Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

No rating: Lost film

The first ever adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1908 in many ways marked the beginning for Hollywood. Although filmed in Chicago, it was the first film starring Hollywood’s first two movie stars, for a company that would be the first to permanently set up shop in Los Angeles in 1909. 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 1908, USA. Directed by Otis Turner. Based on a play by Luella Forepaugh and George F. Fish, based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Starring: Hobart Bosworth, Betty Harte. IMDb score: N/A. Tomatometer: N/A. Metacritic: N/A.

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Robert Louis Stevenson, author of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Three gothic novels have influenced horror and science fiction film to such an extent that it’s not possible no foray into these genres without constantly stumbling over adaptations of them: May Shelley’s Frankenstein (1819), Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1896) and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1897). There are are close to 150 stage, film or TV adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and new generations continue to make new interpretations of its content. Like its two predecessors, the book spawned a title character that has has become an expression in and of itself in modern language.

Some purists may not consider Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to be science fiction, but in his novel Stevenson clearly gives a scientific explanation for Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde, even if he doesn’t explain in detail how his potion works. In this sense it would be illogical to consider, for example Frankenstein to be sci-fi (or proto-sci-fi), but not Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

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Richard Mansfield in a promotional still for Jekyll/Hyde.

This 1908 version is the first film adaptation of the novel, and like most of the earliest versions, it is a lost film. And like many of the early fictional films, it was based on a play. When Scottish author Stevenson’s novel hit the book stores in 1896, it was an instant success, selling hundreds of thousands of copies worldwide, and getting rave reviews in the newspapers. Back in the 19th and the early 20th century, popular books were being made into stage plays, much like they are being turned into film today. Theatre actors of the day were as famous as modern Hollywood stars, and some characters could become almost synonymous with a certain actor. For Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, this actor was British thespian Richard Mansfield, who was the star of the first stage adaptation by American playwright Thomas Russell Sullivan, which premiered in 1897, just a year after the book’s release. Sullivan created the blueprint for the stage and film versions, inasmuch as it added a fiancée for Dr. Jekyll and removed much of the flashback format that the book is written in. It also let the audience see the transformation, albeit late in the play. Mansfield and his wardrobe and makeup artists did this transformation so well, that one theatre goer actually filed a report with the police accusing the actor of being Jack the Ripper. The play premiered on Broadway, then moved to London, where interest soon teetered out, and Mansfield took it back to New York, where he continued to play it until his death in 1907.

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Title page for the Forepaugh/Fish play.

But this was actually not the play that the first movie was based on. Another equally influential play was written the same year by Luella Forepaugh and George F. Fish. The play also introduced a love interests, which is absent from the book, and like Sullivan it creates more of a moral dichotomy between Jekyll and Hyde. In the book, Jekyll creates the potion simply to change his appearance, so he can be able to – well, in so many words: get drunk and fuck prostitutes – without tarnishing his reputation. However, gradually his alter ego Hyde starts taking on a will of its own; or the book would ask if it really does, of if Hyde is merely a manifestation of Jekyll’s own vices, dammed up and stowed away by the strict Victorian morals. It was the stage plays that introduced the idea of Jekyll trying to “separate the good and evil” in the human soul, that since lived on on many of the movie adaptations. Forepaugh and Fish takes the moral juxtaposition to the n:th degree by making Jekyll’s fiancée the daughter of a vicar, and having Hyde kill said Vicar. Even the title of the production gave away its nature of a moral play: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, or a Mis-Spent Life.

The Forepaugh/Fish play was produced in Philadelphia, where it didn’t compete with Sullivan’s authorised adaptation. However, a third play by John McKinney and Daniel E. Bandmann premiered in New York in 1898, rivalling Mansfield’s production. The play bears many similarities with the Forepaugh/Fish play, and may well have been inspired by it.

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The Selig Polyscope studio in Chicago, where the film was made.

In 1904 the Forepaugh/Fish play was made available for other companies to use, when the two authors left the theatre business. And this is where the 1908 film enters the picture. In 1908 the play was being produced by a company in Chicago, where film producer William Selig saw it, and came up with the idea of adapting it into a film. The Selig Polyscope Company was one of the main rivals to the mighty Edison company, and was at the time based in Chicago. While Selig Polyscope was one the companies that eventually entered the infamous Motion Picture Trust with Edison, Selig moved his company and studio to Los Angeles in 1909, far from Thomas Edison in New York, becoming the first company to set up permanent residence in Hollywood.

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Hobart Bosworth.

The film was directed by Otis Turner, perhaps best known for directing the earliest surviving version of Frank L. Baum’s novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The stage play was cut down from four acts into a very condensed one-reeler, which at the time meant that it was under 16 minutes long. It used many of the actors involved in the stage production, including Hobart Bosworth in the title role(s). Turner clearly intended to point out the theatrical origins of the film, perhaps to give it an air of quality, and both started and ended the film with an actual curtain.

The film begins in the garden vicarage, where Dr. Jekyll woos Alice, the Vicar’s daughter.
But on his way out, he transforms because “he is irresistibly addicted to a drink of his own mixture” and then attacks Alice. When the Vicar interferes, Hyde kills him. The second act takes place in Mr. Utterson’s London law office, where Jekyll feels remorse and envisions a noose around his neck. Later on, Jekyll transforms again, and there is a struggle between the two personalities, and Jekyll wins out. He is then visited by Alice, who doesn’t know his dark secret. Her presence reminds him that he killed her father, which grieves him. After she leaves, he takes the formula to transform himself into Hyde who then “poisons himself tokill the Dr. Jekyll whom he hated.” In true theatrical tradition, the curtain then closes.

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Hobart Bosworth in costume for Joan the Woman (1916).

The film starred Hobart Bosworth, a renowned stage actor, a star even, who was at the time 41 and should have been in the prime of his career. However, he was plagued by tuberculosis. The tuberculosis affected his lungs and throat, slowly depriving him of his voice, which meant his stage days would soon be numbered. He had already been forced to take several breaks from, and during his last bout with the illness he had lost 70 pounds, and realised he couldn’t keep acting much longer. After meeting with William Selig, he was convinced that film could be the medium with which he might save his career. As films were silent, his loss of voice wouldn’t hurt his performance, and the short production periods would give him the opportunity to take sufficient breaks to keep his TBC in remission.

For Selig, Bosworth was a godsend – a stage star would greatly help to bring credibility to the movies, still considered a low form of entertainment. In addition to acting, Bosworth started writing and producing films for Selig Polyscope, and thanks to his great contribution to the early days of film production on the US west coast, he earned the moniker “the dean of Hollywood”. He started his own film company Hobart Bosworth Company in 1913, through which he made a line of films based on his hero Jack London’s books – London co-produced and wrote some of them, and Bosworth starred in most of them. In 1916 the company became a subsidiary to Paramount Pictures, which Bosworth co-founded, and after The Sea Wolf in 1921, Bosworth Company ceased to exist, ending Hobart Bosworth’s era as a major movie mogul. But he kept on acting, even if his A-list films were few and far between, and he most often got cast as a prominently billed minor character in B movies. And thanks to his theatrical background, he survived the second great upheaval of the film industry, the coming of the talkies. While this meant he did have to use his voice, there was no real problem, as films didn’t require him to strain his voice for days on end in long-running stage productions. He continued acting up until 1942. He appeared in the futurist sci-fi comedy Just Imagine in 1930, and had a role in the 1938 serial The Mysterious Island, based on the book with the same name by Jules Verne, for sci-fi fans to take note of. All in all, he appeared in over 300 films before he died in 1943.

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Betty Harte.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was also the very first film of Betty Harte, playing Alice. Born Daisy Light, she worked for a newspaper, and in 1908 she was sent to do an interview with William Selig. Selig liked her look and attitude, and hired her as an actress. Harte became the first leading lady of the Selig company, and did many films opposite Bosworth. She became known for doing her own stunts, and nearly drowned while filming The Black Pearl (1912). She retired in 1916 to start a family.

Another five versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were made in the next four years. One  was made in 1910 by Danish master director August Blom, who later made Atlantis (1913), a Titanic parable, and the first full length science fiction feature The End of the World in 1916, depicting an apocalypse brought on by a passing comet. This film, called Den Skaebnesvangre Opfindelse (The Fatal Invention, also known as Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), is a lost film, but is said to be more accurate to the book than most of the earlier and many of the later films, that were based on stage plays rather than the novel itself. One of the roles featured Viggo Larsen, also a legend of Danish cinema, both as producer and director, as well as writer and actor.

All of these films have been lost to time, and the oldest film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that has survived is the 1912 film starring James Cruze, which I’ll get to in a later post.

Janne Wass

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 1908, USA. Directed by Otis Turner. Based on a play by Luella Forepaugh and George F. Fish, based on a novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Starring: Hobart Bosworth, Betty Harte. Produced by William Selig for the Selig Polyscope Company. 

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