(4/10) The earliest surviving adaptation of R.L. Stevenson’s novella was produced by American independent Thanhouser in 1912. The 12 minute short has some fair acting and decent production, but its static camerawork, sloppy direction and unimaginative sets and effects fail to impress.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 1912, USA. Directed by Lucius Henderson. Based on a novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, and stage adaptations by Luella Forepaugh and George F. Fish, as well as Thomas Russell Sullivan. Starring: James Cruze, Florence La Badie, Marie Eline, Jane Gail, Harry Benham. IMDb score: 6.0. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
One of the most adapted books in the world is Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for short, as there are over 120 known film adaptations and dozens of stage versions. The story, in short, tells of a scientist using science (a potion) to change his appearance, but losing his personality and morals in the act, and using science to stop his ailment when the experiment goes sour, so why exactly there is debate over this should be called science fiction or not eludes me. It is both a moral tale about balancing your dark and light sides, and a cautionary tale about the progress of science, much like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In my book those are the premises for science fiction.
This version, made in the US in 1912 by the Thanhouser Film Corporation, is a short and very basic 12 minute retelling of the story, with addition of the adaptations present in earlier stage versions. It was not the first adaptation of the film, but it is the earliest surviving version. As far as I can tell, it is actually the 6th film on the subject.
The first known film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (review) was made in 1908 by the Selig company, he film giant Edison’s greatest rival at the time. It 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. . It was based on a four-act stage play, condensed down to under 16 minutes, or one film reel. Apparently it was filmed on a theatre stage in Chicago. It starred Hobart Bosworth in the title role, one of his first film roles, after leaving an acclaimed theatre career on Broadway because of tuberculosis, that robbed him of his voice. The answer was silent film in the warm conditions of first Arizona and the California, where he became one of the pioneers of Hollywood, and later starred in, produced and directed a string of high profile films, both silent and talkies. He appeared in the futurist sci-fi comedy Just Imagine (review) in 1930, and had a role in the 1938 serial The Mysterious Island, based on the book with the same name by Jules Verne.
Another prominent version was made in 1910 by Danish master director August Blom, who later made one of the first full length science fiction features, The End of the World, in 1916, depicting an apocalypse brought on by a passing comet.
This 1912 version starred James Cruze, who later went on to become a fairly successful Hollywood director, perhaps best know for the 1923 western The Covered Wagon and the 1933 drama I Cover the Waterfront. He also acted in over 100 movies. In this film he does a fair portrait of the title character(s). His portrayal of the white-haired Dr Jekyll is nuanced and very naturalistic for the age. His handsome features contrast dramatically with the grotesque make-up of Hyde – make-up that is so much over the top that it looks like a Halloween costume. The film is packed with actresses who were all leading ladies and major or minor stars of the early silent Hollywood era, perhaps most notably Florence La Badie. According to IMDb, “she became the best-known of all of Thanhouser’s players and was wildly popular in fan magazines and trade journals”. She suffered a tragic death in a car accident in 1917. Jane Gail who appears as an extra in this film, would play the fiancee in a remake in 1913 opposite Hollywood star King Baggot. Gail rose to prominence by never becoming quite as famous as the leading men she acted against. Four years after Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde she would be seen as a wild girl in a leopard dress (actually a long lost Indian princess) in the 1916 version of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea. Marie Eline plays a little girl who gets knocked down by Hyde in one scene. Because of her many apperances in Thanhouser’s films she received the nickname “The Thanhouser Kid”. Uncredited actor Harry Benham many years later revealed that he actually played Hyde in many scenes simply to make the shooting easier and quicker, saving time so that Cruze didn’t have to go through make-up changes.
The novel was released in 1896 and many miles of text has been written analysing the work. One trope that has lived on in almost all early film adaptations is that Dr. Jekyll created his potion to, for one reason or the other, separate the good and evil in man’s soul. This, however, is not present on the novel. In the novel Dr. Jekyll creates his potion for a much more prosaic purpose: he wants to be able to change is appearance so that he’ll be able to get drunk and lie with prostitutes without damaging his reputation. But with time his alter ego Mr. Hyde took on a life of his own. It was the stage versions, appearing as early as 1897, that created a clearer moral dichotomy between Jekyll and Hyde. These versions also added the love interest, absent from the book.
American playwright Thomas Russell Sullivan wrote the first authorised play, which premiered in 1897. Sullivan created the blueprint for the stage and film versions, inasmuch as it added a fiancee 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. Richard Mansfield played the dual role with such aplomb that he more or less became synonymous with it. His wardrobe and makeup artists did the 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.
Another equally influential play was written the same year by Luella Forepaugh and George F. Fish. Forepaugh and Fish take 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. In 1904 the Forepaugh/Fish play was made available for other companies to use, when the two authors left the theatre business, which may be the reason why so many early films are inspired by this play, perhaps more than Sullivan’s, even if Sullivan often gets the credit. There was also a third play by John McKinney and Daniel E. Bandmann that premiered in New York in 1898. It seems to have been inspired by the Forepaugh/Fish play as well, and these three rivalling plays makes it difficult to say which films are inspired by which play, and it isn’t made any easier by the fact that so many film adaptations were made in the early years of film that a cinematic blueprint was quickly established, independent of literary sources.
The 1912 film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is very much a boiled-down, bare-bones version of later film adaptations, containing none but the very essentials of the story, much of which has no real basis in the book. The story focuses on the moral duality of Jekyll/Hyde and the trouble it causes for his engagement to the vicar’s daughter. The story hinges on the romantic plot, which has been added for understandable reasons. Thus it seems to be more based on the Forepaugh/Fish play, but it it is possible that Henderson simply carries on the established cinematic tradition.
James Cruze does a well-balanced, if a bit overtly dramatic Dr. Jekyll, and goes bat-shit crazy as Mr. Hyde. By crouching and bending his knees he achieves the effect of becoming shorter, as Hyde is described in the book. It was probably Richard Mansfield that introduced the notion that Mr. Hyde was basically a sort of Hunchback of Notre Dame figure, so that almost all film portrayals since has described Hyde as such, sometimes taking the idea to hilarious extremes, such as the 1916 version starring King Baggot. In the 1912 film the change is primarily done with the aid of make-up: Cruze gets thick eye-liner, a black wig and protruding canines, and plays Hyde as a sort of Dracula-on-speed character, resulting in some unintentional comedy. The transformation is mostly done off-screen, and the times that it is shown on screen, it is almost always with the aid of a simple substitution splice, although I do believe that at one time a fade is used. But there’s none of the visual trickery that was done with various degrees of success in later films. Sure enough, technology and movie make-up were still primitive at this time, but that doesn’t mean that the film team couldn’t have done more with the transformation scenes. French filmmakers like Georges Méliès and in particular pixilation expert Segundo de Chomon had shown that all the tools were available if one knew how to use them.
Now, I don’t know whether the print circulating on Youtube has been cropped or not, just as a disclaimer. If not, then there’s somebody should have had a serious chat with director Lucius Henderson about how to frame a film, as the characters are partly out of frame more often than not, and the camera stubbornly refuses to follow them. Cropped or not, the film is constantly sort of off-kilter with most of the frame often taken up by a static shot of an uninteresting set or or outdoor location shot, with the characters rummaging about somewhere on the edges of the screen. The film feels very much like a stage play, with people walking in and out on doors placed on opposite sides of the shot, so that one person walks in from a door on the left and another leaves through another one on the right. There are some lone panning shots and one short close-up of a poison bottle, but by and large the camera shows static wide shots all the way through without much creativity in the editing department.
To be fair, the cramped feel of the film might not be Henderson’s fault alone. This was the time in American film industry that was most affected by what might be called cinematic Fordism. At 1912 the Nickelodeons were at the height of their popularity, and they needed to change their programs almost daily. To encourage the production of more American movies, the film industry in 1907 had created a new set of rules, by which film companies were paid by distributors simply according to the amount of film stock they delivered. This meant that more films and longer films paid more, in other words quantity over quality. And since films were silent, no-one had to worry about sound leakage on set, so multiple films could be filmed side-by-side in the studios. Often one wall of a studio was partitioned off for several film sets, like an apartment with several rooms, and at any given moment, there could be three or four cameras rolling at the same time, as described by the picture below, taken at Thanhouser’s New York studio in 1914.
Thanhouser was founded in 1910 in New York by Edwin Thanhouser, when the city was still the centre of American film production. It quickly established itself as one of the best independent companies in town, specialising in high-class adaptations of literature and stage plays, with a small stock company whose stars comprised of people like James Cruze, Marguerite Snow, Florence La Badie and Harry Benham. Lucius Henderson was one of the company’s most trusted directors, even though he may be best remembered today for directing a couple of minor films starring Mary Fuller for Universal between 1915 and 1917. Thanhouser struggled to keep up with the introduction of the feature film around 1915, but kept its head above water thanks to the star power of Florence La Badie. With her death in 1917, the company was more or less finished, and in 1920 it folded (even if it was purchased by Mutual as early as 1913). To my knowledge Thanhouser did no other sci-fi movies.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 1912, USA. Directed by Lucius Henderson. Based on a novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, and stage adaptations by Luella Forepaugh and George F. Fish, as well as Thomas Russell Sullivan. Starring: James Cruze, Florence La Badie, Marie Eline, Jane Gail, Harry Benham. Produced by Edwin Thanhouser for Thanhouser Film Corporation.