John Ary here with another installment of Ain’t It Scary Reviews. Today we join John Barrymore on a quest to learn about the duality of man.
It’s a morality tale that has been filmed dozens of times since Robert Louis Stevenson wrote his famous novella about the benevolent Dr. Jekyll and his evil counterpart Mr. Hyde. In 1920, the story was brought to the screen in a silent feature film starring John Barrymore as both characters. It’s a performance that would serve as the basis for practically every film and television version that came after and would cement Barrymore as a movie legend.
Early in the picture, we’re introduced to Dr. Jekyll, a nice young doctor, helping to give London’s poor proper medical care. He spends all of his time working on experiments, treating the less fortunate and hob-nobbing with this rich aristocratic friends. When his future father-in-law talks him into visiting a local music hall to drink and ogle the dancing girls, he gets an idea. What if he could split man into two distinct individuals, one pure and wholesome and one that is deviant and sinful. He quickly whips up a formula and presto, he turns into the debaucherous Mr. Hyde. The more Jekyll gives into his sinful desires, the more powerful and brazen Hyde becomes. It all leads to psychological torture, child abuse, and cold blooded murder.
Barrymore is brilliant in the role. Several times during the film, he transforms himself from a dashing good looking guy into this small demon of a man. What would take Lon Chaney hours of make-up to accomplish, takes Barrymore only a few seconds of convulsions, a wig and a quick camera cut-away. It’s remarkable what he can do with his body. His Dr. Jekyll is a bit milktoast and boring to watch, but his Hyde is dangerous, ugly, and fascinating. In a police lineup, it would be practically impossible to nail Barrymore dressed as Mr. Hyde.
Also I love how both Hyde and Jekyll share the same body, fully aware of and reliant on the other. Hyde needs Jekyll to fund his escapades while Jekyll needs Hyde to live out his deviant fantasies. Both men have their own separate lives. It adds a layer of drama that each chooses to transform into the other when the situation is appropriate.
Ultimately Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is about the need for balance in life. It makes its point in an entertaining way, with some nice special effects for the time, a memorable performance from an early icon of cinema and a classic story. This movie set the bar high for the monster films that would follow in the 30’s and 40’s.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is currently streaming on Netflix. It’s also available on DVD here.
Check back in tomorrow for another Ain’t It Scary Review as a babysitter accepts a job from a very tall creepy man that seems too good to be true.
Here’s a look back at a few of the Ain’t It Scary Review installments that you might have missed:
The Ground Rules to the Project
#1 Son of Frankenstein
#2 Scream, Blacula, Scream!
#3 Black Sabbath
#5 Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon
#6 Invisible Invaders
#7 The Mummy’s Curse
#8 Lord of Illusions
#9 Night of the Demons