Welcome to Silver Screams! Every month, I’ll guide you through a deep dive into a classic horror film or hidden gem and reveal its history and juicy behind the scenes secrets. This month, we have a lot of time on our hands to self reflect, and a lot of current events to reflect on. And while the news may toss some of us into existential despair as we witness humanity acting at our worst, we’ve also seen plenty of hopeful examples of people acting from their better natures and standing up for what’s right. Horror film has always been a mirror into society, even in it’s earliest incarnations. And while the films of the 1920s didn’t boast the most nuanced insight into good and evil, their power as allegory endures.
So this month, let’s look at early horror film’s take on the duality of human nature, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920). It’s a simplistic take on the original story, elevated into horror gold through the talents of John Barrymore, proving that the Barrymore clan deserved their place in the horror hall of fame long before John’s grandaughter Drew answered that phone call in 1996.
“Horror film has always been a mirror into society, even in it’s earliest incarnations.”
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s iconic novella of duality and split personality, has seen more film adaptations than any work of literature, beat out only by the stories of Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. The story has been adapted into hit stage plays as early as 1887, a mere year after the novel’s publication. The first film adaptation was a now lost 1908 short, and the novella was adapted for the screen nearly every year of the silent era. Why then, has the 1920 film remained as the most widely respected and remembered adaptation, even as the story survived into the sound era and modern Hollywood?
Quite simply, it comes down to John Barrymore. His performance as the upstanding Dr. Jekyll and his evil alter ego Mr. Hyde is a combination of physical performance and practical effects that has yet to be topped in any adaptation, or in the horror genre at large. He may not be known as a horror icon as much as Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, or Bela Lugosi, but Barrymore proved in his 1920 performance that he deserves a place among the greats of the genre. Beyond Barrymore, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is merely a solid adaptation, but his terrifying dedication to the role is what makes the film continue to work to this day.
Duality and Death
It’s difficult to explain how powerful and popular Stevenson’s novella was at the time of its release. Today, the premise is so ingrained in popular culture that it doesn’t retain much power to shock or horrify. But Stevenson’s story, written over less than a week under the influence of illness, nightmares, and (allegedly) cocaine, was a sensation. The story was so immediately popular that the original twist ending was quickly spoiled and is now the starting premise of most adaptations. With nearly every adaptation told from the point of view of Dr. Jekyll, it’s easy to forget that in the original, we don’t discover that the Doctor and Mr. Hyde are the same person until the climax.
Stevenson was potentially inspired by the revelation of an upstanding friend, French teacher Eugene Chatrelle, who was convicted of murdering his wife in 1878. Stevenson attended the trail and was shocked by the revelation that someone who appeared outwardly proper and trustworthy was capable of such evil. It got the author thinking about the parts of human personalities that remain hidden behind closed doors, especially in the image-obsessed culture of Victorian high society. Amongst the people in Stevenson’s world, reputation was everything, often forcing unsavory aspects of life into the shadows and behind closed doors.
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“Hollywood knew that while most audiences loved indulging in some dark and sinful activities via the movies, they had to include a clear moral message…”
The 1920 film version was the first to establish several common story beats that are often accepted as part of the original novel. In the script, by Clara Beranger, Jekyll is a saintly and good man, devoted to helping the poor and averse to all vices, until the goading of his fiance’s father Sir George Carewe (Brandon Hurst), pushes him to experiment with his sinful side through a drug-induced personality split. In the original novella, Jekyll is no saint. He’s a socially aware, proper, and respected man, but he has a leaning toward vice even prior to his experimentation.
The more nuanced characterization of the original story reflects the people Stevenson knew in his circle and the hypocritical Victorian society that he was critiquing. By the 1920s, Hollywood knew that while most audiences loved indulging in some dark and sinful activities via the movies, they had to include a clear moral message to appeal to the more conservative parts of the country. Therefore, much of the ambiguity of the original novel is lost in Baranger’s adaptation, and the characterization of Dr. Jekyll as a virtuous man endures.
The Power of Performance
One positive side effect of the 1920 scripts’ simplistic characterization is the increased impact of Mr. Hyde. In 1920, John Barrymore was already a superstar of stage and screen. He was a heartthrob known for his striking profile who most often played romantic and heroic leading roles, albeit including complex and acclaimed turns as Shakespearean leads like Hamlet and Richard III. As Dr. Jekyll, Barrymore was lit like a saint, standing tall among the masses of Victorian London and sweetly courting his saintly fiance, Millicent Carewe (Martha Mansfield). Barrymore, Beranger, and director John S. Robertson understood that the popular concept of Barrymore would work in favor of the horror potential for the film. Therefore they held off the transformation into Mr. Hyde just long enough for the audience to get used to the familiar sight of Barrymore as a handsome leading man.
But once Jekyll is ready to try his serum for the first time, the film steps fully into horror at a level that speaks to Barrymore’s incredible skill and ability to shock to this day. The reveal of Lon Chany in full makeup in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) is an iconic moment in silent horror for good reason, but I would argue that the first transformation into Mr. Hyde beats it in both impact and achievement. With all due respect to the “man of a thousand faces,” but Barrymore transforms into the monstrous Mr. Hyde in a single unbroken take. How? By using no makeup! In fact, the effect is achieved solely through the incredible physical performance of John Barrymore and his uncanny ability to contort his own face and body into a monster.
“Once Jekyll is ready to try his serum for the first time, the film steps fully into horror at a level that speaks to Barrymore’s incredible skill and ability to shock to this day.”
The take took over one thousand feet of film and featured Barrymore writhing in pain and eventually revealing a grotesque visage and a creeping hunched posture. The actor felt that his hands were unattractive and chose to highlight them by pulling his sleeves up past his wrists and arching his fingers into claws. The first sequence where the newly transformed Hyde admires his appearance by candlelight in a mirror is even more disturbing when you realized that the uncanny fiend staring back is accomplished on the matinee idol’s face with no practical effects, just performance.
As the story progresses, the appearance of Hyde becomes even more hideous and eventually incorporates the aid of makeup. This was an idea outlined by Beranger in her screenplay, incorporating aspects of The Picture of Dorian Gray by having each transformation reflect Hyde’s further descent into evil through his appearance. Instead of lessening the impact of Barrymore’s physical performance, the makeup enhances his decisions to create a truly horrifying effect. Hyde develops stringy, greasy hair, an odd pointed head that emphasizes his distorted features, bulging eyes, and frightening, protruding teeth. The long-clawed fingers are enhanced with prosthetics, which at one point are seen flying from Barrynore’s fingers due to the violent thrashing of his transformation scenes. The film’s horror lies in the appearance of Hyde and how Barrymore imbues his every movement with menace and evil.
The Visual Language of Moral Decay
Robertson and Beranger knew that Hyde ought to stand as the central horror of the film, thus the lighting of the seedy London underbellies and darkened laboratories serve to emphasize his menace above all. The effects hold back beyond Hyde’s makeup, save for one beautifully strange sequence in which a giant, phantom tarantula appears at the foot of Jekyll’s bed and slowly crawls onto his chest, initiating a serum-less transformation into Hyde while asleep. This moment is the turning point at which it becomes clear Jekyll can no longer control his transformations, and the spider serves as an effective and creepy visual representation of the evil taking over the doctor.
By the end of the film, as the unwillingly transformed Hyde menaces Jekyll’s love interest, Millicent, the final form of the creature is revealed in all his terror. The camera lingers on Hyde’s face as he slowly approaches the audience. It’s still profoundly unnerving, and it’s no wonder that critics feared that audiences with weak constitutions and pregnant women might be physically endangered by the shock. It’s an outdated fear, but the image still has the power to induce nightmares for a 2020 viewer, and visually beats the impact of many modern horror moments.
“…still has the power to induce nightmares for a 2020 viewer, and visually beats the impact of many modern horror moments.”
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a hit with audiences and critics, who praised Barrymore’s performance despite occasional hand wringing over its potential effects on delicate constitutions. The film has been followed by countless adaptations and reimaginings of the original story, yet it still endures as the most influential and iconic iteration of the novella on screen. The influence of straightforward adaptations like the 1920 film has permanently transformed the original story, shifting its twist structure into a widely known moral allegory, for better or for worse. But while we might mourn the loss of the mystery and ambiguity of the original story, the power of Barrymore’s performance is an invaluable and under-recognized moment in horror history.
Today the film is in the public domain, which means that the ease of access is countered by a dismaying majority of bad prints. Look for the Kino restoration to ensure that you aren’t robbed of the film’s visual impact and gorgeous, tinted cinematography. And don’t underestimate the scares that silents can serve. At first glance, the acting can seem overblown, but I dare you to bring Barrymore’s Hyde to mind while drifting off to sleep and not be compelled to snuggle just a little more under your covers.
Until next month, classy fiends, enjoy those Silver Screams! Share your thoughts on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with the Nightmare on Film Street community on Twitter, in our Official Subreddit, or in the Fiend Club Facebook Group! Or, while you’re here – check out previous editions of Silver Screams for your classic horror fix!