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JEKYLL AND HYDE IN THE SILENT ERA: A COMPARISON

 For this conversation, both the participants and the lead actors in each version of the film will be referred to by their initials:

 

CD: Chad Denton of The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

ZH:  Zack Handlen of The Duck Speaks

LK:  Liz Kingsley of And You Call Yourself A Scientist!

 

JC:  James Cruze, 1912

KB:  King Baggot, 1913

JB:  John Barrymore, 1920

SL:  Sheldon Lewis, 1920

 

LK:  I just wanted to start off by talking a bit about the influence of the Thomas Russell Sullivan stage version of Jekyll And Hyde on all of these early films. It's obvious that as with Dracula in particular, this is an example of the stage adaptation of a book doing as much to shape the film versions than the book itself. I’ve found a couple of sources that summarise the play, which seem to be taken from a New York Times review of the play itself. 

Jekyll has been changed to a gloomy young medical student. He is introduced in the first Act visiting his fiancée, Agnes, but is called away. Hyde returns instead and murders Agnes’ father, General Sir Danvers Carew. The second Act deals with Hyde evading capture, and also has Agnes pleading with Jekyll to help bring Hyde to justice. The third Act has the confrontation between Hyde and Lanyon, with Hyde transforming into Jekyll. I’m not sure if they kept that off-stage, or dropped the curtain, or what; but evidently the on-stage transformation of Jekyll into Hyde was delayed until the fourth Act. The play ends with Jekyll dying in his laboratory.

ZH:  It is too bad we can't see that play--the narrative of the novella has such a curious structure (rather like the standard epistolary novel) that I can understand the necessity for change. What's funny is that these days, when people are (slightly) more willing to embrace unconventional narratives, you couldn't really do a literal adaptations; it would be too frustrating, since everyone would spend the first forty minutes or so already knowing what was coming.

Speaking of elements from the novella, all four versions (correct me if I'm wrong here) manage to get the trampling and the murder from Stevenson's story. The victims change--in a couple, it's Jekyll's fiancée’s father who gets bludgeoned, and there's also the rival of Jekyll's affections that gets offed in Sheldon's version--but I like that they at least stuck to much of the original structure. Although by making the murder victim connected to Jekyll, I can't help but wonder if they're missing the point; in the novella, Hyde just wallops the bejeezus out of some old guy for no real reason anyone can ever determine. While the story is about frustrated impulses, and what happens when those impulses go unchecked--which means it makes some sense to have the murder be more of an emotional involvement--I like the idea of Hyde just going nuts because he has no reason to do otherwise.

LK:  I'm inclined to think that the fact that no version has ever attempted to follow the structure of the book is an indication of how huge it really was, since no-one adapting it has ever tried to make a mystery out of what’s going on. In fact, the three shorter films are amusingly crude about it: THIS IS WHAT WE'RE HERE TO SEE, RIGHT?????? 

The big surprise for me in the book, which I hadn’t read for a long time, was the realisation that this business of saintly Dr Jekyll treating the poor didn’t have its origin there. Now, there are passing references to Jekyll “alleviating suffering”, particularly after he's had his first fright as Hyde, but it’s not nearly so specific as we get in the films. Now, this saintliness really does twist the purpose of the book, where it is clear that it is Jekyll's lack of saintliness that is the issue. 

ZH:  As far as the clinic goes, it does seem like another step in white-washing Jekyll; but you'll notice that every one of the film versions has Jekyll as the main character, whereas in the story he doesn't take centre stage until the final fifteen pages or so. There's a definite desire to make him as much of a romantic hero as possible, which only really works in the Barrymore version.

SL’s translation I found particularly hilarious--he's saintly, and every time he changes back from Hyde to Jekyll, the intertitles tell us how remorseful he is; except he immediately takes another step towards hiding his alter-ego, both renting a room and changing his will to include Hyde's name.

CD:  The most bizarre portion was when Jekyll is praying for deliverance and then several scenes or so later we're finding out that he's deliberately "giving in to his evil genius."  I suppose this is the sort of thing you get when you force-feed an evangelical message to a story that is already fat on its own moral themes.  It was like watching a "Dracula" adaptation from the '20s sponsored and produced by the Women's Christian Temperance Union!  True, the "scientifically tampering with the fundamental nature of humanity" aspect of the story does dovetail with a message about materialism, but it still felt as if J. Charles Haydon was wrestling with the source material, especially since he couldn't even decide on Jekyll's culpability.  I did some research on Haydon and apparently he did a number of moralizing films before.  I couldn't find if he chose the material or just happened to get the assignment.

Since you two read the book, is the "science leads people to atheism" message there as well?  I certainly didn't glean it from the other adaptations, but when Stevenson starting writing the book in 1885 (I believe?), Darwin's "On The Origin of Species" had been published for several decades by then and there had been other established discoveries that challenged very old notions. Putting even all that aside, you also had the general trend in the late 1800s of scientific and mathematical research extending beyond a pursuit any educated person can take up to being a profession requiring specialized training.  I can see a glimpse of that anxiety in all the adaptations. Turn your back on those scientists, and they'll just turn into deformed criminals!

ZH: It's a little tricky--science isn't directly impugned, but there's definitely a Right kind of Science and a How Dare You Tamper In the Ways Of God kind of Science. Dr. Lanyon, who shows up in a couple of the shorts, represents the "Right" flavor; he and Jekyll have somewhat of a falling out before the novella begins, because he accuses of Jekyll of tampering in something than Man isn't supposed to know. The two are eventually reconciled, largely through the efforts of Utterson, their mutual lawyer (and, outside of Jekyll, the closest thing the novella has to a “hero”), but ultimately, Lanyon witnesses Hyde transform into his "better half," and is undone by it. Which, one gets the implication, is what any sensible gentleman is supposed to do when confronted with such horror. Anything else would be unseemly. 

CD:  The SL adaptation seems to be the most uncomfortable with the source material.  In a way, it's the most grisly one, since the love interest is (sort of) killed along with her fiancé, but you do have the addition of Jekyll/Hyde being arrested and then executed by the electric chair, which I believe at the time was still promoted as a humane alternative to the firing squad or the noose (a subtle praise for the humanity of government even in pursuing vengeance or just easier and cheaper to film than the alternatives?), followed by the tacked-on ending where we find out there's no monster and no one died, but Jekyll is redeemed, after all.  It's really having it both ways:  the "villain" must be punished (even though it's never made clear just how culpable Jekyll is) and the forces of moral society must be vindicated, while the audience must be assured nothing nasty actually happened.  It's like a prototype for a Hayes Code film!

I should also mention how the film fails to even convey a coherent evangelical point.  The film emphasizes Jekyll's charity work and his passion for it, more than any of the versions we've seen.  If anything, it actually makes a strong case that disbelief in the soul and God *does not* prevent one from becoming a moral person.  Yet we never really see how Jekyll's materialism leads him down to path to Hydedom, unless the audience is simply supposed to construe a lesson that scientific preoccupations inevitably lead to atheism.  Personally I would have just liked an explanation as to why a young woman being in a coma (I think?) is supposed to prove that there is no soul.

It is funny, but appropriate, that it's the people who sit around enjoying the life of the Gilded Age leisure class who have the moral upper hand, but not the guy who is devoted to treating the ailments of the impoverished for no money, although I guess this supports my theory that the film is the end result of a script that got a patch job.

LK:  What we seem to have here is a very muddled jumbling together of vaguely related themes. Bernice's religious exhortations seem to imply that any experimentation is a kind of questioning of God - whether she is specifically objecting to Jekyll investigating/doubting the existence of the soul is hard to tell, because the writing is so bad. Similarly, there was (and probably still is) the school of thought that argues that any kind of social reform is irreligious, inasmuch as it is presumably God's will that the rich people be rich and the poor people be poor. (It's one of those classic religious contradictions that you can argue either way just as successfully.) So you have Jekyll upsetting the social order; you have the snob element - "Ew, he's hanging out with the nasty poor people instead of the nice rich people"; and you have Jekyll's neglect of his social duties in both the broad (missing dinners, engagements) and the specific (neglecting his fiancée) sense. All this is kind of there, but they never really join the dots, or make it clear what they think Jekyll's sin is. Then you have the detail of God's message being put in the mouth of Miss Golf-And-Opera!?

In the JB version you do, and in contrast quite neatly, have the broader religious question of whether avoidance or resistance of temptation is the more meritorious. JB’s Jekyll has never sinned because he's never been tempted to.

I might add that the thing I found most interesting about the SL version is that it is, I think, the only one - EVER - to have the girlfriend getting fed up and telling Jekyll he can go get stuffed!!

ZH:  How about the fact that in the JC version, Jekyll becomes engaged to the minister's daughter? Of course, he does this after he makes his first transformation into Hyde, but I'd blame that more on the short's abbreviated chronology than any intentional choice. But the fact that it's the minister's daughter is definitely worth noting; it presages the religious commentary of the SL version, but actually manages to be more subtle about it by never explicitly talking about Jekyll's lack of belief. Things come to a head when Jekyll starts to change while in the presence of his fiancée. She runs off, and her father finds the newly transformed Hyde, who murders him where he stands.

Three out of the four murders in the J&H's we watched, Hyde kills the father of his fiancée. In the JB version, the motivation is clear (admittedly, Carew's daughter isn't engaged to Jekyll, but she's nearly a girlfriend), but in the other two, it's just bad luck. Or is it? Perhaps in the JC version, there's something more going on--that Hyde murders a minister because he can only exist by negating good. (There's some metaphysics for you.)

CD:  Liz, thanks for pointing out Bernice's prominence.  I think the romantic heroine had the biggest role in this film than the others, if only because she becomes Hyde's victim (sort of) by the end.  I suppose this is an early example of a "family values" narrative, where the workaholic boyfriend/husband doesn't appreciate the love that's just down the hall, all the worse when his work makes him a killer by night!  I have to add that I'm a little disturbed at the mentality that says there is no excuse for ignoring a loved one, even giving valuable medical aid to the poor (especially if it seems your main motive in doing so is to prove the soul doesn't exist...or something.  Can you tell that this film has confused the hell out of me?!)

ZH:  It's interesting how there's no real attempt made to connect Jekyll's motives for turning into Hyde with his charity work--while in the novella, Jekyll wants to keep on sinning while maintaining his pious appearance, the silents (apart from the Barrymore version) seem to bring up the health clinics either to make his eventual fall more tragic, or else to tip us off (as Chad said) that anyone who so ignores the Victorian approval of family life is bound to end badly.

LK:  Probably their short running times are to blame, but the JC, KB and SL versions give no real motive for Jekyll doing what he does. The JB version alone does - AND correctly assigns to his state of mind at the time the outcome of the experiment - but then it wimps out by having him "tempted" into it, rather than just succumbing under his own power. (And there is a very distinct aroma of Dorian Gray here, don't you think?) 

ZH: The introduction of the “good girl” also served to provide Hyde with someone to kill who was actually connected to Jekyll's life. Where in the novella, he just beats a respectable gentleman in the street, in every one of the silent versions, there's some connection to his romantic life, either in the form of a rival, or the fiancée’s father. I suppose I can understand why they'd do this, but it does lose some of the terrible randomness of Stevenson's Hyde. (Although the murder of Carew in the Barrymore version is an excellent scene, marred only by some horrible choice of library music on my disc of the film.)

LK:  Of course, there are no women at all in the book....but introducing a “good girl” was probably (particularly in terms of the Victorian mind-set) the easiest way of illustrating man's duality.

ZH:  There's something curious about the lack of women in the novella. Stevenson is never explicit about what Hyde's particular sins are; there are the crimes he commits (trampling, murder), but how, exactly, does he spend his time otherwise? And what need was it that drove him to create the potion in the first place... Throwing in a fiancée may be a sort of damage control--he is a "normal" person in his regular life, eh? And he just gets naughty after a few drinks. (I did like the brief implication of a three-way in the Barrymore film, though.)

LK:  "....My pleasures were undignified, to say the least...." Now what, exactly, coming from a Victorian gentleman, do those words imply? That he frequents music halls? That he gets into drinking contests in the local pub? That he goes carousing in brothels? OR---

Now that you've started this particular train of thought - and speaking of Oscar Wilde - the utter absence of women from the book is very suggestive. It makes me wonder what Jekyll could have been up to that he couldn't even hint at; that he couldn't bear to be caught out at; that was so very naughty, he needed an entirely different an unrecognisable persona to indulge in it. Was there something here that Dared Not Speak Its Name? 

CD:  You had to bring up the "queer" reading of Jekyll and Hyde!  I had thought about it before, but I didn't realize how much it pervades all the film versions.  Most of Hyde's crimes are sexual, at least indirectly; Hyde tends to attack only women or men who try to stop him from accessing women.  I never read the original novella, so the fact that there are no women in the source material is fascinating.  Maybe it's just because I specialize in the history of sexuality and its regulation, but the pieces are there:  a respectable man who leads a "double life" (Hyde even has his own residence!), Hyde is both shunned by society and on the wrong side of the law from almost the beginning, Hyde's activities are mostly restricted to the night and to the impoverished parts of the city, Jekyll finds the Hyde persona seductive and addictive, and the dilemma can only end in self-destruction.  It makes me wonder if any of the filmmakers we're discussing were aware of such interpretations and that was another reason to add the love interest. 

ZH:  The only version of Hyde in any of the movies who's at all functional is JB’s, whose Hyde is sleazy and creepy, but does have a certain magnetism about him. He doesn't behave like a sub-human, so it's understandable that Jekyll could get sucked in taking the potion again. The other Hydes are all twitchy, brain-damaged freaks; which is in keeping with the character's degraded nature, but does the story a serious disservice by removing any moderate seductive power Hyde had.

LK:  JB's Hyde is the only one of substance; creepy and repulsive instead of ludicrous; he looks forward to, in particular, the Fredric March Hyde: your skin crawls the same way when he touches the girls in this as it does later when FM is mauling poor Miriam Hopkins. The other Hydes--- Well, all I can think about is that line from Monty Python And The Holy Grail, about their silly knees bent running around behaviour. I'm sure they were going for "ape-like" - and I'm also sure there's a commentary on theories of evolution in here somewhere - but really---

ZH:  Before we dismiss the non-Barrymore Hydes completely, I will say that Lewis's was my favourite of the three, and that he does have some nicely creepy moments; I especially liked the expression on his face when he counts the money he stole. But the fact that his only attempts at vice are (apart from one murder) mugging and arson, somewhat ruins the effect.

CD:  The handling of Hyde here reminds me a bit of the cheesy alternate personality disorder plots from soap operas, TV shows, and films where the "alter" is presented as both an aspect of the protagonist's persona (usually springing from emotional repression or a traumatic event in the past) and an alter-ego holding the "core" personality hostage.  Jekyll is much more culpable, given that he takes the formula willingly, but it's still interesting that, to one degree or another, all the versions agree that he's also a victim (if only of his own hubris).

By my interpretation, all the versions seem to be very ambivalent about whether or not Hyde is all but a separate persona, or at least an entity representing the collective evils of mankind, or is an extremely unrepressed Jekyll.  It's just that the latter two versions hinted that - and I believe the Stevenson version does as well - Jekyll feels a degree of responsibility toward Hyde's well-being, which is interesting.

ZH:  Well, since Hyde really is Jekyll, it's more that he's trying to make sure his alter-ego has a place to play. Although you're right, the latter two versions' approach to Hyde make the room-renting a bit stranger; in the novella (and in the JB version), the point is made very clearly that Jekyll creates Hyde so he can get up to all sorts of mischief on the side, but in the JC, KB and SL films, Jekyll seems to be making the potion for the cause of Science alone. Perhaps the temptation to take it further is irresistible?

I agree that the changes to Jekyll make the story even more schizoid than the novella was. For your Dorian Gray, I'll raise you (or make a lateral move?) and say that I think the Jekyll and Hyde story has had a huge influence over werewolf myth in the last century or so. You can see those early silents wanting very much to head in the direction of the standard werewolf arc; Jekyll is often almost entirely blameless, and the motives behind his consumption of the Ego/Id potion are always elided over. You wonder if they weren't ever tempted to introduce another character, like Bela Lugosi from The Wolf Man (or, hell, Dr. Pretorious from Bride Of Frankenstein), to force the changes on the hero and take moral culpability out of the picture completely.

LK:  Well, there’s Carew, the classic satanic tempter. To my mind his presence is a bit of a cop out, but it's not thematically inappropriate, particularly in terms of the overriding issue of Victorian hypocrisy and the double life. That version makes the point quite nicely, with its "man of the world" with his "innocent" daughter.

ZH:  Which also leads to Hyde murdering Carew, in a scene that actually shocked the hell out of me. Not that he'd murder Carew, but it was much more brutal and creepy than I was expecting. Just the look on Hyde's face after Jekyll changes is terrific stuff.

LK:  I have spent this afternoon writing my review of the KB version, and I have to say that, having now really thought about it, I'm a lot more impressed with it than I was before. Without wanting to pre-empt my review too much, I think there's a *lot* more going on in that film than initially meets the eye. None of it is particularly well executed, but the ideas are there, and that always counts for quite a lot with me. You may take that as a challenge if you wish!

ZH:  I just re-watched it (thank god for snow days), and I think I see where you're coming from. To the good, it's the only adaptation of the ones we watched that keeps the plot point of Hyde needing to call on Lanyon's help to get his potion. In the novella, first we hear of Lanyon dying from shock (shades of Lovecraft), and later we learn about Hyde's visit, and Lanyon being forced to watch his transformation. It's a nice moment, and done well here.

I also liked the progression of the Jekyll-Hyde transformations. It may even be better handled than in the Sheldon Lewis version; we at least get a sense of what he's trying to do, and there is a clear moral choice to stop using the drug, even if it is too late. I especially liked the almost blackly comic speed of his later transformations--he goes through all the trouble of contacting Lanyon to get his meds, only to regress the instant he sets foot on his girlfriend's doorstep. (Which is a dramatically sound indictment of his guilt, as well, since that is where Hyde committed murder earlier.)

My biggest problem with the Baggot version is Baggot's Jekyll. Obviously different concessions must be made to the needs of silent film acting, but I just couldn't stop laughing at the way he waved his arms around every time he found himself in a moral quandary. It made me think of a particularly inept revivalist preacher. Still, between the creation of the special clinic that you mentioned, and its surprising moments of faithfulness to the source material, I agree that it's a bit more important than I'd initially given it credit for.

LK:  I think that the JB version is not just an excellent film, but an excellent adaptation. Other than the point of Carew, as we've already discussed, the only issue is the structure, which they really had to change. Otherwise, thematically, it's all there: Jekyll's state of mind and motive for undertaking the transformation - the only one that is given a motive, and the right motive; his enjoyment of the evils he's committing - he doesn't just trample the kid, he stops and steps on it deliberately; and the fact that this is the only version with a real sense of vice; of sin, if you like. As Zack said, that faint hint of a three-way is incredibly daring. And even if you don't read it that way, you have the debauched, abandoned woman held up against her successor, who is presumably going the same way.

I was also impressed with Nita Naldi's performance (although she's certainly no dancer!). Like the rest of the film, it's surprisingly subtle and nuanced. I think the only point where this film really goes over the top is the first transformation scene - but even so, it's an accurate rendering of the description in the book.

And I do love that spider!!

ZH:  I'll second you on that spider scene, Lyz. It took me completely by surprise.

CD:  I agree with what everyone has said about the JB version.  It was a great film in its own right, and it probably is the only version that drew from both the play and the novella. There's just some atmospheric and thematic quality to it that is actually reminiscent of the late Victorian period.  In fact, I'd go so far as to say that they actually tried - and succeeded - in making Hyde a uniquely Victorian boogeyman, rather than simply the stereotyped deformed madman.

I do have to say one thing in favour of the SL Hyde: I can't help but love that scene where he fondles the human skull on Jekyll's desk for no reason.

LK:  It's been a real pleasure doing this. It was wonderful to have an opportunity to watch all four films. It's fascinating that the four of them could vary so much, in execution and attitude. You have the JC version hopping from highlight to highlight without much thought; the KB version trying for more complexity in its story-telling, and inadvertently changing the whole cinematic history of the story; the marvellously thoughtful JB version; and the totally bizarre SL version, which I suppose exists to remind us that cheap knock-offs of hit movies are no new phenomenon! - and also of the oddly interesting things that sometimes result when a film is rushed through production. I wonder if that version would be quite so weirdly compelling if they'd had time to stop and think about it? The highlight of this exercise for me, though, has to be my belated recognition of how much is going on in the KB version, which I may not have noticed except viewing and re-viewing it for this debate. (And that, I suppose, is the very point of all this!)

CD:  From the perspective of a historian, I'm fascinated by how the same fundamental story manages to operate in new and changing cultural contexts while retaining its core.  Each generation of filmmakers and screenwriters find something in the novel and earlier adaptations that speaks to them and yet manages to inject something new, which is an interesting process.

ZH:  One of my favorite things about writing on adaptations is seeing what each adaptation takes from its source material. Watching these four versions in rapid succession was like a short class in the evolution of film-making--you can see directors and screenwriters developing from short, highlights-only one reelers to a full-length movie with well-drawn characters and a strong story arc. Each version keeps the basics of Stevenson's novella, but the end results are surprisingly diverse; it reminds you that the language of the movies didn't come into being over night, and makes you look at all films from a fresh perspective.

LK: Gentlemen, thank you! - and I'll see you both later; you, and Fredric March, and Spencer Tracy....


See also:

      Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1912) at And You Call Yourself A Scientist!
      Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1913) at And You Call Yourself A Scientist!
      Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1920) at The Duck Speaks
      Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1920) at The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

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----16/12/2007