March Hyde Madness: The Silent Era (1897-1920)

Welcome to March Hyde Madness! A month devoted to all things Jekyll and Hyde. Now, let’s get the obvious disclaimer out of the way. This retrospective is in no way complete. There are far too many Jekyll and Hyde adaptations to even begin to attempt to cover them all. And let’s be honest, some of the more recent ones aren’t really that good. But we are going to cover most of the more well-known versions and throw in a few lesser known ones for good measure. We will be taking a week off during the month for a little something called spring break vacation. And for those of you who were hoping for a Leprechaun retrospective for St. Patrick’s Day, I’m sorry to disappoint. My brain is still recovering from watching all 6 of those movies a couple years back.

RLSFirst, we must acknowledge that all of the films, cartoons and television specials covered here in the next month owe at least part of their script to the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson. He wrote “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in just three days during an illness and after he was awakened by a dream, which would inspire the core of the story. Some accounts indicate he also may have been influenced by drugs during various rewrites. Fascinated by the worst of humanity, it’s considered quite possible that he pulled from his own experiences as well as the dream when writing the story. It was released in January 1886. The basic story centers on Dr. Jekyll creating a potion that, upon drinking, transforms him into Mr. Hyde. Jekyll (originally pronounced “Jeekul”) is a model citizen, proper and reserved. However, he has spent his life repressing his evil tendancies. Hyde brings forth the hidden moral deprivations, essentially allowing him to be free without inhibitions. Hyde is smaller, almost dwarf-like, and quite cruel, a beast with no remorse for his actions which will eventually include murder. As the transformations begin to occur without taking the serum, Jekyll must take it more frequently to subdue the Hyde persona. In the end, Hyde will eventually take over. Hyde’s ultimate fate is never revealed. The final lines of the story have Jekyll pondering whether Hyde will be punished for his crimes or choosing to kill himself. One key difference from most adaptions is that the story takes place over the course of a year as Jekyll degenerates into Hyde permanently.

The story became a huge success and within a year had already been adapted into a stage play. With the success of the play and the arrival of motion pictures, the earliest silent film adaptation dates back to at least 1908 when Hobart Bosworth brought Jekyll and Hyde to life on the silver screen. Reportedly, it is essentially a 16-minute filmed version of the stage play. Sadly, it has been lost without even a still shot to give us an idea of what Hyde looked like here. Some sources insist an earlier version was done as far back as 1897, but no solid evidence exists to support these claims.

The oldest version still known to exist was released in 1912 by the Thanhouser Company. James Cruze stars here as Jekyll and Hyde, with Jekyll being white-haired and Hyde appearing as a dwarf. This is one of the few times that a film actually attempts to give a more accurate appearance of Hyde as he was originally written by Stevenson. Hyde has dark hair and is rather hideous sporting fangs. Harry Benham apparently also appears as Hyde in some scenes, although he is uncredited. This wasn’t fully revealed until a 1963 Famous Monsters interview with Benham. However, upon a closer view, you can easily tell the two apart. At a little more than 10 minutes long, it is an odd little film. The story runs along quite quickly but production looks incredibly cheap. Along with some exterior shots, most of the action takes place in Hyde’s small laboratory. However, we must remember that this is in the dawn of filmmaking and enjoy the fact that it even still exists at all. There are a few various DVD versions out there but with such a short length, just watch it for free on YouTube.Jekyll James Cruze

The following year, 1913, a longer adaptation was filmed by legendary Universal producer Carl Laemmle. As both director and producer, Laemmle worked with Herbert Brenon to bring the story to life with King Baggot in the main role. Here we have the first mention of Jekyll taking care of charity patients and the first time we see the fleshed out roles of Jekyll’s friends Dr. Lanyon and Utterson, a lawyer. Various adaptations will play around with the supporting characters and background of Jekyll. We also have the conflict between Jekyll, his fiancée and her father, again more prevalent in some versions than others. In the original story, Hyde would beat a man with a cane while here, he injures a crippled child. Hyde eventually overtakes the Jekyll persona and dies as per usual with the storyline. Production values here are much higher as we have numerous sets and the story is not nearly as rushed at more than twice the running time of the 1912 version. However, I was less than impressed with the makeup work on Baggot. He does play Hyde hunched over, giving a bit of the dwarf image. As Hyde has more time in the real world, you’ll notice he appears to be standing more upright, giving the impression that his is no longer subdued by Jekyll’s more proper appearance. Much like the 1912 version, this is best viewed as a curiosity and a precursor to better adaptations. You can find this on various DVDs but again, go with the version on YouTube or the Internet Archive. Like the 1912 version, the print quality is rough but the price is right for what you’re getting.Der Januskopf

In 1920, we were given three different versions. J. Charles Haydon wrote and directed a version for Louis B. Mayer with Sheldon Lewis in the lead role. However, as they feared copyright infringement with the other two versions, they set the story in New York and altered the plot in that Jekyll only dreams about becoming Hyde. The end result was a very crude 40 minute production that left Haydon removing his name from the credits. This version still exists but is quite rare and I was unable to locate it. Der Januskopf (The Head of Janus) was directed by legendary F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu). As Murnau did with Nosferatu, the names were changed to avoid copyright issues. Conrad Veidt (The Man Who Laughs) would play the lead role of Dr. Warren with Mr O’Connor being the Hyde persona. This version is sadly lost but is believed to be more Murnau’s vision of the story rather than a true adaptation. Finally, the best version in 1920, and considered the definitive silent version, was released by Paramount Pictures with John Barrymore (1922s Sherlock Holmes) in the lead role.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde 1920 1Here, Barrymore plays Jekyll again as a caring doctor spending time in his free clinic. His fiancée is Millicent (Martha Mansfield) and her father is Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst), who doubts Jekyll is as good as he appears. Jekyll’s friends Lanyon and Utterson are present here again who serve to help plant the seed of Jekyll’s plan to subdue the evil side by allowing it to be free and, thus, destroying it. The characters of Millicent, along with Hyde’s romance of a dance hall girl, were part of the 1887 stage play and were used here. Future film adaptations would continue to use these characters and plots. Otherwise, the story plays out relatively unchanged. Barrymore’s performance of Hyde is classic and even more memorable considering it was all done without makeup. Barrymore would contort his face and, when a wig and prosthetic fingers were added, the iconic image of Hyde was given life. Unlike the other silent versions, this story seems fleshed out and complete. I have thoroughly enjoyed this version through multiple viewings over the years and highly recommend it. Being in the public domain, it is readily available on various DVDs as well as free through numerous YouTube links and the Internet Archive.

Eleven years would pass before Jekyll and Hyde returned to the screen. Next time, we’ll take a look at the Academy Award winning pre-code performance of Fredric March as well as a wascally wabbit named Bugs. Dr Jekyll Mr Hyde 1920 2


2 thoughts on “March Hyde Madness: The Silent Era (1897-1920)

  1. Great article! I read the novel a few years back and after reading your article I want to know more about the dream, the drugs and the personal experiences RLS put into it. Looking forward to your next article!

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