(4/10) This 1920 version of R.L. Stevenson’s novella is not the famous John Barrymore version. This is the much ridiculed Sheldon Lewis version, which is in fact not as terrible as its reputation would suggest. That is, if you ignore the zany intertitles, the inept camera work and Lewis’ anachronistic Hyde portrayal.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. USA, 1920. Written & directed by J. Charles Haydon. Based on a novella by Robert Louis Stevenson and plays by Thomas Russell Sullivan, Luella Forepaugh and George F. Fish. Starring: Sheldon Lewis, Gladys Field, Alex Shannon, Dora Mills Adams, Harold Foshay, Leslie Austin. Produced by Louis Meyer. IMDb score: 5.4. Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A.
1920 was a boom year for adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The best known version is Famous Players’ big-budget adaptation starring John Barrymore (review), which is in constant contest with Fredric March’s 1931 portrayal for the best Jekyll/Hyde in history (I’m giving the prize to Barrymore, hands down). The most sought-after version is the German unauthorised adaptation Der Januskopf, directed by F.W. Murnau and starring horror legend Conrad Veidt. That version is unfortunately lost. And then there’s this one, the low-budget Pioneer Film’s version, directed by J. Charles Hayer, which was made in a slapdash fashion in order to cash in on the Barrymore film.
The Hayer version is so uniformly maligned that I was actually positively surprised when I finally got my hands on it. So unpopular is this film that there’s not a single complete version of it uploaded anywhere online. Fortunately I was able to find one of the cheapo DVD releases floating around in webstores for a not too hefty sum. Now, my positive surprise does not mean that this is in any way a good film, but it does have its moments, and at least there are a few interesting deviations from the oh so familiar story.
I’m not going to get into the whole publication history of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, please see the review of the Barrymore film for more info on that. But in short: Stevenson’s novella was released in 1886 to both critical and popular success. The book made such an impact that two different stage adaptations were made just a year later, one by Thomas Russell Sullivan in New York, which became a worldwide success with Richard Mansfield in the lead, and one by Luella Forepaugh and George F. Fish in Philadelphia. This latter one was made available for other groups to use in 1904, so while Sullivan is often credited for inspiring film versions of the story, they may in fact be adapted mostly from the Forepaugh/Fish play.
One of the problems with adapting the novella was that it is partly told in flashback by a detective-like character called Mr. Utterson, and partly through a suicide note by Dr. Jekyll. Jekyll himself is actually dead when the novella starts. Both plays dealt with this problem by completely erasing Utterson and instead told the story in a linear fashion with Jekyll as the protagonist. The other problem was that the novella was written as a mystery story, with the big reveal at the end being that Jekyll and Hyde were in fact the same person. But as the story was so well known, pretty much everyone already knew that Jekyll turned into Hyde by the time the plays were written, so the plays had to find something else to pin the drama on. The draw of the plays partly became the transformation scenes: how actors, with the aid of quick-changes and their acting skills were able to change from one person to another in the blink of an eye.
But the plays also added both themes, plots and characters not present in the novella. In particular, both plays added a love story and a fiancée to Dr. Jekyll, who was naturally put in danger by Mr. Hyde. Both plays also turned the story into a moral tale. Despite the trope now created by the numerous films, Stevenson’s Jekyll never tried to separate the good and the evil in a person or somehow find a way to do evil deeds without damaging the immortal soul, as most films would have it, almost always resulting in completely illogical and absurd reasoning from Jekyll. Stevenson’s Jekyll simply tried to change his appearance in order to gamble, drink and fuck prostitutes without being recognised. The personality split was a complete accident, one which came across gradually. The novella has been interpreted as a satire on hypocritical Victorian morals. There’s no mention in the book of souls or religious morals, neither is Jekyll the morally snow-white knight that the plays and films make him out as.
In contrast, the plays and films turn Jekyll into a saint who does his experiments with some sort of bizarre altruistic motive of separating the good and evil in man, the good tending to be conservative and very non-sexy Christian morals, and evil being giving in to your “natural” urges to drink, gamble and have sex before marriage, which naturally will turn you into a murderous, heartless fornicator with bad teeth, bad posture and an eternal bad hair day, and for some reason very fidgety hands.
The Pioneer Film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was actually supposed to be an adaptation that followed the novella closer than the previous film and stage versions, as envisioned by director Hayer. However, producer Louis Meyer was afraid (probably with good cause) that sticking too close to the original would result in a lawsuit from Famous Players, so he decided to mix things up. Louis Meyer, by the way, is not to be confused with the famous Louis B. Mayer, founder of MGM and co-founder of The Academy of Motion Pictures. Meyer was a small-time player who disappeared from the movie scene at the same time as Pioneer Film folded in 1921. Meyer kept Utterson in the picture, in an inconsequential role though. Danvers Carew is a minor character in the novella, but important because he is the one person that Hyde murders. In the plays and most films, however, he is turned into the father of Jekyll’s fiancée. But Meyer instead turns Carew into the fiancée’s “chum” (seriously, that’s what the intertitles say), and later a replacement fiance. Instead Dr. Lanyon becomes the father of Jekyll’s love interest, Bernice Lanyon.
The biggest deviations in the plot from the stage plays are five-fold. First of all, all mention of sex have been removed, so that Hyde’s drive now isn’t his natural urges and lusts. Instead, this version simply turns him into a thief, murderer and arsonist without a clear motivation for his crimes. He attacks a woman here, steals some money there, burns down a house over there. The second deviation is that Bernice actually leaves Jekyll for Carew, giving Hyde a motive to attack her personally. In the plays it is her father who forbids her marriage to Jekyll because of his “acquaintance” with Mr. Hyde. The third change is that the filmmakers make no attempt at covering up the fact that the film is set in 1920’s New York, even if the press junket, oddly enough, still maintained that it was set in London. The fourth, and most major, change is that this film actually allows the Keystone cops to capture Jekyll, put him in jail and sentence him to the electric chair. And the fifth change is the ending, which prompted Dave Sindelar at Fantastic Movie Musings to nominate the film for the Dave Sindelar Rubber Brick Award: “for movies which are best watched while keeping a rubber brick handy, as the ending will most likely make you want to throw something at your television set.” I’m not giving it away, but suffice to say that the film ends on an over-used (even at the time) and incredibly annoying plot twist which helps Jekyll survive death by electrocution, and makes the audience feel duped.
As I have mentioned earlier, the plays and films in general try to go out of their way to find some motivation for Dr. Jekyll to transform himself other than the one in the book, that Dr. Jekyll simply wants to drink and have sex without losing his reputation as a moral, decent man. Stevenson argued that every man has the same urges and desires as those that society considered “immoral”, and that the main reason for a “man of society” not to give in to his urges was that he would lose face within the pious and prude Victorian upper class. Given the chance to live out his urges without risk of being “caught”, any man would do so. In this sense, Stevenson argues, it isn’t so much a man’s moral, but his pride, that stands between him and the immoral beast he looks down upon.
However, American stage plays and films had to be careful in presenting their content, as they could easily become the target of a very strong and very loud religious and/or conservative opinion. And even if these were the days before the Hays code, there were still rules, regulations and censors that had to be obeyed. Saying that the difference between a whoring, godless murderer and a proper, religious gentleman is just hypocrisy would not have gone down well. So instead most adaptations made Jekyll into a saintly figure who “meddled in things man should leave to God” and paid the price for his curiosity. More often than not his motivation for creating Hyde was some muddled notion of “separating the good and evil in man in two different bodies” so as to “leave the immortal soul intact” from sin. I have yet to find an adaptation which explains this in a way that makes any sort of sense from a logical or even motivational perspective.
But never have I seen a film with such a confusing motivation as the one in Haydon’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In this film Dr. Jekyll is treating a seriously ill little girl, and according to Jekyll “the child is dead and yet alive”. And he adds: “It almost proves my theory that there is no soul.” Wait WHAT?! OK I guess “almost” is the operative word here. This theory somehow ties in with another theory that Jekyll has, that “man has two natures – good and evil”. Now, the point that film makes, in no uncertain terms, is that Jekyll is a god-awful atheist who doesn’t believe in the immortal soul. And somehow, turning himself into Hyde helps him convince himself that he indeed does have a soul, and hence there must be a god. Which is the conclusion that he comes to in the end, after that superbly annoying plot twist. Haydon’s and Meyer’s Jekyll must be easily convinced, since I have a very hard time grasping how the one is connected to the other.
In J. Charles Haydon’s defence, he demanded his name be taken off the film upon its release.
I have yet to say anything about the lead actor, Sheldon Lewis. Lewis was, in a way, doomed from the start, as he was going up against American stage and cinema’s most lauded star, John Barrymore, The Great Profile, as he was affectionately called, due to his striking facial profile. And while Barrymore’s portrayal of Hyde is absolutely magnificent, and indeed highly original, Lewis basically falls back on the Hyde of James Cruze in the 1912 film version: a set of false teeth, some eyeliner, an ape-like stoop and wild grimacing. As well as a slouch hat. And for some reason, all the Hydes in the 1912 version (review), the 1913 version (review) with King Baggot and this one, seem to have awfully fidgety hands. I don’t know where that comes from, as there is no mention of this in the book, and it seems an odd acting choice for a villain. My only explanation is that it hearkens back to the legendary performance of Richard Mansfield in the Sullivan play.
Sheldon Lewis has gotten a lot of flack for his performance over the decades, but in fact it is no worse that that of Cruze or Baggott in their respective short films. But unfortunately it does elicit a good deal of unintended comedy, in the same way that those two did, and by 1920 cinema – even American cinema – had evolved to such a degree that Lewis’ performance must have seemed anachronistic to a contemporary audience. But I’m not going to hate on Lewis, since I think some of the later ridicule that has been heaped on him is rather misplaced. One must remember that by the time the movie was made, Barrymore’s version had not yet come out. And the way Lewis portrayed Hyde was in fact the established way in which the character had been played for over 20 years. You can see from from promotional stills of the Sullivan play, that this was in fact the way that Mansfield performed Hyde, and Mansfield was the blueprint for Hyde, much in the same way that Bela Lugosi later became the blueprint for Dracula or Boris Karloff for Frankenstein’s monster. In people’s imaginations, this was how Hyde looked and behaved. And in fact, if you read trade articles from the time, even the critical ones don’t deem Lewis’ performance as bad, even if some find it a bit dull and derivative. Even Fredric March’s Oscar-winning turn as Jekyll/Hyde in 1931 is based on the same Mansfield blueprint, rather than the Barrymore version, whereas the much-maligned Spencer Tracy performance in 1941 (review) is in fact the more original one.
Lewis was not a big star, but he was something of a household name for friends of early film serials, specialising in mysterious villains. He was especially memorable as The Clutching Hand in The Exploits of Elaine (1914), and as The Iron Claw in the serial with the same name (1916). Both were follow-ups to the immensely popular The Perils of Pauline (1914), and all starred Pearl White, “The Queen of the Serials”. Along his career Sheldon Lewis appeared in films with the three fellow Jekyll/Hydes whose films have survived to this day: James Cruze, King Baggot and John Barrymore. He landed bit parts in a few A-list films, but mostly plodded along in B-serials and Poverty Row films, as one film encyclopedia puts it “as primary or secondary gargoyle”. He had a bit of a dry spell between 1920 and 1924, after which he became a staple in western serials, often playing characters with names like Drexel Draig, Big Jim, Serpent Smith or Ratburn. In one of these Z-grade westerns he actually acted opposite the afore-mentioned, still unknown, Boris Karloff. Toward the end of the twenties and beginning of the thirties, with the rising popularity in both jungle adventure films and horror films, he did a few of them as well. He played the evil slave trader Achmet Zek in the Frank Merrill serial Tarzan the Tiger in 1929, and villains in two “old dark house” films in 1931 and 1932; as The Thing in The Phantom, and as a murderous uncle in the giant ape film The Monster Walks. He also played the villainous The Spider in the crime comedy Seven Footprints to Satan (1929).
Lewis had a parallel career on stage and in particular in vaudeville, where he revived his Jekyll/Hyde routine, turning it into a 15 minute sketch, one that was filmed and released as a short film in 1934, perhaps as an attempt to revive his failing movie career, although he was 65 years old at the time. Lewis’ transition to sound pictures was fairly successful, considering he was a 61 years old B-movie actor at the emergence of the talkies, but whether out of choice or circumstance, he retired from the screen in 1936. He was actually of the respectable age of 52 when he made Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which made him a bit old for the sort of romantic plot that the film contains. John Barrymore, at 38, pulled it off thanks to his eternally handsome features. And in his defence, Lewis doesn’t necessarily look 52 in the film (on the other hand, my grainy print makes it hard to guess any of the actors’ ages).
The rest of the cast of the film consists of little-known stock players that do their jobs as admirably as can be expected in a slapdash production of this sort. However, it would be interesting to hear the story behind the choice of Gladys Field for the role of Bernice Lanyon, as she was dragged out of retirement for the movie at age 31. Field had done around 40 cheapo Broncho Billy westerns in 1910 and 1911, and that was basically her film career, apart from a bare handful of similar movies between 1912 and 1915, after which she left the movie business. What compelled her to take part in this super-cheap, hastily filmed horror film five years later remains a mystery (as does the reason why anyone ever thought of her for the role), but one can only surmise that she must have been a friend of either the director, Sheldon Lewis or someone in the production company.
The film is actually not as terrible as its reputation would have you believe. It’s not a good movie in any way: the sets are cheap and cramped, the camera setups are boring and static, with much of the movie taking place around a coffee table, as writer/director Haydon’s script seems to have no other way of revealing exposition than having it laid out around an afternoon tea discussion, and the camera work for the interiors is amateurish, as the images are sometimes over-exposed or even out of focus. At one point the director can be seen with his megaphone at the edge of the screen. The outdoor scenes seem to have been made with a different cameraman, as they make better use of the natural light and often have much more interesting setups.
But I do like that the filmmakers have done some things slightly differently. The update to the 1920s works well, Hyde setting fire to a building is a nice addition, even if the burning house on display is clearly stock footage (of course exactly WHY he sets fire to a building is never quite explained). The part where Hyde gets caught, jailed and sentenced to the electric chair is actually something that I find refreshing, because it’s an interesting play on the story, one that we’ve all imagined when reading the book or watching a movie: what would happen if Hyde got caught and reverted back to Jekyll in police custody? It’s one of those things that have since been mined for other stories that draw on the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tradition, but it’s more seldom done with adaptations of the original. While I can sometimes get very annoyed with films that change a canonical premise, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is slightly different, since there’s so little of the original novella in what has been established as the film canon. So for me at least, this is a story that one can be allowed to take certain liberties with. I do wish that I had that rubber brick in the last scene, though.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. USA, 1920. Written & directed by J. Charles Haydon. Based on a novella by Robert Louis Stevenson and plays by Thomas Russell Sullivan, Luella Forepaugh and George F. Fish. Starring: Sheldon Lewis, Gladys Field, Alex Shannon, Dora Mills Adams, Harold Foshay, Leslie Austin. Produced by Louis Meyer for Pioneer Film Corporation.