John Barrymore's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1920) received high praise by critics at the time of its release and it still receives high praise from silent film buffs and historians alike.

Barrymore made approximately 21 silent features, some of which are outstanding ­ "Don Juan" (1926), "The Sea Beast" (1926) and "The Beloved Rogue" (1927), among others. However, it is "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" for which he is best remembered.

One of the reasons may be the enthusiasm he showed for this role in a career that lacked the dedication it should have received. According to Joe Franklin in Classics of the Silent Screen (Citadel Press, 1959), "That Barrymore thoroughly enjoyed himself in the romp is proved . . . by the astounding zest with which he throws himself into the more gruesome moments . . ." In Fifty Great American Silent Films 1912-1920, author Edward Wagenknecht says, " . . . it is Hyde's Grand Guignol bestiality in which Barrymore seems to revel."

Barrymore portrays Dr. Henry Jekyll as a dignified, very proper and very reserved young man - pensive and curious about the mysteries of life. The part could possibly be played just as well by any other good actor except for the moments when Jekyll is troubled by some concern and looks with piercing eyes into the distance. For example, he tells Dr. Lanyon of his curiosity about separating man's good and evil selves and how marvelous it would be to live out one's evil desires without touching one's soul. Lanyon will hear nothing of such talk and angrily walks out. Jekyll is oblivious to this and sits down in his chair, furrowed brow, sharp chin and dark, glaring eyes staring past the camera in a close-up as it fades to the next scene.

But his portrayal of Jekyll is not what makes the film what it is. It is Barrymore's superb portrayal of the evil Hyde and how well and convincingly he carries it off. Yes, Barrymore makes him truly evil, evil enough to inject the necessary horror to make it deliciously scary. In his first transformation to Hyde, we see Barrymore jerk uncontrollably after drinking the potion. His head is down, face out of camera range. We see the hands draw up tight, arms close to the body. His hair has fallen down all about his face. Then, slowly, the head comes up, and we see the grinning, sharp face with slanted evil eyes looking about. Barrymore does succeed in making himself look like a totally different character than Jekyll - and all without the aid of make-up.

As the film progresses, however, his appearance becomes successively more evil-looking. Although there is some make-up, apparently only some shadowing on the face and eyes, Barrrymore's Edward Hyde becomes extremely horrific. The most significant addition to the make-up comes later in the film when we see Hyde remove his hat while visiting one of London's dives. His head has elongated and become somewhat pointed at the top. This may sound humorous rather than gruesome, but, all the more credit to Barrymore who pulls it off with aplomb.

The content of the film is somewhat surprising, too, considering it was made in 1920. For example, there is sex. Hyde obviously goes about seeking the favors of prostitutes, and he has bought the dance hall girl, Gina, as his live in mistress. There is violence, too. When Hyde beats Sir George Carew to death, it is chilling. Barrymore adds a scary bit to this which is reminiscent of "Nosferatu." After beating Sir George to the ground, Hyde bends down to his neck as if biting him. Slowly he raise up with a more evil-looking grin than ever before in the film.

There were many liberties taken with the Robert Louis Stevenson story, of course. The dance hall girl, Gina, does not appear in the original story. Millicent was Agnes in the original, and there was no Sir George Carew who tempted Jekyll to do what he did. But oddly enough, this is one film where the critics don't criticize the star and director for the changes they made in an original story. The storyline and interplay of characters are very effective, and the film is a delight to view throughout ­ never slow and never dull.

It must also be mentioned that the "look" of the film is excellent, as well, and certainly could not have been bettered by even the German expressionists of the time. Being the star of both stage and screen that he was, Barrymore had much input into the film. According to James Card in Seductive Cinema (Alfred A. Knopf, 1994), "Much of the set was decorated with antiques he (Barrymore) hunted out of shops and friends' old homes. Portions of the film evoke an atmosphere sometimes more Wildean than Stevenson, perhaps more redolent of Thomas Burke than of the nineteenth century, but always and most completely steeped in the special Barrymore seasoning of Grand Guignol."

All of the supporting cast do a wonderful job, too. Nita Naldi is sufficiently "exotic" in her role as Gina. Brandon Hurst is appropriately disgusting as the tempting Sir George, and Martha Mansfield is lovely and wistful as the patient Millicent.

copyright 2001 by Tim Lussier, all rights reserved

Click here for a synopsis "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"

Click here to see scenes from the movie

Return to "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" page

Return to Past Features of the Month page