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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Pioneer, 1920)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde PosterDr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Pioneer, 1920)
Directed by J. Charles Haydon
Starring Sheldon Lewis

There are films that are poorly written or acted, there are films made by incompetent cinematographers, there are films where it’s obvious the director and producer had very different ideas in mind, and there are films that were hastily re-edited into some kind of Frankenstein’s monster after production, but it’s rare that a film fails on absolutely every level. Writer-director J. Charles Haydon’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) is just such a film.

If you’ve ever read Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you know how difficult it would be to do it justice on film. It’s structured very much like a mystery, and with the story being so deeply ingrained in popular culture as it is, the shocking reveal at the end that the murderer and the victim were one and the same would come as a shock to nobody. Most adaptations instead focus on minor or wholly invented characters to provide some other conflict for Dr. Jekyll – usually a love interest – and altogether drop Edward Utterson, the detective-like character that narrates the novella. Haydon’s Jekyll and Hyde takes a strange middle road. The story is still structured like a mystery, except the solution is reveled immediately; and Utterson is retained, except he doesn’t do any investigating.

The story is set in the present day. Dr. Henry Jekyll (Sheldon Lewis) is engaged to Bernice Lanyon (Gladys Field), the daughter Dr. Lanyon (Alexander Shannon). Lanyon is Jekyll’s friend, but thoroughly disapproves of his methods and his atheistic leanings. You see, while Haydon has added a love interest with Bernice, that isn’t what this film is about. The film is about Dr. Jekyll attempting to show that human nature is simultaneously both good and evil, which would prove that there is no god… somehow. I’m not sure I follow the logic, but he seems confident on that point.

Dr. Jekyll inadvertently creates Mr. Hyde, who goes on a crime spree that mostly involves stock-footage arson and petty theft. Bernice, grown tired of Jekyll’s godless ways, dumps him for Danvers Carew (Leslie Austin), who is actually an important character in the novella, but here serves only as a replacement fiancé. Enraged, Jekyll transforms into Hyde like David Banner does to the Hulk. He kills Carew, which proves to be his demise. The police finally track him down, he’s summarily tried, and sentenced to death in the electric chair. Then… the groan-inducing twist at the end. I won’t spoil it – it’s the sort of thing you’ll have to experience for yourself – but suffice to say that Jekyll finds Jesus and everyone lives happily ever after.

Stevenson’s novella was always popular for adaptation, but 1920 was a banner year. Three Jekyll and Hyde films were released: the John Barrymore version, considered by many to be the definitive silent adaptation; F.W. Murnau’s Der Januskopf, now sadly lost; and this monstrosity, which was shot and released a scant month after the Barrymore film. That it was hoping to cash-in on the success of the other productions goes without saying.

Haydon’s vision was apparently much different from what ended up on film. His scenario stuck truer to the novella and didn’t take as many liberties with the characters. Producer Louis Meyer (not to be confused with Louis Mayer, head of MGM, but he often used the similarity to his advantage in the marketing of his films) is to blame for moving the story to the present day and twisting the characters almost beyond recognition. He had an idea – probably not unfounded – that if his company released a straight adaption of Jekyll and Hyde while the Barrymore film was still playing in many theatres, they could expect a lawsuit from Famous Players that his low-budget Pioneer studio had no hope of defending. After seeing the finished product, Haydon reportedly wanted his name taken off the credits. I can’t say I blame him.

Haydon’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a train wreck of a film that fails entirely at what it sets out to be, but at the same time, I have to recommend it for its unintentional comedy. The production is so slapdash and many scenes obviously assembled from outtakes that hardly a minute goes by that there isn’t something to laugh at. I doubt there was a script at all – the actors seem to be taking direction from off-screen throughout the film. Occasionally from on-screen as well: the camera isn’t aimed quite right in one scene and Haydon and his megaphone are just visible at the edge of the frame, telling the actors what to do.

The version of Haydon’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that’s commonly in circulation is truncated (I don’t say edited) to four reels and the abrupt jump makes the story impossible to follow, but the print I watched was much closer to being intact. All five reels are present, with only a minute or two missing from the head or tail of each. I don’t know if it’s an improvement, but at least the whole, ridiculous plot comes across clearly.

My rating: I don’t like it.

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