Category Archives: Silent Films

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on Film – 1920, 1931, 1941

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I was looking at adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on Wikipedia and there are well over twenty movie and TV versions, in various languages. The first movie was made in 1908 and there are also numerous stage adaptations (and one Broadway musical). However, there are three main films that are best remembered – from 1920, 1931, and 1941 – and I’ve been gradually watching them in preparation for reading the book. Last night, I finished the 1941 version and have therefore completed my Jekyll and Hyde saga. I think I will have to embark on a slightly happier saga, next.

The most critically acclaimed and well thought of is the 1931 version, starring Fredric March, who won an Oscar for his performance. It’s 98 minutes, but it’s a potent little film, very sexually charged and as a result it was not the most enjoyable film for me to watch, even though it was extremely well done.

Annex%20-%20March,%20Fredric%20(Dr_%20Jekyll%20and%20Mr_%20Hyde)_NRFPT_03Dr. Henry Jekyll is a man who is very aware of his shortcomings. He gives much of his time to a free hospital and wants to be a good man and madly loves his fiancé, Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart), but also is keenly aware of how easily he can fall into temptation, such as when he meets Ivy (Miriam Hopkins), a prostitute who unclothes (off-screen) and hops into bed and offers to show her gratitude for his saving her from being molested in the street. He resists, however, but he urges Sir Danvers, his future father-in-law, to set an earlier date for his wedding to Muriel. Sir Danvers refuses and takes his daughter off on a vacation.

It is the inability to wait for his wedding that drives Jekyll into Hyde. Although he had posited at the beginning of the film his belief that man was two – good and evil – and had succeeded in creating Hyde, he seems to have been somewhat alarmed by the creature that came out. He only turns to Hyde again when he decides that the months of waiting for Muriel are too long, and he hasn’t forgotten Ivy.

Fredric March as Hyde and Miriam Hopkins as Ivy

Fredric March as Hyde and Miriam Hopkins as Ivy

This is where the movie gets too much for me. Hyde locates Ivy and then keeps an apartment for her where he can visit, keeping her there through sheer terror and brutality. Miriam Hopkins plays the role excellently, but her terror is so well played and Hyde’s lustful evil is so well played that it is deeply disturbing to watch. March’s Hyde is one of the scariest characters I have ever seen; he plays him like an animal. As Jenny Davidson pointed out in her notes to my Barnes & Noble edition of the book, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde came out the same year as the famous Universal monster and horror movies (Frankenstein, Dracula) but is far more frightening than either, which I have to agree with.

When my sister and I first saw Hyde, she remarked that he looked like the missing link. They were, apparently, going for the ape look and March said that he played Hyde as a separate entity, a monster, who takes over Jekyll. He also makes Hyde a highly athletic character, jumping over railings and down stairs. His Hyde has a frenetic energy and will for living. His Jekyll, on the other hand, strikes just the right balance between showing his capacity for genuine goodness, nobility and concern for others, his genuine loathing of what he’s done, his passion for Muriel, but also the desires that lurk inside him. His Jekyll has just as much zest for living as Hyde, only expressed in different ways.

10030576_2The 1941 version is a fairly close remake of the ’31 version: the sequence of events are the same, certain lines are the same, but somehow it lacks the tension, urgency and emotion of the other. It was made during the code, which means it is far less explicit, but I am not sure that alone accounts for the disengaging quality of the film.

Spencer Tracy seems miscast as Jekyll/Hyde. He doesn’t really look like he belongs in the period; he’s too reserved as Jekyll and does not really project embodied evil as Hyde. Tracy reportedly agreed that he was not suited for the role and tried to get out of it.

The film also stars Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner and as soon as I saw that I said to my sister “and you can guess who plays which role,” but I was wrong. Ingrid Bergman was tired of playing saintly women and requested the role of the prostitute (who has been transformed into a barmaid in this version), but she still makes for a pretty refined barmaid with a cockney/Swedish accent. Lana Turner, on the other hand, seems woefully inadequate and young for the role of refined fiancé.

Tracy as Jekyll and Bergman as Ivy

Tracy as Jekyll and Bergman as Ivy

Tracy’s Hyde does not look as different from Jekyll and at one point Ivy (Bergman) almost thinks she recognizes Hyde when she sees Jekyll. It is an intriguing idea, but is never really followed up or explored. Perhaps another part of the problem is that in this version, Jekyll considers madness to be a result of the imbalance of the good and evil in man; madness is when good is absent and there is only evil. It is in his attempts to find a means to cure madness that he first creates Hyde. The problem is that his Hyde seems more unhinged than truly evil and the affect is diluted.

Where the ’31 and ’41 versions are about sexual repression, the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is all about John Barrymore. Although he’d made a few movies before 1920, none of them were especially well received and it wasn’t until his much praised work in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that he made his successful transition from stage to screen. It’s a silent film, only 67 minutes, but actually quite good.

thO5HJ3I2JBarrymore’s Dr. Jekyll is a saintly doctor, so saintly that his friends wonder at the man. No man can be that good, they say. One friend (what friends!) suggests that in serving others, he is neglecting his own development as a person. Jekyll and his friends all agree that man has two selves, but Jekyll begins to wonder if there is a way for him to participate in the pleasures described, but without fear for his immortal soul. In this version, then, he is not necessarily trying to make Jekyll good and separate out the good and evil; he is just trying to create an outlet for his evil without it affecting him (a concept found in the original book).

What most people talk about in this movie is the transformation scene where Barrymore initially demonstrates the change from Jekyll to Hyde without makeup and solely through the changing of his expression. What is also different about his Hyde is that he is old, decrepit and hideous.

John Barrymore as Hyde

John Barrymore as Hyde

Another difference is that the highlight, the moment when Hyde commits his ultimate act of murder, is when he kills his fiancé’s father, whereas in the other versions it is when Hyde kills Ivy. But that illustrates the difference in focus between the movies. The others are about evil specifically in regards to lust and this one is more concerned with evil overall, in all areas of life.

Poor John Utterson (who narrates the story in the novel) fares rather poorly in all three movies, which is understandable. In 1920, he is a good, stalwart friend (rather younger than in the book) who also seems to be in love with Jekyll’s fiancé. In 1931, he is reduced to being just a random houseguest and in 1941 he is eliminated altogether and emerges in the character of Dr. Lanyon, who is a composite of Utterson and Lanyon.


Posted by on October 22, 2014 in Horror, Silent Films


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Watching Silent Films


Chaplin, eating his shoe

I have recently become interested in silent movies, though it took some doing. It is the unintentional and un-directed work of a lifetime. I used to watch quite a few as a small child, mostly Charlie Chaplin shorts that my Dad would bring home from the library. I was so young, I couldn’t even read and I would have to nudge my brother and sister every time there was an intertitle to remind them to read it to me. Fortunately, it is not necessary to read to be able to appreciate Charlie Chaplin. My one, enduring memory is of Chaplin trying to eat his shoe. I was also very taken with his walk and would imitate it every chance I had.

The other silent film I saw as a child was The Birth of a Nation (1915), a film so racist that even I, an unaware child, could pick it up. It was my first introduction to how movies reflect their time and it was also the first movie that taught me that just because something is so in a movie, does not mean it is right or true or just.

Through the years, I have tried fitfully to reacquaint myself with silent movies. There was Douglas Fairbanks’ 1922 Robin Hood, which felt long and had very 1920s’ costumes with a slight medieval flavor; there was Fairbanks’ The Three Musketeers (1921), which put me to sleep with its uninspiring organ accompaniment (and I’ve never fallen asleep during a movie before, so it must have been the organ music). There were a few Chaplin films: The Great Dictator (1940) and Modern Times (1936), silents he made after the silent era had ended that were funny, but had a point behind them and didn’t quite do anything for me.

Two movies…well, three…actually, four, finally hooked me and made me a silent film fan.

Steamboat Bill, Jr. (1928): I read about Buster Keaton and the kind of physical comedy he did and about the wall that falls on him with the open window that falls over his head. I read about how he did all his own stunts and that a wall really did fall and how they measured it exactly so that his head would go through the window frame. There was something rather exciting about watching him do all his own stunts – no CGI – with his trademark deadpan face. I’d never heard of him before, but I enjoyed what I saw and have since become a big fan.

Keaton in Sherlock, Jr.

Keaton in Sherlock, Jr.

Then I saw Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans. Directed by F.W. Murnau, a German director known for his expressionist films, he came to American and made this movie in 1928, at the very end of silent movie making. I was awestruck by how beautiful and dynamic it was. The camera was mobile (unlike early talkies), the lighting and shots were exquisite, the acting was supreme, it actually had its own score instead of organ accompaniment (they figured out how to add scores to films in 1926) and it was very moving.

But although I saw these two silent films and liked them, I wasn’t quite sure how to go further into silent films. I didn’t know much about silent movie actors or genres. What proved truly helpful was to take stars I liked from the 1930s and go backwards and see them when they started, in the silent era. I am a big Mary Astor fan and I had just seen the movie Midnight (1939), which was also my first John Barrymore. I read that Astor and Barrymore made several silent movies together. One was Beau Brummel, a film that I absolutely loved and also served to introduce Barrymore to me when he was in his acting prime. The other movie was with Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), which is considered one of the first horror films and one I found quite riveting to watch as Barrymore played each role.

One of the things that really helps make a silent movie come alive is the music, which unfortunately can be a bit hit or miss. It can be a contemporary score, piano, organ, or even the original score.  Sometimes, the music is just slapped on and doesn’t fit the action. I once tried watching an inferior version of the 1925 Lost World and the perky, tacked on classical music that had no reference to what was actually occurring onscreen drove me nuts. When the music is good, however, it really makes a movie stand out. Beau Brummel had a beautiful score. It is a contemporary score and achingly lovely. There apparently have been many composers who have stepped up to provide compositions for these silent films and I wonder if it offers them more interest than composing for a talky film; silent movie scores can be more like a tone poem, more in the forefront rather than in the background.

I think one of the real keys to enjoying silent films is finding the actors and genres that you like, as opposed to feeling obligated to watch the best ones. After all, we don’t do that when movies come out in theaters. We watch what we want, not what the critics say are the finest, most artistic films. It’s supposed to be fun to watch a silent film, not educational.

Mary Astor and John Barrymore in Beau Brummel

Mary Astor and John Barrymore in Beau Brummel

But silent films are not like talkies. They convey emotions differently, visually, through their face and body language, through the music and cinematography. I’ve definitely seen hammy and melodramatic acting (but then, I’ve seen that in today’s films, so that doesn’t count), but there is a heightened emotion and expression that is almost poetic in silent films, that is beautiful and exciting to see…or funny.

Fritzi Kramer, on her site, Movies Silently, argues that silent movies are somewhere in between books and talkies and that many people who like silent movies are also readers. I have seen nothing to contradict it, though I would argue that there is a silent movie for everyone’s taste, if they could find it: horror, romance, kitsch, melodrama, jazz age, crime, gangsters, adventure, mystery, fantasy, historical, comedy, westerns…anything.

For more information on the silent era, I would definitely check out Movies Silently (here). There are movie reviews, fun GIFs, articles about the silent era, videos debunking silent era myths, book reviews, mini bios of actors. It’s a wonderful and well written resource. And for fun, check out her video called “Dear Movies Silently, Why do so many silent movies have women tied to railroad tracks?” where she debunks this particularly persistent silent movie myth.

Or for an introduction to silent movies, try her article called “About Silent Movies #1: Silent Movies? You Like Silent Movies?”

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Posted by on August 1, 2014 in Silent Films


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