Morality Play: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

jekyllandhyde

It’s one of my absolute missions in life to get more people to watch silent films. Really, if, on my deathbed, I can say, “Well, I got more people to realize that The Phantom of the Opera is better without duets and Sarah Brightman,” I will consider it a small victory against the forces of darkness.

Which is why it’s kind of a disappointment to me to have to say that I do not consider Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a great silent film.

“I’m deeply hurt by your critique, Nitrate Diva. You wound me to my core.”

First off, Jekyll’s a bore. He doesn’t have to be, as Fredric March proved, but here, the part, as written, comes across as such a saint that we, as audience members, almost want him to slip into degradation.

We get it. He’s a nice guy. Could we please move onto the bordello now?

This is a problem since he takes frustratingly long to go over to the dark side. Then, once the transformation to Hyde finally occurs… the degenerate immediately takes the potion *again* and flips back to Jekyll. Um, yeah right. Once you’ve unleashed Hyde, he’s going to go paint the town red. I don’t buy for one moment that he’d say, “Gee, this is nice and all, but I better make sure that the process is reversible.”

However, like many, if not most, of the movies I write about, this 1920 Barrymore vehicle, directed by John S. Robinson, harbors shining moments that redeem it from the dustbin of history and make it worth watching. Stay with me, folks.

So, Barrymore does oblige and scares the Hell out of us with that famous no-cut transformation scene. His facial contortions evoke fear, not in spite of, but rather because of the fact that there’s no intervening makeup in that first shot. He’s still recognizable, but evil has some how entered him. We get the feeling that his body is nothing more than a suit of clothes—it all depends on how it’s worn, and by whom.

I would be very surprised if Kubrick’s vision of Jack Torrence hadn’t been shaped by this famous personality switch, in that it’s the person behind the face, not so much the face itself, that we see warp before our eyes.

Even so, one does get the feeling that it would all work more effectively on a stage. Barrymore spooks us onscreen, but he could hold us totally captive if we were right there, watching it imminently happening. The cinematic medium numbs the visceral reaction, for this viewer at least.

For me, Nita Naldi’s performance, not Barrymore’s, stands out as the enduring, outstanding one. Something about this Irish-American gal from Harlem (born Nonna Dooley) combusts onscreen, in contrast to the static beauty of The Great Profile.

Okay, so Naldi slightly overplays Gina, the exotic Italian dancer, but every time I watch Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I think about how much she could have run wild with the part. She really offers a subdued portrait of a woman on her way down—a dancer on the verge of prostitution who finally falls and doesn’t get back up.

She’s temptation incarnate, yes, but doesn’t take it too far. She comes across as a full person who wants to make a living and have a bit of fun, but still has a sense of decency that can be violated. In the scene when she’s first asked to vamp Jekyll, you can see several subtle emotional shades.

 Left with Barrymore’s older libertine friend, Gina broods. 

 At first, she’s skeptical about the “assignment,” then amused, then genuinely attracted (It’s Barrymore, for Heaven’s sake!), then hurt and ashamed when he spurns her. She also appears in perhaps the best scene in the movie: we find Gina after Hyde’s discarded her and is already buying his next victim…

We’ve only seen the back of Gina’s head at the other end of the dive, then she goes up to the bar, turns and glares at Hyde. In the close-up reveal, she looks like death.

I don’t know what we expect at this point. Probably not any kind of repentance from Hyde, but we don’t think it’s possible for him to get worse. And then he does.

He grabs the young whore and Gina and drags them both over to a mirror, as if to say, “Well, duh, Gina, she’s hotter. You can see for yourself!” This action chills us because we weren’t anticipating it. Normal guys dump girls when their, ahem, needs are met, but Hyde’s viciousness goes beyond selfishness. He shows that true evil isn’t indifference, but outright sadism.

 

If March’s Hyde (in the adaptation that came along just 11 years afterwards) gained anything from Barrymore’s (although ol’ Freddy was quite careful about taking it in a different direction), I would argue that the 1931 performance displays the same mocking politeness and deliberate desire to wound his victims in every way. For instance, after kicking Gina out, Hyde makes a little bow as gentleman would to a passing lady. March’s Hyde also parodies the airs and fine manners of his kind counterpart as a way of showing how hollow these gestures of politeness are—when wickedness lurks beneath.

The really sad part of the scene I’ve described above, however, arises from the fact that the new girl goes with Hyde in spite of enough red flags to read as an S.O.S. to any sensible woman.

I applaud that realism. I mean, what’s she going to say to the Madame? “But he seemed like a jerk!” I doubt that would fly. She’s made her bed and now she’s got to lie in it.

The film circles back multiple times to the idea of prostitution and of the woman in decline: consumed and then thrown away.

Right before Jekyll goes into the dance hall where he meets Gina, this shot of a random, grizzled streetwalker suddenly fills the screen. Robinson, the director, clearly wants us to cherish no illusions. No matter how prostitution starts, it ends up really ugly.

Now, this focus on vice was nothing new for cinema in 1920. In fact, the plot trope of young girls ruined by white slavery featured in several popular “problem pictures,” such as The Inside of the White Slave Traffic (1913) and the much more ambitious feature, Traffic in Souls. Yet, these dramatizations morally hedged their bets.

On the one hand, they warned young girls not to put themselves in bad situations and exposed a social ill. On the other, they procured the kind of titillation that vicariously invading forbidden spaces like brothels or shady dancehalls automatically provides—without implying unnecessary sin on the part of the viewer.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plays on the same double code. For instance, consider this shot, of elegant men crowding into a doorway to watch Gina shimmy in her scant shawl.

Not only do we get the sense of the male gaze, but also of a cold, dehumanized, upper class male gaze. We can’t see their faces. They stand as vaguely sinister icons of pleasure-seeking gentleman slummers. They visit the underworld, yet remain untouched by its cheapness.

They don’t pay the real price of what goes on here, although they fuel the wickedness with their appetites and their money. And yet, aren’t they just slightly more hands-on versions of the movie audience that’s come to savor the spectacle of degradation—once removed?

A preachy, muckraking quality dates Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and infuses it with somewhat distasteful hypocrisy. Nevertheless, what I appreciate about the film resides in how it engages a tactile revulsion in its viewers. The emphasis on Hyde’s hands stands out thanks to a close-up during the transformation…

Just looking at these hands, we can easily imagine what it feels like to be touched by them. They’re scabby, scratchy, leathery, and all-round gross. Second only to Barrymore’s obscene conical head, these hands translate the sexually predatory nature of Hyde. When he finally has his freshest filly alone, he pulls off her shawl and immediately palms her chest.

It’s disgusting—because that tactile sensation has been cleverly foregrounded. We can practically feel Hyde’s hands. The twitchy, avid motions of his fingers draw the eye to wherever his hand goes in a haptic manner—that is, his hand makes the eyes “touch” the screen and feel as though they’re being touched. Skeeved out yet?

There’s also another scene, which I would usually file under silly, if not for how much it resonates with me. Jekyll’s sworn off the potion, but the potion hasn’t sworn off him. It comes back to him in the form of a huge spider that crawls into his bed and re-injects him with its wicked venom. He spontaneously merges back into Hyde.

Hm. Addiction metaphor, anyone? Detox hallucinations? Perhaps because it’s Barrymore and we all know how alcohol destroyed him, but this superimposed spider conveys the creeping violation of compulsive behavior that always comes back, whether you want it to or not, whether you can resist another moment or whether it vanquishes you. I also suspect that this scene inspired Ray Milland’s bat hallucination DT’s sequence in Billy Wilder’s addiction picture, The Lost Weekend.

Again, the spider calls up a cinema-triggered indirect tactile sensation. I shudder, almost as though I can feel a spider scuttling along my skin.

In the end, I do recommend this silent—not because it’s a brilliant horror film, but rather because it does interject some gritty realism and consciousness of self-abuse into horror. Many scholars have remarked that the genre works out hidden social and moral issues. Well, this one never gets too far away from them in the first place.

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