John Barrymore’s Amazing Transformation in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”

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:

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Sometimes, like in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953) he gets more apelike:

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Now and then, especially in those modern B movies, he looks like a goblin…

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…or in Michael Caine’s case, a potato:

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Having wild hair at some point is important, as Spencer Tracey shows:

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And I’ll just leave this here.

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Nothing more can be said.

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.

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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…)

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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.

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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.

27 thoughts on “John Barrymore’s Amazing Transformation in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”

  1. That’s fascinating that he was inspired by a stage adaptation. Thank you for sharing this! It sounds like quite a creepy movie! When I read the book, I was amazed at how relatively uncreepy it was; it was very tense and interesting, but because we were with a character who didn’t know what was going on, we didn’t necessarily experience all the horror that the movies (and plays, apparently) tend to focus on.

    Thanks for sharing and for taking part in the blogfest!

    • You’re welcome, Andrea, and thanks for hosting!

      Yes, when you look into the history behind our earliest horror movies it seems like the stage is seldom far behind. That’s always fascinating to me, because we tend to think of various classic stories in the terms of the movies we’ve seen, or “see” them playing out in our minds as if we were watching a movie. And yet, way back when, there was a time when people would watch movies and be reminded of the stage plays they’d seen! It was a different world.

  2. Now I want to to try that transformation scene (though when I’m sure nobody is in the house) 🙂 I think this is my favorite Jekyll and Hyde film and you remind me I really need to watch this very soon!

    I loved your summary of the many different Hydes (and the potato!). And description of what exactly Barrymore’s doing to change his appearance. It’s interesting that the critic was concerned that the use of film would diminish acting with tricks. I sometimes wish they would rely on tricks less now. That is why Barrymore’s scene should always be celebrated!

    Thanks so much for joining in the blogfest!

    • You’re welcome!

      I wonder if there was some lingering “moving pictures aren’t legitimate art” feeling among some critics at the time, although lots of highly artistic films (like Intolerance) had been made by then. It’s funny, though–nowadays for a scene like this filmmakers probably WOULD just resort to CGI, rather than acting.

  3. The first time I watched this movie, I was amazed at John Barrymore’s transformation, because he did make it look so real with minimum makeup. I watched the Spencer Tracy version a short time later, but Barrymore is the champ! Thanks for a great article, Lea!

    • Gad you enjoyed it! 🙂 When I first heard Barrymore had played this role it surprised me–I had always associated him more with straight, serious drama (at least in the silent era). But he did an excellent job–being a Barrymore, after all. 😀

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  5. Fascinating! I haven’t seen this version, though I recently watched both the Spencer Tracy and Fredric March versions to compare – and preferred Tracy because the transformation didn’t go quite so far over the top as the March one. But this looks like a good one – I must hunt it down. Was the music in the clip the original music, do you know? Somehow it wasn’t as dramatic as I’d have expected for the transformation scene.

    • I don’t think the music is original (music varied greatly depending on the theater’s orchestra/piano player, so it’s often virtually impossible to know what scores were used) but it sounds based on vintage music. (I much prefer it to something more modern-sounding, myself.) Yes, I watched this version for the first time only this month, and was very impressed! Barrymore goes all out.

  6. It’s interesting to compare the March/Barrymore films. March was energetic (all wild vigor) to go with his neanderthal facial features. Barrymore’s sparseness of hair and crouched walk links him to depravity and sexual disease. I’m positive that Barrymore taught that crouched walk to Conrad Veidt for the BELOVED ROGUE. The walk was a great touch and brought Veidt down to size, otherwise Veigt would have towered over Barrymore who played the hero. As far as I know, the 1920 scenario is the first to use the love/lust triangle, with Martha Mansfield as the angel of Jekyll’s better nature, and Nita Naldi as a symbols of Hyde’s lustful nature. It was repeated with Rose Hobart and Miriam Hopkins in ’31, and with Lana Turner and Ingrid Bergman in ’41.

  7. As you may know, Mansfield used makeup and colored lighting to achieve his transformation, and, despite all the hype, I think that’s what’s at work with Barrymore as well. He wore makeup that didn’t appear under a red light, then when the sequence begins, they turn off the red light and you see the makeup emerge. Note that, in your pictures above, the light shines on his “normal” face from the right, while his “monster” face is lit from the left, which is the big clue.
    It’s still subtle and effective, and certainly it wouldn’t work so well with a less-talented actor.

    • Well, watching the clip itself, I can see a huge difference in his facial expression during but not so much in makeup until it switches to the closeup, where it looks like extra makeup was added around the eyes, probably some shading around his cheeks, etc. (There is some light on his “normal” face on the left side, he’s just not close to it.) If they did use special lights (and they certainly could’ve) it was awfully subtle.

      That’s a fascinating observation though, that lighting and makeup were sometimes used for some amazing effects!

      • There’s an interview with Karl Struss, the photographer for the 1931 version, in _Hollywood Cameramen_ by Charles Higham. Struss indicates that was how he wanted to do the transformations, but they insisted on the monkey-man makeup instead. He doesn’t claim that Barrymore used this technique, however, he says “that was how they did it on stage,” so maybe…

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  9. I loved this post! Barrymore has always been my favorite Jekyll and Hyde character. Like you said, the transformation is so real and shows off his great ability as an actor. I had no idea about him being inspired by Richard Mansfield. I can’t imagine how tough that would be to pull off the transformation in front of a live audience. This was a really enjoyable post!

    • Thank you Elizabeth! Yeah, trying and miserably failing to pull of “scary” faces myself, it really makes you respect someone who knows how to terrify a live audience!

  10. Hey there. Just saw this movie for the first time when they showed it on TCM earlier this year and had quite the interesting experience with it.
    First off, I’d read this article before seeing it, being careful to not look at the pics of Hyde, (not as hard as it sound on my tiny screened, shall we say “vintage” phone) =) and it added so much to the scene when it finally arrived. (Thanks, by the way- it helps having someone spotlight things you’d probably miss otherwise.) I’m sure I had “sheer delight” written all over my face, and I might’ve watched it more than once before moving on with the movie- I can’t remember. I’ve certainly watched it over again since then.
    Anyhow, when I got further into the movie and his makeup started to get more intense with the odd shaped head and the “I Know What You Did Last Summer” hat, I had one of those moments when something you feared as a kid pops up in your adult life and spooks you like nothing else can. (Am I the only one this happens to? Still happens with that tunnel scene in “Willy Wonka” too.. How’s that for outing yourself as a ‘fraidy cat online?) =) I should probably mention here that when I was a kid, I was hooked on those Hanna-Barbera Scooby Doo’s, and the monsters never failed to scare the otter-pops out of me (and yet I couldn’t get enough of ’em!). Among the episodes that flipped me out the most was one called “The Ghost Of Hyde”, and although in Scooby Doo, Hyde is green and not nearly as rodent-esque and horrifying as Mr. Barrymore, the head and the hat are similar enough to make me wonder if this wasn’t the Hyde H-B based theirs on. Of all the movie Hyde’s, this is the one theirs resembled the most. At any rate, the similarity was enough to put me instantly in mind of that ol’ childhood spectre of mine and it added to the whole effect the movie had on me to the Nth degree. =) This one has taken the cake and become my new favorite version, I daresay… although I’ve never seen Michael Caine’s potato rendition… =)

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