Jekylls and Hydes I've Known --- Part One
Who’s to carry the banner for silent films after the present generation of curators is gone? There’s a grip of fear I experience whenever one of them sickens or dies, for it seems there’s so few left that care. Are young people embracing pre-talkies? The names I see on DVD credits and on-line discussion groups have been familiar to me for years, so where are their successors? Graduate programs are said to be training students in film preservation. Maybe I’m too old to notice them in the field, but every time there’s an obit for a longtime silent enthusiast, I can’t help thinking of potential restorations and rediscoveries going with him, and how likely as not there won’t (eventually) be anyone left to champion the cause. Those (few) of us who remember sitting home on a schools-out snow day watching Blackhawk’s 8mm release of Sheldon Lewis as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde while normal kids were out sledding will surely understand the thrill of watching a thing seemingly old as Egyptian papyrus, but I couldn’t realistically expect many others to share such a peculiar enthusiasm. I mean, has anyone actually watched Sheldon Lewis as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? To do so willingly takes you way beyond mere purist status. In fact, all these silent J/H adaptations share an appeal limited to determined (if not obsessive) movie archeologists, yet they provide, as a group, the most potent link to long-past performing styles and thesping technique we’re likely to see. To sit and watch them patiently (and yes, you’ll need plenty of that) is to come tantalizingly near what theatre audiences experienced when these dynamic old barnstormers trod boards a century ago. Yeah, I know acting’s more "realistic" now, but oh, to have seen Jekyll and Hyde on stage! --- and performed by guys willing to pull out all the stops to thrill us. Those must surely have been the days …
Stage lion Richard Mansfield was playing Jekyll/Hyde within a year after Robert Lewis Stevenson’s novella was published (1886), and surviving records indicate his transformation sure enough gave women the vapors. Here at last was a part seemingly designed for matinee idols anxious to walk a wild side and fling shocks out to the gallery. No telling how many actors of varied talent cringed, crawled, and caterwauled after downing that potion. Definitely a money scene to guarantee breathless crowd reactions. Mansfield’s interpretation was legendary. He shunned make-up and used lighting effects to put over Hyde’s entrance. Too bad he died (1907) before movies could immortalize it. Others filled the breach, however, and that initial lab scene remained as foolproof as Eliza on the ice floes. Future director James Cruze mopped the floor with his writhing body in a 1912 single-reeler, while Brit producers whipped up a color version around the same time. For every Jekyll/Hyde that survives from the teens, at least two more are lost. Problem with these primitives is a thin line of demarcation between so-called dual personalities. Hyde’s just Jekyll with mussed-up hair and snaggle teeth. What this property needed was romance combined with menace, brutish Hyde’s total departure from idealized Jekyll. Going on as before would only assure a continuation of one-reel stunts --- indeed, parodies were already beginning to surface. Paramount/Artcraft (the Artcraft tag hung on prestige product) sought legit luminaries to attract carriage trade, and John Barrymore was their man of the moment as of 1919. He’d triumphed as Richard III on Broadway and was likened to Booth, Irving, and yes, Richard Mansfield --- all dead, and memories of each passing surely as their nineteenth century audiences headed toward eternal reward. Barrymore had enough dark side to host two or three Hydes, and separation of personality was something he knew all about (legend maintains JB slept off a drunk in Frisco digs while that 1906 quake opened fissures in the street below). If people were going to regard J/H seriously again, he’d be the natural one to take them there. Better money induced as well. I received five hundred dollars a week in the theatre, and fifteen hundred dollars a week in the movies, said Jack upon completion of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, so whoring out to flickers was pretty much a no-brainer for him. Doing it voiceless rankled. He likened that to pantomiming for someone through moving train windows. Topping Mansfield on a mute screen would be a tall order --- how do you erase rose-tinted recall of the Great Man’s stage changeovers? Barrymore resolved to do opening convultions sans make-up. Those less indulgent may titter over his lurches upon that first swallow, but customers then were mesmerized by a seeming onscreen emergence of fiendish Mr. Hyde from the benignly handsome cocoon of Dr. Jekyll. Truly an acting plateau for movies. This glinty-eyed, purse-lipped alter-ego would revisit Barrymore whenever he needed to pull a face for serious (Don Juan’s torture sequence) or comic effect (recognize Mr. Hyde laffing it up with Bill Fields for a proposed mid-thirties teaming?).
For all his epoch-making on stage and screen, John Barrymore might never have realized he was the very first Famous Monster Of Filmland as well. I’ll not extend those laurels to Charles Ogle of 1910 Frankenstein fame, as his lumbering hulk was no different from Hyde pretenders that had preceded JB. Jack knew how to morph that chiseled profile into a thing splendidly grotesque. What is it we find so arresting about the pinhead look (with Freaks' Schlitze being its primary girl/boy pin-up)? Barrymore sensed our need and convincingly raised his scalp to a point that’s absolutely hypnotic from the moment he tips that similarly customized hat (we need more pinheads in movies!). Elongated fingers are another fun ugly element, and you’d swear the things were long as corn stalks by closing reel time (one spastic moment sees a digit flying off his hand). Barrymore even assumes the role of giant tarantula (with Hyde head!) slithering into Jekyll’s bed during a nightmare sequence. Such details are restored to us by way of Kino’s Collector’s Edition DVD. Quality here is leagues better than what Blackhawk served up in 8mm days, though David Shepherd’s Image version contains five or so minutes denied us on the Kino disc. I got the clearest look yet at Nita Naldi’s pub temptress, a smokin’ antidote for Gish/Pickford overdoses we often got before the twenties started roaring. She was a Barrymore discovery (insert carnal inferences here), and Jack’s exhaustion at filming’s close (for which I’d not altogether blame her) was such that he repaired to sanitarium grounds for R&R. That’s where he drew this self-portrait. Looks to have been pretty hung up on the duality thing, but again let’s admire JB’s facility with sketchpad. Reviews back home were glowing. Had a lesser name played so monstrous, local censors might well have been aroused, but Barrymore’s was a sacrosanct name, so he got away with horrors they’d not have tolerated otherwise (and how about that scene where JB bludgeons the guy, then impliedly drinks his blood?). The actor may have gotten his highest compliment when Robert Louis Stevenson’s stepson declared his performance the superior of legendary Mansfield’s (and note how these trade ads stoke the competition). By the by, another Mansfield participant was ill-fated Martha (shown here as Hyde looms behind) , already a prominent name when she played Jekyll’s fiancée opposite Barrymore. The actress came to a grisly end four years later (at age 24) when a carelessly tossed match caught her period dress on fire (donned for The Warrens Of Virginia). She went up like one of Henry Jarrod’s wax figures. Even the intervention of a close-by leading man went for naught toward saving her.
Scavengers meanwhile laid in wait. One of them got out a catchpenny version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde within weeks of Paramount’s opening. Sheldon Lewis restored those pinwheel transformations audiences missed since nickelodeon days, but this was no advance on the performing arts (a little of Lewis --- and yes, that goes a long way --- is featured among extras on Kino’s DVD). Barrymore’s Jekyll and Hyde went with MGM after they acquired the negative from Paramount in March 1940. Copyrights weren’t renewed, so it quietly lapsed into the public domain within a decade after that. Home movie merchants had J/H on the street soon after. Dupes fermented in numerous bathtubs, and you can imagine the quality of these. Archivist/collector James Card sighted an original soon after WWII in one of those Midas vaults at Rochester’s Eastman House Theatre. I assume that’s the print from which latter-day incarnations derive. Blackhawk had a thirty-minute 8mm abridgement you could get for $21.98 in 1972. I’m told Warners makes it available upon request as well. Could this be the definitive incarnation from surviving Paramount elements? The chain of ownership from Metro’s 1940 buy would place it now with Warners, along with the later Fredric March version. Maybe a DVD from them would give us the definitive Jekyll and Hyde with Barrymore.