What could be more fitting for Hallowe’en time than examining all those wonderful film costumes? I’m pleased to contribute to the Characters in Costume blogathon, hosted by Christina Wehner and Into the Writer Lea (and hey, I greatly appreciate any blog that includes my name! :-P). A hearty welcome to all new readers–feel free to take a look around, and don’t be shy about sharing your thoughts! I love comments like Lon Chaney loved makeup and prosthetics (very, very much).
So, there’s been a friggin’ ton of movies based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s famed novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. And no wonder, with such a temptingly bizarre plot and tantalizing dual role. The main draw is seeing the transformation of the kind, genteel Mr. Jekyll into the evil Mr. Hyde, and we all know how he usually looks. Sometimes he’s very hairy, with squat features and huge teeth, as in the 1931 version:
Sometimes, like in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953) he gets more apelike:
Now and then, especially in those modern B movies, he looks like a goblin…
…or in Michael Caine’s case, a potato:
Having wild hair at some point is important, as Spencer Tracey shows:
And I’ll just leave this here.
But the granddaddy of all Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde movies is arguably the 1920 version starring the acclaimed John Barrymore. It’s predated by a few other versions (the 1912 Thanhouser short is widely available) but it really takes the cake. I could discuss the film as a whole, but for now, let’s focus on the most memorable part: Barrymore’s remarkable transformation from the virtuous, handsome Dr. Jekyll to the thoroughly loathsome Mr. Hyde. It’s really something else, and I highly recommend it just for the chance to see Barrymore throw himself body and soul into this strange, almost-but-not-quite-campy role.
What’s most remarkable about it are those very first moments of Jekyll’s transformation. It involved no makeup, jump cuts or special costumes–only Barrymore’s skill at contorting his facial features and changing his body language right before our eyes. You can take a look for yourself here:
Looking at this sequence more closely, we can pick up on Barrymore’s attention to detail. As Jekyll he’s well-groomed and his impeccable posture makes him appear fairly tall. His first, violent contortion throws his hair into his face and allows him to assume Hyde’s hunched posture–giving the illusion that he not only became misshapen, but also shrunk. His hands start to making clawing motions. He raises his eyebrows and tightens his facial muscles into a kind of weird grimace, again, without using any makeup. (And it’s much harder to pull off than it sounds–I may have tried it, and may have looked like a complete moron high on six pots of coffee.)
There’s a closeup so we can fully behold his now-evil face. The film cuts to show his fingers “lengthening” thanks to a camera effect and some prosthetics. He examines his hand, in gleeful awe of his transformation. It looks like some extra makeup was added to Barrymore’s face for these shots, but the difference is almost unnoticeable.
If that weren’t enough, Mr. Hyde gets progressively uglier throughout the film. Heavy makeup, fake teeth, warts, stringy hair, an oddly domed head–he gets positively disgusting. The combination of heavy makeup and an uncomfortable posture makes Barrymore’s whole-hearted commitment to his role all the more impressive. (And it’s doubly impressive when you consider his breakneck work life: acting in a play every night and planning for future productions on top of making this film during the day. Okay, he did have a temporary nervous breakdown not long afterwards…)
Barrymore’s performance was inspired by the stage actor Richard Mansfield, who played the Jekyll/Hyde role to much acclaim in the 1880s and in several of the play’s revivals. Audiences had been thrilled by Mansfield’s transformations into Hyde right before their eyes, and Barrymore clearly had him in mind when he took on the acting challenge.
In a contemporary review of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in The Moving Picture World, a critic referred to Mansfield’s iconic performance and discussed how skeptical he was at first that a moving picture wouldn’t show the transformation without resorting to special effects. He was soon converted:
I saw the handsome heaven-stamped features of Henry Jekyll change before my eyes and grow rapidly into the leering hell-owned lineaments of the repulsive Hyde. And I saw it done without trickery of any kind. The art of the actor sufficed.
With the genius of his predecessor John Barrymore stood under a strong light and wrought his magic by the aid of his imagination and his mobility of body and countenance. There are later scenes where he has the help of make-up and the slight-of-hand of the camera. But that first change is as amazing as it is convincing. Having shown you that there is no deception connected with his physical transformation, that he can do the thing demanded of him, he does not disdain the aid of skilfully wrought artifice.
I think Barrymore’s performance is wonderful–and just might call it one of the best I’ve seen in a silent film. There are fine lines separating this kind of role from the territories of “campy,” “hammy” and “just plain terrible,” but Barrymore managed to stay just outside them. I highly recommend Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, especially for Hallowe’en time–preferably watched on a quiet evening close to midnight.
Only a couple days left of Return of Silent Horror Month! I’ve been preparing for my final post for a long time, and hope you’ll enjoy it. To see reviews of horror movies and spooky topics from previous Octobers, check out the list here.