Friday, November 23, 2012

On John Barrymore's Dr Jekyl and Mr Hyde (1921)

“His imagination afire with this new idea, and his whole being mastered by the exploring passion of the scientist, Jekyll spent days and nights in his laboratory.”

The scene is set for the transformation of John Barrymore from the kind and considerate Dr Jekyll to the ghastly and bestial Mr Hyde. In 1921, when the film was shot at Paramount's Long Island studio in New York, Barrymore was also appearing on stage in the evenings as Shakespeare’s Richard III. One can only imagine Barrymore's King Richard with a slight explosive pinch of Mr Hyde in the mix. No wonder Barrymore collapsed from nervous exhaustion at the time and was taken to the White Plains sanatorium.
So when Dr Jekyll pours the last ingredient into the glass, there is apprehension and a moment of fear. The doctor has second thoughts. He leaves the glass on the table and steps back. But like a magnet, the glass is drawing him back. He wants to know. He wants to prove them wrong. The scientist takes over and clenching his fist he drinks the potion in one go. The effects are immediate. The liquid burns through his throat and he starts to twist and shake from violent convulsions and spasms. His face, up to now hidden in his hands, slowly emerges and you see the change. The whiteness, the stare, the rigidity. His face is turning into a japanese demon mask. The eyes seem frozen on something beyond and the hands are twisted. Then the camera zooms into one hand resting on a book. We witness its gradual transformation into an elongated skeletal hand with nails like claws. Dr Jekyll, or the creature he has become, looks at this hand and at that point there is a moment of reflection. It's a moment that fills him with horror followed by a feeling of power and elation in view of the absolute freedom to indulge in every imaginable vice and crime with no regard for the consequences. He heads for the door unlocking this new world of forbidden experience. A kind of "Zone Libre". The dark world of Mr Hyde.     

Now Robert Louis Stevenson mentioned the first name of Mr Hyde as being Edward in his 1886 novella "Strange Case Of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde". But some pertain that "Jack" would be a more suitable name. Not least because two years later some strange chap started committing hideous murders in London and called himself Jack the Ripper. Jack the Ripper seemed also to have an alter ego and most agree that he could have been a doctor.  

So from the dark Whitechapel alleys of 1888 to Paramount's Long Island Studio in 1921 where John Barrymore is having a well needed rest in between takes for the new silent film "Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde". He sits reading what he has to do for the next scene. From where he will enter, where the camera will be standing, when to look into the light and so on. But he has trouble concentrating. King Richard the III's words are still buzzing in his head: 

"I cannot tell: the world is grown so bad,
That wrens make prey where eagles dare not perch:
Since every Jack became a gentleman,
There's many a gentle person made a Jack."

It's suddenly all too much for him and exhausted he sees the lights go out one by one. He cannot resist this welcoming, irresistible darkness and faints. Cut.

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