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Friday, February 09, 2007

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 be anyone left to champion the cause. Those 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 enthusiasm. I mean, has anyone actually watched Sheldon Lewis as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde? To do so goes way beyond purist standing. In fact, most silent J/H adaptations share appeal limited to hardest-core archeologists, yet they provide, as a group, a most potent link to long-past performing styles. To sit and watch them patiently (and yes, it needs plenty of that) is to come near what theatre audiences experienced when these dynamic old barnstormers trod boards a century ago. Yes, acting is more "realistic" now, but oh, to have seen Jekyll and Hyde on stage, with performers willing to pull out stops to thrill us. Those were surely 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 willing to walk a wild side and fling shocks 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 the 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 sought legit luminaries to attract carriage trade, and John Barrymore was their man of the moment as of 1919. He had 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 came easy 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 convulsions sans make-up. Those less indulgent may titter over lurches upon a first swallow, but customers 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 hypnotic from the moment he tips a similarly customized hat. 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 the 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 sultry antidote for Gish/Pickford overdosing before the twenties started roaring. She was a Barrymore discovery, 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, including a scene where JB bludgeons a man, then impliedly drinks his blood). The actor may have gotten a highest compliment when Robert Louis Stevenson’s stepson declared his performance the superior of legendary Mansfield’s (and note trade ads stoking 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). 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 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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Lovely poster up top.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Anna said...

Great post, can't wait for number two! I agree with you that some young people need to start picking up the banner for silent films (I am a young person who wishes I had the means to do something about it). But today of course the community wouldn't be the same - now you don't need to go to a revival house (heck, here in Britain they don't seem to have ANY) you just get them on DVD and keep your weirdness to yourself. Still, it doesn't lend itself to big restoration projects or any real celebration of the artform though, does it?

7:42 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I can't remember if I had the James Cruze or Sheldon Lewis version from Blackhawk... but I know I was up in my room watching it those very same days you were.

The first time I saw the Barrymore version was at a public screening in the lobby of the Citibank building (New York) in the '80s. It went over really well -- really packed a punch, even then. My mother saw it when she was a kid, and remembered as being one of the scariest things she'd ever seen.

8:41 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for your usual fascinating article.

I was exposed to silent films early... a junior high teacher took us on a field trip to see MODERN TIMES when it played the local art house (which later became a porno theatre, which I frequented as a youth from time to time, sans the teacher, naturally). In the early 1970s, channel 43 in Cleveland had a weekly Saturday night silent film program, where I was introduced to many films that remain all-time favorites, including THE LAST LAUGH and Chaney's HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. I show silents to the kids these days, and they enjoy them, and like to read the title cards allowed, sometimes in character voices. Getting used to that, they will also watch subtitled foreign films sans complaint, and in fact bitched one time when all I had was a dubbed version of something. Kids. Go figure.

10:28 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

by the way, GREAT photo of Fields and Barrymore! Never seen it before.

11:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Some of us would like to pick up the work of th old historians/archivists, but haven't the foggiest idea of where to begin.

For what it's worth, I'm a Gen-X'er, but my favorite movies are classics, preferrably from the first half of the 20th century.

Yes, I wouldn't mind spending the rest of my life working for the preservation and care of the old classic films.

But where to start?

2:59 PM  

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