Monday, June 17, 2013

DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1920)

One of the earliest iterations of the often-filmed tale, this JEKYLL sticks John Barrymore in the title role(s) and sticks very close to the Victorian sensibilities of the original Stevenson novel.  Dr. Henry Jekyll is just so good, splitting his time between experiments and doctoring the poor at a free clinic.  Other characters' jimmies are rustled by his infernal do-gooding and infamous rake George Carew, dad of Jekyll's fiancee, decides to drag him down into the gutter with the rest of us.  So he takes him to the home of seedy vice, the dancing hall, this one creeping with comely prostitutes of the English rose variety:


So hot.  Physical beauty is not stored up for the winter in this film, even though the fashion is Victorianly smashing. 


 Jekyll is tempted by an Italian dancing girl named Gina, who wears a ring with a chamber for storing poison, and who looks like this.  Reader, you and I have probably made worse choices in bars, so let us not throw stones.


This whole experience wakens Jekyll to "a sense of his baser nature".  He begins to fantasize about splitting the "two natures in man" (evil and good) into "different bodies", ostensibly so he can sin physically without imperiling his soul.  I FUCKING LOVE SCIENCE OF 1886.  So Jekyll quickly whips up a phial of man-nature-splitting soda and drinks it, releasing the beast within him, Mr. Hyde.  He looks like this:


To be fair, it gets better as the movie progresses.  Barrymore was working without the makeup that would make later versions of this story so memorable and basically just relied on facial contortions.  At times (above), it looks bad, but at times it doesn't.  Plus the splendidly-rendered title cards compensate for imbalances on the visual side.


While Hyde is strewing his trails with depravity victim, Jekyll is...engaged!  To a woman named Milicent!  Who plays piano!  And is SO GOOD!


This woman obviously has no time for depravity.  JEKYLL & HYDE then becomes a story of choices in love, with the bland and inoffensive beauty of Milicent on one side and the ethnic excitement of Gina on the other.  This is Ivanhoe with delirium tremens hallucinations!


I liked that Jekyll's experiments were prompted by his dawning awareness of his chthonic appetites.  There's a great compulsion-repulsion thing happening once he's pulled out of his ivory tower by his soon-to-be stepdad and he tries to utilize his science ways to put tidy boundaries around his new whore & liquor interests.  Doesn't work, but it was a good try!  Barrymore is pretty solid as Jekyll/Hyde, even though this is very Victorian-shallow in terms of characterization.  Everyone is either debauched, goody-good, a poor, or a child actor.


Which brings us to another thing I liked.  NO THANK YOU, CHILD ACTOR.


Anyway, we eventually have a perfectly Victorian resolution with lots of swooning and dramatic dying.  This JEKYLL is clearly outperformed by the 1931 and 1941 versions (and DR. JEKYLL & SISTER HYDE, which I love so much), but it's pretty fun, if a little limited by its Dickensian style.  It's not a world-changer, but it's a perfectly fine & inoffensive morality play.


RATING: 7/10

TOP TEN OF THE 1920S:
1.  The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920)
2.  The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
3.  The Unknown (1927)
4.  Maciste in Hell/Maciste all'Inferno (1925)
5.  The Wind (1928)
6.  Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)
7.  A Page of Madness (1926)
8.  The Cat and the Canary (1927)
9.  Genuine: the Tale of a Vampire (1920)
10.  Alraune (1928)

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