Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Short Take: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Historically, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the 1920 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella, is probably the first significant feature-length horror film produced in the United States. As for the picture itself, it is most notable for John Barrymore's flamboyant performance in the dual lead. He's all but unrecognizable underneath the Hyde make-up, but it never stunts his portrayal. He brilliantly uses the make-up to enhance the flourishes of his characterization. Barrymore's Hyde is a potent Expressionist depiction of the extremes of human malevolence: low cunning, delight in the degradation of others, and murderous violence. The misanthropic German artist George Grosz couldn't have come up with a more effective visual treatment. The stage for Barrymore is marvelously set by director John S. Robertson. The picture does a remarkable job of evoking the squalor of Victorian London; it doesn't soft-pedal the poverty, the commonplace prostitution, or the seedy opium dens. Barrymore's Hyde is a pig wallowing in the mud of a horribly ideal sty. The film also has some striking flourishes beyond Barrymore's performance, such as the dream sequence in which Hyde, personified as a gigantic spider, attacks Jekyll in his bed. Nita Naldi co-stars as the dance-hall performer whom Hyde brings low. The cinematography is by Roy F. Overbaugh. The screenplay is by Clara Beranger, and borrows elements of Thomas Russell Sullivan's stage adaptation of Stevenson's novella.

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