John Barrymore was larger than life, so naturally, he became an actor. Before his death in 1942, he was considered one of America's greatest, at ease on both the stage and the fledgling silver screen. While his behind the scenes antics have reconfigured his myth away from his talent, we are often reminded of his brilliance both as a performer and as a presence. This is clearly the case with the 1920 silent version of the Robert Louise Stevenson classic Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Relatively faithful to the novella and adorned with one of Barrymore's best turns, it's a genre must. Granted, special effects and horror make-up have changed a lot in the last 100 years and there are arcane elements to both the narrative and production that need to be called out and considered, but overall, this is a very effect piece given great treatment by Kino Classics. When you consider the added content as well as the main feature itself, you've got an intriguing overview of early filmmaking as well as the often argued concept of successful vs. specious adaptations.
When we first meet Dr. Jekyll (Barrymore), he is of two minds. One has him working in a poor part of town, treating the downtrodden and destitute with gentlemanly compassion at his free clinic. The other part, however, wants to expand the scope of human understanding, to research and explore the inner workings of the individual and tap into unknown resources both in personality and psychology. Though he is engaged to the lovely Millicent Crewe (Martha Mansfield), a trip to a dance hall - and interaction with a comely performer named Gina (Nita Naldi) - has him unsettled. He believes he can unleash his inner being and develops a potion to prove this point. Upon ingestion, the mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll turns into the villainous Mr. Hyde. A man-creature of baser appetites and desires, our lead takes up with Gina and starts living by his wild and uncontrolled instincts. Things get out of hand quickly, with Hyde doing whatever he wants, including killing people, as part of his persona.
As with any silent film, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde requires a viewer to get past a couple of concepts. First, you will be reading title cards. There is no two ways about it. This is how it was done back in the 1920s and in order to appreciate this movie, you just have to make the best of it. Second, there's the slightly arc and hysterical - meaning filled with histrionics - acting styles. Barrymore may be a bit more "modern" than his costars, but there's plenty of bugged out eyes, overdone reaction shots, and soundless scenery chewing. Lastly, there's the effects. With today's reliance on realism and CG, the in camera work done here will seem like visions from a Civil War silverplate portrait. Sure, they work, but that's because Barrymore is so good at selling them. Rumor has it that the actor eschewed any real transformative editing so that his could achieve the results "by performance only." Well, it's clear that if you look more closely, there are dissolves allowing for additions to his head, fingers, and facial features. The end result is one of the more iconic movie monsters of the early days of the artform.
Overall, this version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is very entertaining. Barrymore is brilliant, his costars capable of matching his talents, and the overall effect is unsettling and insightful. Back before movies were micromanaged and preprogrammed to play to a specific kind of audience member, a movie like this could take time to explore deeper issues, inner torment, and ancillary plot points. On the other hand, director John S. Robertson does a good job of maintaining a decent pace. We don't wallow in excess so much as see him turn the movie over, time and time again, to his famous leading man. As for his performance specifically, Barrymore brings a real depth to his portrayal of both men. While Jekyll may be nothing more than a goody two shoes, the scenes where he "experiences" Gina for the first time showcase a significant psychological strata underneath. And Hyde is not just a fiend. He's a recognizable abstract of the good docs driving desires. The shift back and forth between these personas is the highlight of this adaptation, and Barrymore is the reason why.