The idea of split personalities has always fascinated me. I have always thought that everyone has some sort of split personality. One that was put on in order to cope with the outside world, mostly professional and the true one that you only let a select few see or nobody at all. This is what intrigues me about people. When I meet someone I always wonder what they are like with a girlfriend or boyfriend vs what they are like as just my co-worker, my friend or just a stranger. It is sort of game I play in my head. With Dr. Jekyll, he found a way to exorcise that second personality and make it known to the outside world. He just couldn’t control the results.
My theory is that Dr. Jekyll was always a base man, he just never let it show. He buried his needs in the strenuous work of science, treating the poor and courting a moral woman. But he was too curious what would happen if he gave into his desires. What would have happened if he had relations with that beautiful Italian dancer? What would have happened if he decided to drink until he was drunk, took opium or bedded several women at the same time? As the saying goes curiosity killed the cat. And it killed Dr. Jekyll as well.
The transformation of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde is probably what makes this film so intriguing. John Barrymore plays the good Dr. Jekyll with such heaving goodness I almost want to slap him. When he transforms the first time into Mr. Hyde, he grows visibly ugly, but the transformation mostly relies on Mr. Barrymore’s ability to play such a different character. He excels at being such an obvious evildoer and it is refreshing to see this character on the screen. I quite frankly could care less about Dr. Jekyll. Mr. Hyde is the more infinitely interesting character. As the film progresses, Mr. Hyde gets more and more ugly resulting in stringy hair, elongated fingers and a cone head. He also becomes more difficult for Dr. Jekyll to control. After a while, Dr. Jekyll transforms into Mr. Hyde with no help from the chemical he made at all. This results in the murder of a man who was supposed to be his father in law and the eventual conclusion of the film itself.
John Barrymore is an interesting actor. He is known just as much for his theatrical performances as his cinematic achievements. This knowledge brings a bit of weariness to watching his films thinking that the will over act and try to play to the back of the theater. Such things do not translate to the screen very well. But even in this semi early effort from him, you can tell that Mr. Barrymore is acutely aware of the camera and produces gestures that are small but impactful. There are places in the film where he was over acting, but it is easily overlooked for those times when he lifts one finger and it transform from Dr. Jekyll’s finger to the hideous Mr. Hyde’s. If you are interested in seeing this film, be aware that Mr. Barrymore is the only good actor in the film. Each other character is pretty forgettable, except for the beautiful Italian dancer who has way too small of a role. I know that this was a vehicle for Mr. Barrymore but come on. Give me something. I feel like this is my complaint for a lot of silent pictures that I see. It is not enough to see the woman the main character is in love with just sit there and look pretty. At several points in the film different people say about her that she is extremely moral. And yet all she does is sit waiting for Dr. Jekyll. I would have picked the beautiful Italian dancer as well if I were Dr. Jekyll. Just goes to show you that having a bit of wrongness to you is more attractive than being pure. Especially if you are pure and bland.