Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is among the most adapted literary works, not just in horror history but in all of film. Following its publication in 1886, the novella quickly made its way to the stage as a play. Once filmmaking became a viable medium, the story was adapted into several short films in the early 1900s. Although the 1931 version and its 1941 remake are the most well-known film iterations, the 1920 adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the first known feature-length film take on the tale. It’s also considered an influential classic of its time.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was directed by John S. Robertson and written by Clara Beranger. Beranger remains fairly faithful to the source material, while taking influence from T.R. Sullivan’s popular stage treatment and incorporating elements of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray to make it into a feature. The result is one of the first great American horror films.
Henry Jekyll (John Barrymore) begins as a wholly good man. After being badgered by his fiancee’s father (Brandon Hurst) about his philanthropic practices, Jekyll is inspired to experiment with the possibility of separating the good and evil of human nature within a person. The result is a potion that turns Jekyll into his monstrous alterego, Edward Hyde. The transformation is marked by gnarled features and a penchant for evil, leaving him unrecognizable to Jekyll’s friends and loved ones. He attempts to live a double life, as was the initial intention of the outlet, but Hyde slowly begins to eclipse Jekyll each time he indulges in the potion. The takeover is exacerbated when the drug necessary to return him to normal can no longer be found.
With both the titular roles resting solely on him, the picture lies on Barrymore’s shoulders. He dutifully answers the call, relishing in the dual role. An actor of stage and screen, his performance is slightly exaggerated, but it works. It’s especially appreciated in comparison to some of the lackluster portrayals from other adaptations included on the disc (detailed below). Equally as important is the visual portrayal of Hyde, in which Barrymore is striking.
Kino Classics’ Blu-ray deluxe edition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is mastered in high definition from a 35mm negative. It features five minutes of footage that were absent from Kino’s previous DVD release, bringing the runtime up to 79 minutes. The black-and-white/tinted picture is accompanied by a score compiled by Rodney Sauer and performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. Special features include Lucius Henderson’s 1912 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde short, an abridged cut of J. Charles Haydon’s 1920 version, a 1925 parody titled Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pryde and a rare audio recording of “The Transformation Scene” from 1909. They’re fun to have, but none of them compare to the feature.
Unlike Kino’s recent breathtaking restoration of Nosferatu, the high-definition transfer on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde leaves a bit to be desired. It’s not touched up, so its age is made obvious obvious by debris, scratches, flickering, etc. Some scenes are worse than others – wide shots tend to be the most muddled while close ups are more crisp – but it’s not too shabby considering the picture is closing in on 100 years old. Unless someone decides to restore the film frame-by-frame, this is as good as it’s going to get.
Among the 100+ adaptations, Robertson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde may not be quite as memorable as its 1931 counterpart – which boasts then-state-of-the-art special effects along with brilliant performances – but it’s still an excellent adaptation of Stevenson’s timeless story. Likely the best presentation of this version, it’s a wonderful addition for any silent/classic horror fan’s collection.