Movie Review – “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)”

This seemed like a good follow-up to this recent book review, and I needed to screen it anyway before I give a copy to one of my students tomorrow. (My students can win prizes for certain activities, and this DVD is only $5, so that works out well.)

Cast, Crew, and Other Info

John Barrymore as
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Written by Clara Beranger, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson (reviewed and linked from here).
Directed by John S. Robertson

Complete information is available from the IMDB.

This DVD release includes very little in the way of options, and the trasnfer itself is lousy. It’s also got a horrible musical score, with dark and brooding organ music while Jekyll is working at a hospital for the homeless that he created, and some light, happy, woodwind stuff while Hyde is killing people. Moreover, the music playing when the movie ends just stops, obviously at a point that wasn’t where the original composer intended that music to end. I plan to upgrade to this release at some point in the not-too-distant future. (Kino did a great job on the other DVDs in my collection, so I’ll upgrade my copies of Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari at the same time. The Nosferatu review will wait until then.)
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Past movie reviews can be found here.

Premise

Dr. Jekyll, an amazing humanitarian, is led into a study of the duality of human nature by his future father-in-law.

High Point

The initial transformation. Yes, it’s overplayed, but that was the standard at the time. I give Barrymore credit for doing it all himself; the make-up was added later. His first transformation was a bit of messed up hair, and some drastic changes in body language.

Low Point

Sir George wasn’t particularly likeable. I think it detracts from the impact of his last scene.

The Scores

This is an adaptation, but I’m still giving it originality credit, as it completely shifted the focus and the genre of the original work, without detracting from the morals and discussions presented there. (In fact, it removed some of the subtlety in those ideas.) It’s not a completely faithful adaptation, giving a large portion of Mr. Utterson’s role to Sir George, and adding the love interest completely, but the spirit of the original is preserved, so the changes don’t bother me. I give it 5 out of 6.

The effects were produced by double exposure and make-up. For the time, it’s well done, but it’s not passable by today’s standards in many places. Even by the old standards, it couldn’t have been convincing. I give it 3 out of 6.

The story is well done. It’s pretty well detailed for a silent film, and the changes made to the original were consistently and carefully applied, so we don’t get the mishmash that we’ve seen with other adaptations. The changes made are also done to bring Jekyll into the focus. This moves things from the mystery/thriller genre into the tragic horror category, but it’s still well done. I give it 5 out of 6.

The acting was the exaggerated acting that people used at the time, since they were still trained for the stage. Barrymore pulls off the first transformation entirely on his own, though, so I have to give some credit for that. I give it 4 out of 6.

The emotional response this produced was better than most silent films. These were black and white, with intertitles cutting in to replace dialogue, so it’s difficult to get absorbed in the film. There were still a few moments of strong interest, and the murder still comes across as being rather brutal today. I give it 4 out of 6.

The production was still part of the “let’s point a camera at a play” mentality, with the iris being used frequently to direct audience attention. There is no sound that we can judge it by, since this was a silent film, so different editions have different transfers. (The Kino version of this has a score composed for the film. The Nosferatu and Caligari releases each have two soundtracks to pick from.) The set and costume design were both well done, though. This was important in the silent era, since we need visual cues to figure out the characters we’re looking at. I give it 4 out of 6.

Overall, this is a good movie. I’d recommend it to anyone who enjoys (or thinks he or she might enjoy) watching a silent movie. I give it 4 out of 6.

In total, the first film adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde receives 29 out of 42.

2 replies on “Movie Review – “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)””

  1. dgswensen says:

    Nicely done, but…
    For the time, it’s well done, but it’s not passable by today’s standards in many places. Even by the old standards, it couldn’t have been convincing. I give it 3 out of 6.

    I don’t understand this one aspect of your review. For the time, it’s well done… but by the standards of the time, it’s not convincing. Since the whole purpose of a special effect is to be convincing, these seem contradictory to me. Which is it?

    And yeah, not passable by today’s standards? No kidding. What a ludicrous criteria to judge a film on. Movies made twenty years ago are “not passable” by today’s standards, much less eighty years ago, because our standards are currently in the Uncanny Valley.

    I think standards, and what people would be convinced by eighty years ago, have changed so drastically that the two could not even be reasonably compared. Remember that this was almost a good two decades before the War of the Worlds radio show caused a nationwide panic because people thought the Martians were invading. Showing a screening of Jurassic Park in full Dolby surround in the 1920s would have probably sent people screaming into the streets.

    (And, as contrast, I’ve already heard some people talk about how fake the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park look, which to me is just mind-boggling.)

    Sorry for the rant, I just have a personal appreciation for the ingenuity of classic special effects, and think modern audiences are, for the most part, very spoiled by the quality of what we have now in the movies. Otherwise, this was a good review. I am glad to see some of the classic films getting reviewed here.

    • fiziko says:

      Re: Nicely done, but…

      I don’t understand this one aspect of your review. For
      the time, it’s well done… but by the standards of the
      time, it’s not convincing. Since the whole purpose of a
      special effect is to be convincing, these seem
      contradictory to me. Which is it?

      The point I was trying to make was that the effects were
      considerably better than those I’ve seen from this film’s
      contemporaries, but things like a camera dissolve from
      Jekyll’s hand to Hyde’s hand couldn’t ever have looked
      like anything but a camera dissolve from Jekyll’s hand to
      Hyde’s hand.

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