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Case Number 26876

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) (Blu-ray)

Kino Lorber // 1920 // 79 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // January 22nd, 2014

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All Rise...

Judge Daryl Loomis has this potion that makes him handsome and charming. It's called a gin and tonic.

Editor's Note

Our review of TCM Greatest Classic Films Collection: Horror, published September 25th, 2009, is also available.

The Charge

A man cannot destroy the savage in him by denying its impulses. The only way to get rid of a temptation is to yield to it.

Opening Statement

I'm living proof of that terrible advice that Dr. Jekyll (John Barrymore, Grand Hotel) receives from his fiance's father, George Carewe (Brandon Hurst, White Zombie). To illustrate, I'm going to admit something that makes me seem awful, but so be it. One morning many, many years ago, I awoke from a deep slumber to find myself halfway up the mountain that my college was built against, in a full suit and tie, and with a black eye. To this day, I have no idea what happened, where the suit came from, or who hit me (or if I was even actually punched). This was not my lowest moment, but it was pretty low. The reason I admit this is not to destroy the clean-cut, sober illusion I've tried to perpetuate all these years; that would be a huge dumb lie. No, I tell the story to illustrate why Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is so important and vital to me. Every single one of us has a Mr. or Ms. Hyde within; it's a question of how and when the monster emerges. As one of my favorite books, it's choice material for adaptation and, while the 1920 film version wasn't the first, but it remains the best nearly a hundred years later.

Facts of the Case

Henry Jekyll is a brilliant doctor, a dedicated humanitarian, and just an all-around great guy. But he's never lived, which his colleagues like to point out to him every chance they get. One night, Jekyll finally gives in and goes to the bar with his fiance's dad. There, he is introduced to the temptations of the flesh and his big scientific brain gets to work. Soon, he's created a potion that separates the light side of man from the dark and, when he drinks it, he becomes the villainous Mr. Hyde. At first, he's able to control the monster within but, very quickly, discovers that the beast is taking over his life.

The Evidence

For years, modern readers of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have interpreted the character as having dissociative personality disorder, but if the idea of split personalities existed when Stevenson conceived his story, it certainly wasn't an accepted part of psychology. Instead, there's something far simpler and more universal at play. Jekyll's an alcoholic and every one of us has the potential to lose control of our lives through addiction. This internal struggle between our light and dark sides makes the character at once recognizable and sympathetic. I've met my Hyde and I hate him; it's extremely easy to step into Jekyll's shoes and hope against hope he can battle and come out on top. But as there's really no hope at all, it becomes an exercise in watching a man spiral to his doom. Good thing the story's so damn fun, because that otherwise might be awfully depressing.

Instead, it's a delight to watch, and much of that joy comes down to John Barrymore's fantastic dual performance. The role offers so much potential and Barrymore takes full advantage of it, turning himself completely from good to evil with a turn of his head. Some of this, of course, is due to makeup and special effects, but gnarled teeth and a stringy wig aren't much compared to the power of his performance. His is my favorite Jekyll and Hyde; he made the role iconic and it remains so to this day. The rest of the cast comes a far second to him; they're mainly around to react to Hyde and worry about the increasingly distant Jekyll, but there's some pretty good work there nonetheless.

Director John S. Robertson (Classmates) does a fair job behind the camera, but it's nothing spectacular. This is a performance piece and he lets Barrymore carry the weight, but the movie looks good and the effects, while not really cutting edge for the time, work pretty well. Whether he was the most skilled director or not, he keeps the film moving at a good clip, keeping it fun and never weighing it down with too much melodrama. This is the version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to watch. There are other fine versions, from Frederic March's turn in 1931 to James Nesbitt's excellent performance in Stephen Moffat's more recent update, but none outshine this one, not by a long shot.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde receives a strong Blu-ray release from Kino Lorber. They did not provide a new transfer for the film, but the 1.33:1/1080p image still looks very good given its age. There is the obvious damage to the print, but it's far less dramatic than many silents I've watched. Detail is decent and the contrast is fairly strong, but at nearly a century old, there are clear limitations. The mono sound is nothing special, either. The music is compiled instead of composed, so you might as well choose your own accompaniment, but there isn't any noticeable background hiss, so it's fine.

Extras are a good lot. It starts with the twelve minute original 1912 adaptation of the story from Tannhauser Studio and starring James Cruze (The Covered Wagon), though he did not receive credit for the role. It's not a great movie, but it is a highly interesting historical artifact that has survived in pretty good shape. Next, we have a fifteen minute cut of Louis B. Mayer's rival 1920 production, which stars Sheldon Lewis (Orphans of the Storm) and is a great example of something that would absolutely never occur today. Third, a two-reel Stan Laurel (The Flying Deuces) parody called Dr. Pickle and Mr. Pride that's pretty fun to watch. Finally, a 1909 audio recording of the transformation scene, which is another fantastic artifact.

Closing Statement

Some might say that Fredric March's 1931 performance of the role is the pinnacle of the character, but my feet are firmly planted in the John Barrymore camp. There are points in the movie that are a little awkward and the special effects aren't always the greatest, even for the time, but the movie is so much fun that it hardly matters. Finally, we have the definitive release of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. With a good-looking print and a great slate of supplements, the disc is very highly recommended.

The Verdict

Not guilty.

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Scales of Justice

Video: 85
Audio: 83
Extras: 70
Acting: 90
Story: 94
Judgment: 92

Perp Profile

Studio: Kino Lorber
Video Formats:
• Full Frame (1080p)
Audio Formats:
• PCM 1.0 Mono (Silent)
• English (Intertitles)
Running Time: 79 Minutes
Release Year: 1920
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Blu-ray
• Classic
• Drama
• Horror
• Science Fiction
• Silent Films

Distinguishing Marks

• Short Films
• Audio Recording


• IMDb

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