Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, originally published in 1886, is as potent an allegory today as it ever was, asking us to consider the ever-present base, immoral, and animalistic urges that within all of us. We all have the capacity to perform horrible, unspeakable deeds. Whether we do these things or not is another thing entirely. We may not act on these desires, and we may try like hell to deny their presence, but they’re there. And with the flip of a switch, if the right buttons are pushed, who knows what we’re capable of. In Stevenson’s novella, that switch from civilized man to predator is a literal one activated in the titular Dr. Jekyll by a solution of his own devising, a solution that literally changes him into a different person, sure, but it’s a person we are all figuratively capable of becoming.
Although the story’s been adapted to the screen an untold number of times, the most worthwhile of these to my mind is the silent, John S. Robertson’s 1920 adaptation, starring John Barrymore in his breakthrough film performance. This version presents us with a visually horrific and gleefully murderous Mr. Hyde, who manifests onscreen via clever cinematic trickery (care of Robertson and cinematographer Roy Overbaugh), and Jekyll’s climactic “murder” of Hyde is really rather hardcore. Now, while it is cinematically impressive and one of the closest adaptations of Stevenson’s book ever captured on film, this version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is all about John Barrymore, whose handsome, likeable, and sympathetic Jekyll is indeed the polar opposite of his hideous, monstrous, detestable Hyde. You’d almost swear they were played by different actors if you didn’t know better.
The 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde recently debuted on Blu-ray in a Deluxe Edition from Kino Classics, and it should go without saying that this has become the version of the film to own. Sure, you could watch it on YouTube for free, but having that HD transfer from Kino on hand is well worth the investment. It’s far from perfect, of course, but considering the age of the materials, I didn’t even expect it to look even half as good as it does here. What’s more, the disc includes five minutes of footage not included in any previous release of the film I have on hand. This comes at a price, though, as the newly restored five-minute sequence is characterized by some pixilation and presented in an aspect ratio more akin to that sourced from a 16mm print than a 35mm negative, which the case insists this transfer was sourced from. However, I couldn’t find confirmation that this sequence was indeed sourced from a 16mm print or even another SD video source, only other writers’ speculation. So who knows? The good thing is, whatever the reason for the drop in quality when this material comes onscreen, it’s at least a brief sequence. Additionally, Kino’s HD transfer of the film is accompanied by a beautiful score compiled by Rodney Sauer and performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra that plays perfectly to the action and enhances the more emotional scenes in the picture.
I’ve read some early reviews of Kino’s release that deride it for the quality of the special features included on the disc. But I’m honestly not sure what those critics are expecting here? Interviews with the cast and crew? Behind the scenes featurettes? Sure, an audio commentary with a film historian may have been nice, but honestly, I appreciated their approach. Rather than scouring the planet for scraps of material related specifically to the 1920 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, they packed the disc with other adaptations of the story, which is a lot of fun! These include:
-A 1909 audio-only performance of the transformation scene from a Columbia record recording.
-The 1912 one-reel version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from the Thanhouser Film Corporation, starring future director James Cruze. What’s wonderful about this version as presented here is that it’s sourced from a re-release print that opens with three minutes of text and a newspaper still to provide historical context for this version’s viewing. Unfortunately, it seems some footage is likely missing from this print, namely the more violent scenes, but as is, it hits all the main points, and Cruze’s Hyde is a wonderful little weasely creature.
-A 15-minute segment of the rival 1920 version Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that Louis B. Mayer rushed out to capitalize on the Barrymore version. This footage has certainly seen better days, but it’s great to see nonetheless as a counterpoint to the adaptation at the heart of this release. The highlight of this clip is a sequence in which Hyde burns down a building and the filmmakers incorporate stock footage of a fire in which the building collapses!
-And finally, the 1929 two-reel spoof, “Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride,” starring Stan Laurel, which is unfortunately hit-and-miss.