Spending Time With Turner Classic Movies: DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1920)

The story of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is not a new one to movie-goers.  Among classic film fans there are at least four different versions to choose from.  Frederic March is notable for his pre-code take on the tale while Spencer Tracy starred with a young Ingrid Bergman in the post-code one.  In 1920 two silent versions of the film were made but this version, starring John Barrymore in the role that would push him over into star status, is thought to be the superior of the two.

Dr. Henry Jekyll (John Barrymore) is a young and successful London physician.  He spends most of his time treating the poor of London in his free clinic, while the rest of his day is spent in his laboratory experimenting much to the chagrin of his more conservative friend, Dr. Lanyon (Charles Lane).  He is also a bit of a goody-two shoes, at least according to some of the older physicians.  The lead tempter is Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst), who also happens to be the father of Jekyll’s sweetheart, Millicent (Martha Mansfield).  One evening over dinner, Sir George expresses his dismay over Jekyll’s purity.  “No man can be so good!” he proclaims but his cronies and Dr. Lanyon assure him that with Jekyll what you see is what you get.

Jekyll enters the dinner at this point, after taking a moment to tenderly greet Millicent, and is met with derision from Sir George.  “You are so good and perfect but aren’t you neglecting your other needs?” he asks.  Jekyll is shocked at this speech and what it implies but like a bachelor party gone wrong the men drag Jekyll off to a dance hall to help him “experience” the parts of life they believe he is missing.  Once there the men are treated to the sight of exotic Italian dancer, Gina (Nita Naldi).  Sir George invites Gina over to their little group for some “quality time” with Jekyll who is initially drawn to Gina but remembers himself just in time.

Some days later Jekyll is still conflicted over the events of the dinner party and wonders aloud to Dr. Lanyon if it wouldn’t be possible for science to devise a way to separate the baser instincts of men from their more noble souls, thus leaving their immortal souls untouched while allowing temptation to have its way with their desires.  Dr. Lanyon is, of course, horrified at this notion and advises Jekyll to forget the idea ever occurred to him.  But of course Jekyll can’t and it isn’t long before he has come up with a potion that will do exactly what he desired.  Jekyll takes the potion one night and is immediately transformed into Mr. Hyde, a man with no soul and unbridled desire.  At this early stage however, Jekyll still has enough control over Mr. Hyde to immediately return to his laboratory and take the serum that will return him to his normal state.  He then tells his servant that his friend, Mr. Hyde will be coming to visit and is to be allowed free reign over the house and laboratory.

Mr. Hyde needs a lair and soon rents a room in the seedier part of London.  Once this base is established he makes a beeline to the dance hall and Gina.  He claims her as his own and takes her back to his room.  After using and abusing her for a time, Mr. Hyde throws her out having taken from her all that he desired, including a ring that holds a dose of poison.  Gina is shattered by her relationship with Hyde and returns to the darkness a much different woman.  Jekyll meanwhile has since become engaged to Millicent but has begun to realize that his darker side is growing more and more powerful.  He is afraid that Millicent may be exposed to his depravity and realizes that he has begun to lose his control over Mr. Hyde.  How long will it be before Dr. Jekyll is powerless to stop Mr. Hyde from committing a terrible crime?

Shown on TCM Silent Sundays as part of their celebration of the macabre, I can definitely say that this film creeped me out at moments.  Several shots of Mr. Hyde leering at the camera as he  moves closer and closer definitely gave me the heebie-jeebies.  There is one moment that I highly recommend that you do not watch with the lights off.  Dr. Jekyll sleeps fitfully as Mr. Hyde in the form of a giant spider climbs onto the bed and disappears inside him.  Super creepy.  The score also gave the film some terrific tension and unease, with the musical accompaniment sometimes discordant and sometimes abruptly stopping and starting again.

John Barrymore really goes to town here.  While I would say that some of the other characters are rather one-dimensional, Sir George is a bit too lecherous and Dr. Lanyon a bit too proper for example, Barrymore goes to town and I think the characters are better for it.  Some have called his performance “broad” and I would agree that there are some really big bite marks in the scenery, I would also argue that this is what makes the whole film work.  DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a story of the two extremes of man.  Hyde is the manifestation of pure temptation without any restraint, evil without any soul.  As such, Jekyll must be the model of restraint and control, purity on the edge of piety.  In other words, this is not a story for subtleties.  Yes there are a few laugh worth moments of over the top reactions, the first time he drinks the potion for example, but these just serve to make the movie more fun.  And for all his over the top behavior, Barrymore also has moments of true restraint and remarkable nuance.  In one scene he is transformed back into Jekyll and Barrymore does a wonderful job of portraying relief at being back to normal followed by horror as he remembers what his counterpart has done.  It is also worth noting that the initial transformation of Jekyll into Hyde was done with no makeup or effects.  That was all Barrymore contorting his face and affecting his posture.  If that isn’t impressive then I don’t know what is.

There are many Jekyll and Hyde tales available to the classic film fan but I would say that this one should be on the list of “Must See”.  At a time when so many films are reliant on makeup and special effects to convey characters and plot, it is truly enjoyable to see what happens when a film relies on actor’s skill and story instead.


If you would like an in-depth look at this film, here is another review from Movies Silently.

Watching with Warner: KONGO (1932)

Holy cats.  That was my thought while watching my latest film.  This is a pre-code film that is definitely not for the faint of heart. More than just bawdy humor, lusty innuendo, and social commentary, this is a film that delves into the darkness found in the hearts and minds of men.

“Deadlegs” Flint (Walter Huston) is a paraplegic who lives in the deep Kongo surrounded by his henchmen and his bitterness.  He controls the local natives with cheap magic tricks assisted by his mistress, Tula (Lupe Velez), and is venerated as a powerful “juju” master.  He lives with Tula and two thugs named Hogan (Mitchell Lewis) and Cookie (Forrester Harvey) in a compound at the center of an eighty mile radius of which he is in command.  No one enters or leaves that area without his express permission.  Although Flint spends his days and nights commanding the natives to do his bidding, his every waking moment is consumed with thoughts of revenge.  On the wall of the compound is a sign with the words “HE SNEERED” written on it, and underneath a tally of days.  The days total eighteen years, eighteen long years of plotting vengeance on a man named Gregg (C. Henry Gordon).

Eighteen years ago, Flint stole away a baby girl and hid her in a convent.  This baby, now grown into a young woman, is the key to his plan of revenge.  Now that the girl, named Ann (Virginia Bruce), has come of age Flint sends Hogan to the convent to retrieve her.  Trusting Hogan, as he is dressed as a missionary, Ann accompanies him into the jungle.  This is the last time she will ever be so trusting, or so innocent.  Two years later Ann is barely recognizable, ravaged by the black plague, frequent assaults and rapes at the hands of Hogan and others, and countless bottles of brandy.  She still has no idea why she has been brought to Flint, nor what he wants from her.  She spends her days drinking to numb the pain of the horror of her life as well as the fevers brought on by the plague.  There seems to be no way out for her and she knows it.

One day a man arrives at the camp, a doctor named Kingsland (Conrad Nagel).  Into this dark underworld comes a surgeon who is just as damaged as the rest of the inhabitants.  Kingsland is a dope fiend, addicted a root that grows in the congo, and Flint knows it.  He knows that without daily doses of this root, Kingsland while withdraw painfully and decides to use this weakness to his advantage.  One night during dinner Kingsland gets his first glimpse of Ann and is immediately attracted, and concerned.  He tells Ann that continuing to drink brandy will only increase her symptoms and fevers, and will eventually kill her. Ann tells him not to be worry about her, but she is touched by his concern.  When Flint tries to get Ann to drink Kingsland intervenes on her behalf, and is beaten for his efforts.

Over time Ann and Kingsland fall in love, each helping to heal and improve the other.  But Tula is growing jealous of the attention that Ann is receiving from the handsome doctor, Flint being more and more abusive towards his former mistress a well, and resolves to steal him away.  She begins to supply the doctor with the root he needs to satisfy his cravings, much to Flint’s displeasure.  He needs Kingsland free of drugs because he has a plan.  He intends to have Kingsland operate on his back, to help relieve the constant pain and he can’t have him high on drugs if that is to happen.  Angered by Tula’s betrayal, Flint has Hogan and Cookie restrain her as he prepares to twist her tongue with a wire when Kingsland appears with a gun.  High as a kite, Kingsland threatens to shoot Flint if he harms Tula but he is quickly disarmed and knocked out.  Flint cuts the doctor and leaves him half-submerged in leech infested waters, in order to cleanse him of the drug.  Hours later Ann finds her love out in the swamp and rescues him, taking him back to the compound to nurse him back to health.  Flint tolerates this new relationship, as he says Ann has known “so many romances, what’s one more?”, and its positive affects on Ann because he needs the operation.  Once Kingsland has recovered sufficiently he begins the procedure and not a moment too soon, as Gregg is approaching the compound summoned there by Flint.

This is a dark movie.  It is certainly the darkest pre-code movie that I have seen by far.  The story was done four years earlier, in WEST OF ZANZIBAR starring Lon Chaney, and both movies are based on a stage play that was first performed in New York in 1926.  In both the stage play and KONGO, Walter Huston plays the role of Flint and it is a role that is more complex then it first appears.  Flint is a man motivated by anger and revenge, but by the end of the film there is a change in him that is just as sad as it is surprising.  Huston does a great job of portraying a man who is more monster than mortal without ever forgetting the reasons that made him that way.  It is a role that could very easily become one-dimensional but once the truth of Flint’s revenge is revealed the darkness in Flint changes, and the man himself becomes more nuanced.

Virgnia Bruce does a fantastic job as Ann.  She begins so pure and innocent, and by using her face, body, and eyes conveys the horrors she has suffered through.  I am so used to seeing her as a society girl so this was a big change.  Ann is so raw and worn down she is almost a ghost.  The other cast of characters are all so damaged that Flint is able to control them all with harsh words, beatings, and bribes.  The world they live in is a never-ending cycle of moral degradation and the darkness starts to seep into their pores.  At the end of the movie two characters are shown in a physically cleaner state (i.e. they have showered) and it is a physical relief to see something clean in this film.  All in all this is a truly interesting example of the darkness in men’s hearts and minds, and of how a man can create his own hell on earth.  If you are a pre-code fan, and you aren’t too squeamish, give this film a look which you can now do while it is streaming on Warner Archive Instant.