Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde (1920)

I don’t know why I hadn’t seen this before, given that I’ve seen it for sale often enough… maybe I never picked a copy up cos I feared the quality of a cheap public domain DVD edition of a 90 year old film would be about as low as the price? Probably that. Anyway, it was this week’s offering on the Schlocky Horror Picture Show, so that meant my third (and mercifully last!) bit of Friday night viewing was locked in. Unlike Mr Honeybone I have to admit my preference is still for the 1931 version, a case where sound actually was an improvement cos you had the different voice to distinguish Hyde from Jekyll as well as the different appearance. Barrymore, to give credit where it’s due, obviously does a good job of maintaining two distinct performances—and famously pulling of the first transformation scene without makeup—but what a difference the voice might have made. But on its own terms it’s a perfectly creditable film, and it would be unfair not to acknowledge its influence on later versions, particularly the 1931 film; it pioneered the business of giving both Jekyll and Hyde female consorts—the former his fiancée, the latter an Italian music hall dancer—and it also elevates one of the book’s lesser figures (Carew) into a major one who kind of makes Hyde possible… Jekyll being an unorthodox scientist but essentially extremely good person, Carew (also Jekyll’s future father in law here) takes him to the music hall where Jekyll gets in touch with his nastier instincts for the first time. It’s a film that, to be sure, has certain limitations, though if a really good print of it were out there (the TVS copy was better than I feared, though pretty scuffed and hampered by a needle-drop score that was so strident I had to turn the TV volume well down) I’m sure that’d improve the experience. As it was, I don’t think it was quite a masterpiece but it was certainly a noble and enjoyable attempt.

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