The split persona at the center of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, director John S. Robertson’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s psychosexual chestnut, hews intriguingly close to the personal foibles of star John Barrymore. Acclaimed for his vast theatrical gifts and criticized for supposedly lolling around on them, Barrymore both reveled in and mocked his image as a dashing lover, smoldering as Don Juan one minute and then perversely disfiguring his famous “great profile” with pointy beards and putty noses. Both sides are on display in Dr. Jekyll and prove to be the most fascinating elements of this atmospheric but stolid picture. As the dedicated scientist of the title, Barrymore livens up the character’s earnestness with subtle hints of the lusty creature lurking beneath the civilized skin, especially in his scenes with Nita Naldi as a thinly coded music hall trollop. Said creature finally emerges when Dr. Jekyll’s curiosity about human dichotomy causes him to experiment on himself, and the bestial Mr. Hyde is born. The film’s prosaic visual approach suddenly becomes a virtue during this metamorphosis, as the dearth of stylistic effects leads Barrymore to act out the shift from doctor to monster in a single unbroken take of virtuosic pantomime. As the lubricious Hyde, the actor has a blast with a stooped walk, a scraggly wig, and lewd insinuations of sexual violence. It’s a shame that Robertson’s direction can’t emulate Barrymore’s bravura approach; buffs will yearn for some of the inventive abandon Rouben Mamoulian would bring to his 1932 filming of the story, or wonder how the German expressionists would have tackled the visual possibilities of the project. (Ironically, F.W. Murnau’s long-lost version of Stevenson’s novel, The Janus Head, was also released in 1920.) As an early horror movie, Dr. Jekyll is a mostly muffled affair. As a stage for Barrymore’s own impish duality, however, it’s a captivating one.
The occasional flickering is noticeable in an otherwise nicely preserved image. The Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra supplies an adroit dramatic-to-sinister score.
Excerpts from the other 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Sheldon Lewis, show that the fine art of trying to cash in on a rival studio's hit with a rushed knock-off is far from a recent one in Hollywood. More enjoyable is Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride, a mischievous 1925 one-reel parody with a pre-Ollie Stan Laurel. (As far as I know, it contains the earliest instance of a fart joke.) Other items in Kino's curious but full stash of extras include a scratchy audio recording of Jekyll's transformation from a 1909 play, and an illustrated essay on the several screen incarnations of Stevenson's tale.
A stolid horror drama, but a beguiling showcase for John Barrymore.