Sorely overshadowed by later adaptations of the classic tale, it is the 1920 John Barrymore-led Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that first truly brought the duo to life. Loaded with sex, violence and death, this silent-era shocker is dripping with Victorian scandal, as Hyde seeks out prostitutes, mistresses and victims. The true strength of the movie, however, lies not in its content but in the performance of its lead, the legendary John Barrymore, whose convulsions, of pain, hatred, desire and fear, grip the film with intense urgency.
The first transformation sequence is simply remarkable, with Barrymore convincingly conveying the transformation through his body and facial contortions rather than special effects. The gap between Jekyll and Hyde is enormous, and yet there is more than simply a wig and prosthetic at work. Like the dark intensity of Max Schreck as Nosferatu, who simply needed finger extensions to embody the legendary monster, Barrymore’s Hyde is embodied primarily through a dazzling and frightening inner fire.
Seek the film out– it’s public domain and easy to find– if not for the film as a whole, then at least for the transformation sequence; and see one of the greatest, nearly-forgotten performances off the silent era.
By Britta R. Moline 7/3/2011
For more old horror Screenshot Saturday:
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