August 30, 2007

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912)

Without a doubt, Robert Louis Stevenson's celebrated classic, "The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde", is one of the most famous and influential novels of Gothic horror ever written, as its main theme, the inner conflict between a man's good and evil natures, has inspired countless works and several adaptations to film and stage. Thomas Russell Sullivan's 1887 stage play, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was one of the most successful of its time, and soon found itself as the source for film adaptations thanks in part to the touch of romance that Sullivan added to Stevenson's tale. While the most famous adaptation of this play is without a doubt the 1920's version (starring John Barrymore), that was actually the third time the stage play was adapted to film, with the first version produced in 1908 and the second being this film, made in 1912 by the Thanhouser Company.

In this version, James Cruze plays Dr. Jekyll, a respectable scientist who has dedicated his studies to the creation of a formula to separate humanity's two natures. To test the formula for a last time, Jekyll locks himself in his laboratory and drinks the potion, waiting for the effects to take place. Suddenly, he transforms into his evil alter ego, which takes the name of Mr. Hyde and begins to wreak havoc in town. Hyde takes the antidote to become Jekyll again and cover his crimes, but Jekyll's repeated use of his Hyde's persona begins to take its toll on him, making the transformation to occur without the need of the potion, almost at will. In one of these uncontrolled changes, Hyde murders the town's preacher, who is the father of Jekyll's sweetheart (Florence La Badie). This event makes Jekyll to realize how dangerous Hyde really is, but unfortunately, he no longer has the antidote.

As written above, the basis for this movie is definitely the play written by Thomas Russell Sullivan, as the film moves away from the mystery of the novel and takes a more direct approach to the theme of split personalities. The movie touches an interesting theme in the idea of Jekyll becoming "addicted" to being Hyde, only to discover that his constant use of the Hyde persona has made it take over his original personality, almost like a metaphor to drug use. In those years screenplays were rarely used, but it's highly probable that director Lucius Henderson wrote one for the film, as the plot is very well developed considering the short runtime of 12 minutes (just one reel). While the style Henderson uses in the movie is pretty straightforward and a bit stagy, it's not really a bad movie and some scenes (specially the melodramatic ones) are still very effective.

James Cruze, who during the 20s would become a respected director, delivers an effective performance as both Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His Jekyll is particularly effective, as unlike most versions where the character is the epitome of goodness, Cruze makes him a flawed human in a very convincing way. His Hyde is less convincing, although that's probably because actor Harry Benham also played the character in several scenes Still, to Benham's (and Henderson's) credit, the change between actors is practically impossible to distinguish. Thanhouser regular Florence La Badie appears as Jekyll's sweetheart and she is quite good as the character, although her role in the film is considerable smaller than in the play, as the movie focuses completely on Jekyll's conflict. Interestingly, Thanhouser's child prodigy Marie Eline appears in a brief role as the kid who gets knocked down by Hyde in that classic scene.

While the acting is of excellent quality (as usual with Thanhouser films), the style of the film may come off as too stagy to modern viewers and sadly, the budget limitations do show off in more than one occasion. Still, Henderson makes his movie an entertaining and to an extent, faithful adaptation of Stevenson's novel that will certainly appeal to fans of the classic tale. Lucius Henderson's version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" may not be a mind blowing experience today, and even when compared to other movies of its period (the German film "Der Student Von Prag" comes to mind) it comes off as simply better than average, however, it's by no means a bad movie and I'd even say that it's required viewing for anyone interested in the early years of American horror cinema


Watch "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1912)

1 comment:

BUDOKAN said...

Otra joya del cine mudo y encima provieniente de otra gema de la literatura. Una clara muestra de la convivencia interna entre el bien y el mal. Toda una obra maetsra del cine mudo. Saludos!