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When asked what is my favorite silent horror film, I always went the tried-and-true route of most horror fans and chose F.W. Murnau's Nosferatu. But now, after viewing the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde starring John Barrymore for the first time, I may just have to change my tune. Maybe.
I'm also torn, because I always have had a special spot in my heart for the 1931 version starring Fredrich March. However, in a lot of ways, I found myself liking this silent version even better.
To my mind, it's all about Barrymore's performance. What's incredible is the fact that very little makeup is used--rather, the actor effects the transformation almost entirely through his bearing and facial expressions. It sounds hard to believe unless you've seen it, but I can assure you, it's brilliant to watch. Clearly, Barrymore's stage training came in handy in helping him communicate so much with body language and facial movement.
The 1931 version opted to go the heavy makeup route, and dazzle with transformative special effects, resulting in a simian, truly monstrous Hyde. But in a lot of ways, what Barrymore did was more challenging. Aside from a greasy fright wig, some shadowing, and fake teeth, he pretty much had to sell you on this transformation through his dramatic power. In this respect, it's actually more similar to the 1941 version starring Spencer Tracy. However, as much as Tracy is one of my all-time favorite actors, he was hopelessly miscast in the role, whereas Barrymore is right on the money.
Maybe it's because I know a thing or two about Barrymore's matinee idol status and personal demons, but it's very easy for me to buy him as both Jekyll and Hyde. Much like March, he pulls off both excellently, effecting the moralism and earnestness of the good doctor just as well as the barbarity and lasciviousness of his repulsive "friend".
And while we're on the subject of lasciviousness, I think no other cinematic version of Robert Louis Stevenson's tale that I've seen deals as frankly with the sexual subtext as this one. Jekyll & Hyde is very much about Victorian sexual repression and its consequences, and in this particular version, there is none of the vague, genteel beating-around-the-bush that we get in later versions. Jekyll's temptation into a world of sin is made quite plain, as is his creation of Hyde as a way of letting loose his carnal impulses.
In Dr. Jekyll's 19th century world, a man of his stature had to to maintain certain levels of decorum to function in polite society, wed, and prosper. But as Hyde, he is free to descend into a depraved underworld of sex, drugs and murder. March pulls this off quite well in Rouben Mamoulian's '30s version, but I'm tempted to say that Barrymore does it even better.
The only drawback in comparing the two performances, in which March inevitably wins out, naturally, is the fact that Barrymore's performance is without sound. Nevertheless, it is even more of a testament to his chops as a world-class thespian that he can mesmerize you from beginning to end without uttering a single recorded word.
Thanks to the marvelous Kino Video, they of the equally excellent Nosferatu special edition DVD, I was able to experience the film with the original color tinting restored, as well as the original score pieced back together and performed by the Mont Alto Motion Picture Orchestra. And what a powerful score it is, proving that, strictly speaking, silent movies were never really silent.
In addition to the masterful Barrymore, veteran supporting player Brandon Hurst shines devilishly as the father of Jekyll's lady love, who initially leads him into temptation. Also memorable is Nita Naldi (above) in a star-making turn as the doomed Italian club singer who becomes the target/victim of Henry Hyde's appetites.
While the Europeans were doing their thing, this was the flick that put horror on the Hollywood map, and with good reason. A bona fide treat for fans of classic terror, as well as for fans of great acting.
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