In the first season of Boardwalk Empire, a viewing of John S. Robertson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde by one of Nucky Thompson’s lovers coincides with her realization of his dark side. It’s an utterly apt, if just a bit on-the-nose, nod to a work lodged between classical science fiction and horror, but which has also become a cornerstone of the crime genre. Indeed, the most striking thing about Robertson’s 1922 film is the way he depicts the transformation of a mild-mannered scientist into a mad, wicked harlequin sustained only on wild indulgence and sadism.
Robertson’s take on Robert Louis Stevens’s landmark novel omits the source material’s sense of singular perspective and emotional distancing, as the film switches the tale’s point of view from Utterson, a lawyer and casual friend of Hyde’s, to a variety of viewpoints from the educated class of late-19th-century England, among them Hyde (John Barrymore). The new outlook is dour, as Jekyll (Barrymore also) finds himself taunted and embarrassed for not indulging in the greedy and immoral pleasures of his colleagues. This masculine pressure is the impetus not only for the creation of the depraved Hyde, but of Jekyll’s newfound prizing of science for personal gain rather than societal progress.
That Barrymore’s Hyde is a rampant drug addict, abuser of women, and a guiltless killer is secondhand to the sheer ugliness of Barrymore’s portrayal. And there’s no arguing that the film hinges on Barrymore’s brilliant, physical performance, though Robertson’s hand in the film’s potent chilliness has been largely underrated. The transformation sequence proves startlingly affective in summoning the horror and weakness inherent in Jekyll’s submission to Hyde, and some sharp use of perspective, such as when the raving-mad Hyde lurches toward the still camera, conveys his victims’ helplessness. There’s a sense that the world around the troubled Dr. Jekyll is empty without him, but that comes primarily from the stark contrast of a working world full of common indecencies against one being ravaged by Hyde’s manic criminal persona.
In a way, the story is one of masculine panic, of intelligence being seduced and exploited by pride and envy. Crime is portrayed as merely the uncounted benefits of the entitled, and the hideousness of Barrymore’s Hyde suggests the decaying physical incarnation of the moral rot that these indiscretions amount to. And yet, we’re still drawn to the distinctly unpleasant Hyde, as Barrymore’s work brings out the enticing and peculiar aspects of sin as much as the unpleasantness of its outcomes. Though fantastical in nature, Robertson’s Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde takes a rather unromantic view of the dark side of man, without discounting the unmistakable pull of being bad.
Kino’s new 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde sports minor flecks and scratches, but shows a massive improvement from all other home-video releases of this film. Along with the negligible dirt and marks, the print grain has been beautifully preserved. Lines and textures have been given a substantial polish and appear clearer than ever. Tinting and contrast balance aren’t perfect, but still admirable, and there are no noticeable elements of digital manipulation. The LPCM 2.0 audio is also very good, getting ample juice out of Rodney Sauer’s unerringly strange score.
Kino does a strong job of making this package feel like an old-fashioned theater experience, though they offer little in the way of historical context or production tales. Two engaging short takes on the same tale bookend a parody featuring Stan Laurel. There’s also a short featurette on the transformation scene that’s interesting but leaves you wanting to know a bit more about the making of the film.
John S. Robertson’s silent classic is anchored by John Barrymore’s dazzling duel role, and Kino’s impressive new A/V transfer showcases his landmark performance, with some entertaining, if uninsightful, extras to boot.