Welcome to Queued in Fridays. Here I will make my way through my ever growing Netflix queue, talking about each film as I go. I will start at the beginning and go through the movies in the order they’re in. By doing this, I’ll be able to watch a lot of pictures I’ve been meaning to see for a while and you, kind reader, will get more content and more variety. To start us off, we have the 1920 silent version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring John Barrymore.
I wouldn’t say we have a story but a series of strange occurrences that lead to a tragic conclusion, probably appropriate considering the book is called The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Jekyll (John Barrymore) is an upstanding doctor. He’s generous, kind, and puts others needs before his, even giving medical care to the poor of London. One night, Jekyll is having dinner with a few men. One of them is Sir George Carew (Brandon Hearst), the father of Jekyll’s fiancée Millicent (Martha Mansfield). Sir George is an awful man. He’s the type of person you meet and wonder “how did you grow up to be such a terrible human being.” Sir George begins to berate Jekyll for his wholesome and good nature. “No man could be as good as he looks,” he tells Jekyll and the others. The guests all stand-up for Jekyll and his honorable reputation. Jekyll denies that he’s neglecting himself because it is by serving others that one develops himself. Jekyll is then horrified by this line from Sir George.
“Which self? Man has two – as he has two hands. Because I use my right hand, should I never use my left? Your really strong man fears nothing. It is the weak one who is afraid of experience. A man cannot destroy the savage in him by denying its impulses. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it. With your youth, you should live – as I have lived. I have memories. What will you have at my age?”
Jekyll can’t get it out of his mind. He devises a potion that will let out the darker half of himself. Thus yielding to his evil side but leaving “the soul untouched.” From this scientific discovery comes Mr. Hyde.
Barrymore pulls off both rolls with great aplomb. The first transformation scene is a masterwork of physical acting. With no makeup or any special artificial tricks, he is able to transform himself so completely from Jekyll to Hyde that it can be hard to imagine that the man standing in front of the camera is even the same person.
Once he’s Hyde in following scenes, makeup is applied, and what a disgusting makeup it is. Hyde’s look is a horrifying mixture of a man with a physical birth defect and some version of us from a past evolutionary state. He’s a terrible, awful, immoral creature. Hyde, like the 1931 Fredric March version, is so despicable and so foul, it can be hard to watch. He is at least watchable. Fredric March’s Hyde is so wicked that, as brilliant as that movie is, it makes repeat viewings difficult.
While we don’t have much of a story to speak of, what this movie excels at is documenting the unraveling of a man’s life from one of charity and goodwill to one of greed, rape, violence, and death. The scenes all contribute to that as we see Hyde perpetrate act after act of despicableness to men, women, and children. Meanwhile, Jekyll’s guilt grows as the skeleton’s in Hyde’s closet build up. He attempts to quit Hyde but he can’t. Even when he goes off the potion completely, Hyde forces his way back into his life. So in a way that is our story. Watching this man fall apart before our eyes as he becomes increasingly more addicted to the vice he gets up to as Hyde while simultaneously hating every second of it.
I’ve personally grown to find Jekyll a jerk. He says that if science can separate the good and evil side of man then man can let that darker side out while still keeping the soul pure. I think that’s horse manure. I’m not arguing the existence of souls, but his logic is extremely flawed. It would be like if I released a lion into London every night and said, “It’s okay if people are getting hurt and killed by this animal. My soul will still be pure because I’m a good man and I’m not the one physically performing the vile acts.” Because Jekyll is choosing to release this beast, he is responsible for what happens afterward. So to me, Jekyll is kind of an irresponsible a-hole.
I went on that short rant for two reasons. One, I think Jekyll , at least in some adaptions, realizes this part way through this experiment and tries to put an end to it. Two, even with this mark against Jekyll, Barrymore, like March after him, makes me care that this mostly good man’s life is being destroyed. I sympathize with him because he’s trying to right his wrongs and do the right thing. It’s what makes the tale so tragic.
I should mention the supporting cast. They aren’t anything to write home about or they at least didn’t stand out enough for me to remember them much after the fact. I don’t recall them being bad either. So that’s a plus. John Barrymore’s really the thing to come and see. His excellent playing of both sides of one man and the slow destruction of someone’s life is the stuff of any solid psychological drama. It just so happens that amongst this study of man’s psyche, you’re also being horrified by all the carnage and darkness. Add to that the great period costumes, the moody lighting, and the wonderful sets and you have a must see silent horror film.