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Stylistically Dated But A Landmark Nonetheless
on 18 July 2004
Directed by John S. Robertson and starring matinee idol John Barrymore in the dual title role, 1920's DR. JECKYLL & MR. HYDE is sometimes described as the "first American horror film." That description is more than a little problematic, but whether it was or it wasn't, DR. JECKYLL AND MR. HYDE certainly put the horror genre on the Hollywood map.
Whether or not you happen to like this particular version of the famous Robert Louis Stevenson tale will depend a great deal upon your tolerance for the change in acting styles that has occurred between the silent and the modern era. Some silent stars--Lillian Gish, Ramon Novarro, and Louise Brooks leap to mind--were remarkably subtle and worked to create a new style of acting appropriate to the screen, but most actors played very broadly. John Barrymore, considered one of the greatest actors of his day, is among the latter, and was noted for his larger-than-life performances on stage. He brings that expansiveness to the screen, where it inevitably feels "too big" to the modern viewer.
At the time, Barrymore's transformation into the evil Mr. Hyde was considered shocking in its realism, but today these celebrated scenes are more likely to induce snickers than thrills--as will much of Hyde's make-up, which seems excessive to the modern sensibility. Even so, there are aspects of the film which survive quite well, scenes in which one is permitted a glimpse into the power this film once had. For Barrymore's Hyde is, for all his bizarre ugliness, a remarkably seductive creature--and Barrymore uses his hands and eyes in a remarkable way. One feels the sexual pull as much as one feels the revulsion.
The 1920 DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE is available in several VHS and DVD releases. Some of these are quite good, but I particularly recommend the Kino version, which offers a good picture, good soundtrack, and several interesting bonuses. Other release versions should be approached with caution, and you should avoid releases by the likes of Alpha or Madacy as you would the plague. They may seem attractive in terms of price, but frankly... in this instance you get what you pay for.
GFT, Amazon Reviewer