: the initial choice to take it seems harmless, experimental even, but then it becomes an unwilling habit. Drugs or alcohol start to overpower the person like any habit and a person can’t just decide to stop doing it. So maybe Jekyll becomes a prey to his own lack of inhibitions and finds that evil acts brand a personality just as surely as good deeds do. I dunno, I’m rambling on morals now. That’s exactly what people did with the book when it came out. It was so popular and so seemingly moral that preachers took it to the pulpit as an instructional tool for their flock.

      Yeah, Lanyon told Jekyll about the positive sciences. I’ll be honest, I kind of jumble side characters in silent films. Without speech many of them become bland placeholder figures.

      Yay, another ridiculous soundtrack! We might come across that a lot, because silent films often lose their accompanying music. Many of them had original scores but they were lost with time, so DVDs just include whatever mashup of badly performed classical they can get their hands on. Like I said, if I were you I’d just make your own (inappropriate?) soundtrack. It’s fun!

      I like Bob’s interpretation of Gina’s dancing. He’s also nice to watch these with you.

      Men and their canes, always caressing people…I am reminded of those joke canes for old geezers that have compact mirrors at the bottom to facilitate up-skirt-peeking.

      Your pinhole thoughts make sense. It was a transition used for a plethora of purposes.

      The modern mind kinda loves a bad boy, so I think that explains some of the paradigm shift. We’re not so fixated on presenting a moral character in plays and films as an example for viewers. Plus, it probably isn’t politically correct to make the embodiment of evil a disfigured person. We can’t all live in Shakespeare’s code of ethics. Richard III did not, historically, have a hunchback or a deformed hand. It was added because those were signs of a corrupt individual at the time, as widely understood as sunglasses on an action star = badass.

      1. That dash before badass is supposed to be an equals sign, but it’s kind of hard to tell in the font. No blame on you, Karen, I like the set up. It’s easy enough on the eyes and I like the thumbnail pictures you have for each discussion. I expect to see a good shot of the rat-faced vampire for the next film.

    1. I think the font would be okay if you managed to make it bolder. Sometimes it’s hard to decipher between a comma and a period. Not a big problem, but hey…

    2. Thank you for the boldness! My eyes didn’t realize what they were missing before. I hope this WordPress change didn’t take too much effort, but even if it did the new look is well worth it.

      1. Pish, I’m young and the eyes had to get strain at some point. Despite many hours reading small print brick books I still haven’t caught up with a friend’s eyestrain record. She spent many 5 hour sessions staring through microscopes and ponderosa pine stomata.

        I share because I’m proud of that kind of commitment to something 98% of people couldn’t give a toss about.

        PS – I think academics need that kind of encouragement. Obviously I’m not talking about your research, Karen, but you know what I mean…

      2. Ack, I meant “staring through microscopes at”.

        It’s the eye strain, K, it got to me.

  4. Honestly, I think the ranking of artforms is mostly justified. Written literature typically takes more mental work to read and understand well, films less so, and TV least of all (and then there’s videogames, and then there’s social media). There are always exceptions, and it changes over time as each media comes into its own, as I think TV is now doing, but I think that the “value” of a given medium and the artforms associated with it is not arbitrary. My hypothesis is that, when a newer medium shows up, there is always an established, well-educated, and eloquent community of academics and professional critics to argue on behalf of an older medium’s intellectual superiority, and to warn against the newer medium’s being “just” popular, or “just” entertainment. Newer media don’t have this kind of advocacy, so I think they tend to have a bad first impression sociologically. The transition from poetry to prose was like this, and from prose to film, then to TV, then to videogames, etc. I see it in music, too: classical musicians kept jazz and blues at arms length, who in turn kept pop/rock at arms length, and now a lot of rock audiences complain about how electronic music is “just button pushing.” Good grief is this digressive.

    I think the shifting-masculinities thing has a lot to do with how cultures prioritize nature vs. nurture. Victorian England probably viewed nature (or at least humans’ natural tendencies) as something to be controlled or repressed, and viewed nurture as “better.” Americans, since pretty much always, tend to view nature as authentic and better because it’s closer to some truth about the human condition, while nurture is viewed as inauthentic and contrived. So masculinity shifted too. This might explain the nutty professor’s suave (as opposed to creepy) alter ego, but I think it also explains Fight Club, which I think is the be-all-end-all American re-imagining of Jekyll & Hide. The Incredible Hulk is an outlier, though.

    1. I’ll agree to your paragraph on artform ranking, but we just need to remember it isn’t all so cut and dry. I know for a fact that many classical musicians embraced jazz and incorporated elements of it into their work, and vice versa.

      Good call on Fight Club.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s