Across television and film, there are at least 32 adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The allure of the material is pretty apparent -- a great case of man's duality that provides a hero, a villain, and the conflict all in a single package, as well as a meaty role that any actor would love to tear into. One of the earliest surviving adaptations is this 1920 film directed by John S. Robertson. Long available in the public domain, the picture has been given a polish by Kino and is now available on Blu-Ray.
Many of the adaptations provide their own take on the basic story. The 1920s film depicts Jekyll (John Barrymore) as not just a smart scientist, but a true bleeding-heart philanthropist who often misses his dinner engagements to provide medical assistance for sick children, at his own expense. When he arrives at the home of his fiancee Millicent (Martha Mansfield) halfway through one of those dinners, Millicent's father, Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst) practically taunts him for being so kindly. He argues that Jekyll is not living life without occasionally indulging his bad side, even going so far as to drag Jekyll into a dance hall and attempting to get him to kiss one of the beautiful dancers (Nita Naldi). Humiliated, Jekyll concocts a formula that will split his good and bad sides into separate entities, not expecting the experience to become addicting.
Having only seen two adaptations of the story, I can't comment on whether or not this one develops the themes of Stevenson's story differently than others, but the thematic message of the film is a little vague. On one hand, it makes sense that Carew's cruel goading of Jekyll would only lead to tragedy, because Jekyll's desire to help is nothing less than saintly. On the other, Carew is correct to say that repressing feelings is not a solution, and when he says as much to Jekyll, there's a deep fear in Jekyll's eyes, as if he really is pushing something down. Jekyll's formula may indeed be a "sacrilege", making man into "both God and Devil", as one character puts it, but if Jekyll is repressing some secret anger, then leaving it alone isn't a solution either.
However, the real reason this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is remembered doesn't seem to be its take on Stevenson's idea, but the performance by John Barrymore as the two-faced protagonist. On top of that truly soul-piercing terror he displays when needled, he throws himself into the role of Mr. Hyde with an admirable abandon. Modern audiences may find his writhing during the transformation scenes to be a bit silly, but once he's in the makeup, his demeanor changes so completely that I actually double-checked whether or not he was playing both parts. His angular face, spidery fingers, and pointy, cone-like head give Barrymore a grotesque, almost witch-like appearance, but the real change is again his eyes, now filled with a chaotic greed. Meanwhile, although the film could probably use a little more of Dr. Jekyll wrestling with his bad side, Barrymore plays the good doctor's mental breakdown by allowing that sensation of fear that started in his eyes to overwhelm him.
As director, Robertson includes some memorable visual flourishes. The best and most terrifying comes late in the film: Jekyll lies in bed trying to resist the urge to become Hyde, only for Hyde to appear as a giant spider crawling into Jekyll's bed. There is also a wonderfully unexpected aside where Naldi informs Hyde about the ring she wears, flashing back to medieval times. The transformation scenes are achieved with simple cross fades, but Barrymore's performance does most of the work -- one unexpected transformation is startling even though the viewer will see it coming. Some of the best shots are even simpler: in particular, the shot of a homeless child lying underneath Hyde's boot heel is not only a perfect black comic image, but also a pointed visual example of how far he's fallen.
As with most of the Kino releases I've seen, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde comes with very nice, "vintage"-style artwork that feels appropriate to the time the movie was made, and follows their usual layout template. In this case, that means a tan design depicting Mr. Hyde lunging for a man's throat, with a nice ornate title treatment and border framing the image. The disc comes in an eco-friendly Blu-Ray Viva Elite case, and there is no insert.
The Video and Audio
When it comes to their presentations of silent film on Blu-Ray, Kino's strategy remains consistent: find a quality source, make a fresh scan, and leave it alone. No fancy scratch removal programs or noise-reduction filters are applied, which would, at best, minimize the number of imperfections in prints but could never remove all of them. This 1.33:1 1080p AVC transfer is taken from a number of sources, including "archival 35mm elements." As is to be expected, there are non-stop lines, nicks, spots, and scratches in this image, but the heart of the image is impressive, exhibiting a bit of softness and crush, but still clearly achieving a level of detail worthy of high definition. The print is tinted, turning blue for night scenes and pink for a scene set in a nightclub, and the rest appearing in a standard monochrome. Some banding appears along the edges of the image, but this is common with silent films and is not overly distracting. The edges of the 35mm sprockets on the right side of the frame are a little more intrusive, but still easily ignored. One understandable (and minor) compromise: a two or three-minute section near the beginning and about 20 or so seconds during a flashback appear to have come from an SD source, where detail is almost non-existent and black crush is very heavy.
Audio is a score by Rodney Sauer, performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Frankly, there's not much to say about the score, other than it sounds excellent.
Four extras are included, all in HD (although that can be relative), and all other adaptations of Stevenson's story. The oldest is audio-only: "The Transformation Scene" (2:42) is a rare clip from a 1909 version of the story. Jumping forward a few years, we have 1912's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (13:56), and an excerpt of director J. Charles Haydon's competing 1920 "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (14:52). Almost three minutes of the 1912 piece is a discussion of the history of Jekyll and Hyde on film, as well as a discussion of what is about to be seen, followed by the clips. Both are billed as excerpts, because so much footage is lost, but the story remains coherent in both, despite the amount of footage missing. That said, these are mostly curiosities at this point, allowing the viewer a glimpse of other takes on Jekyll / Hyde, neither of which hold a candle to Barrymore. (It is amusing, though, how calm Cruze's transformations are, considering most actors tend to imagine it as being so physically painful.) The last adaptation is comedic: 1925's "Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride" (21:30) is a Stan Laurel spoof of the story in which Laurel's alter ego gets up to decidedly petty mischief. Although I would've liked one of Kino's visual essays to shed some light on the making of the film, this is a fun package of supplements for fans of the film.
Although the exact message of this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a little vague, it's still a creepy and engaging take on the story thanks to John Barrymore's impressive performance. Kino's new Blu-Ray features an impressively restored picture, and a number of excellent bonuses from the story's numerous other adaptations. Highly recommended.
Please check out my other DVDTalk DVD, Blu-Ray and theatrical reviews and/or follow me on Twitter.