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.


The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon: ARSENE LUPIN (1932)

This post is part of The Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon hosted by Crystal of In the Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood.  Check out the other entries here!

What better film to watch during a Barrymore blogathon than a film that features BOTH John and Lionel Barrymore!  And one that is a ton of fun to boot!

In ARSENE LUPIN, Lionel Barrymore is police detective Guerchard who is called out to a robbery in progress. Once there the police chase a fleeing car only to find the passenger tied up in the backseat. The man (John Barrymore) claims to have just been robbed by the notorious Arsene Lupin, saying he is the Duke of Charmerace. Guerchard doesn’t believe this for a second and suspects that this man is in fact Arsene Lupin. However another man named Gourney-Martin (Tully Marshall) returns to the house and confirms the identity of the passenger as the Duke of Charmerace. Strangely enough the next day Guerchard finds that the shoe impressions taken from the outside of the scene of the crime are an exact match for his own shoes! Perplexed he goes to see the chief of police where he is told that if he wants to retire quietly to the country with his daughter he needs to do one last thing, and that is to catch Arsene Lupin! The police have just received a note from Lupin telling them that he will be at the Duke of Charmerace’s ball that night to take whatever he wants. Geurchard decides to go to the ball himself just to make sure that nothing goes wrong.

The Duke of Charmerace is having some issues of his own. Two bailiffs have arrived asking to collect past due bills. He manages to fob them off with drinks and food, while he returns to his ball. He sees Geurchard enter and begin talking to another male guest, who is an undercover policeman. It turns out that there are hidden police officers throughout the ball in an effort to trap Arsene Lupin should he try anything. At this point, the Duke is up in his bedroom where he has found a naked woman in his bed. The Countess Sonia Krichnoff (Karen Morley) claims that her evening gown is being mended in the other room and since she was cold, she took refuge under the covers of the Duke’s bed. After some risqué flirtation the Duke and Sonia rejoin the party and just in time for some cake. Unfortunately, as the lights are down for the cake’s arrival several ladies find that they are missing various pieces of jewelry. Sonia has lost a bracelet and she hurries to find the Duke. At this moment Guerchard’s men spring into action but Geurchard is nowhere to be found. He is a little preoccupied at the moment, being held at gunpoint by the two bailiffs upstairs who have mistaken him for Arsene Lupin. Once released by the two men, Geurchard begins the send all the guests downstairs to be questioned. However, he has a private word alone with the Countess Sonia before sending her on with the others.

Later the Duke and the Countess find themselves invited to Gourney-Martin’s home for the weekend. While there the Duke and Sonia continue their flirtations and Gourney-Martin demonstrates his new electrified safe. One morning Sonia awakes to find a real bracelet in place of her fake one from none other than Arsene Lupin. Tourney-Martin has also had a visit from Lupin, though his is far less pleasant. Lupin has left a note saying that he will come back and steal everything Tourney-Martin has because he is a war profiteer. Geurchard is called to the house at once to be there when Lupin makes his entrance. But who Arsene Lupin really? Is everyone who they appear to be?

I really enjoyed this film.  It is so much fun and really a joy to watch.  It is smart, sexy, witty, and exciting.  I loved the character of Sonia because she was used as more than just a placeholder in a slinky evening dress.  She holds her own alongside the boys and is just as cunning and clever as the real Arsene Lupin.  You simply could not have this film without her character or her story. Sonia is a complex, clever, and interesting woman, and is more than capable of handling Arsene Lupin and his ruses.

The Barrymore brothers are really hitting on all cylinders with this one.  Lionel Barrymore is fantastic as usual, bringing a gravitas to his role but also a sense of under doggedness.  You really sense that he respects Arsene Lupin as a foe and is quite determined to catch the thief no matter what it takes.  Lionel Barrymore is such a great actor that he is always terrific in anything and often acts as the grounding force in a film.  He does the same here, keeping the story feeling more real and more “risky”.  Where the story could get away and become almost too fantastic, Lionel Barrymore makes it more meaningful and more impactful.  He is not the usual bumbling detective, rather he is a smart man trying his best to outwit a man who might just be a little more clever than him.

For his part John Barrymore seems to be having the time of his life.  He is fabulous as the Duke of Charmerace.  He is funny and charming, also just mischievous enough to make you question his motives.  He seems to enjoy playing off his brother as well, particularly in the scenes where he gets to make a fool of him.  One can’t help but wonder if there was some similarity in the relationship between the Duke of Charmerace and Geurchard, and that of John and Lionel Barrymore in real life.  John Barrymore is definitely the star of this tale and he really carries the film forward.  Where his brother brings a sense of grounding to the story, John Barrymore makes things seems just a little more fun and fantastical.  It is really is thanks to him and his interactions with everyone else that ARSENE LUPIN is as much fun as it is.