It was one of those good bad years you come to expect from John Barrymore.
On March 6th 1920 after a year of intense preparation Barrymore debuted Richard III at New York’s Plymouth Theater.
The performance sent shock waves through a stunned audience. Critics like Heywood Broun of the New York Tribune called it “the most inspired performance which this generation has seen.”
Indeed many were of the opinion that Barrymore had ushered in a new era on the American stage.
What was the main difference between his performance and that of other actors who had tackled the role previously?
It was Barrymore’s willingness and incredible courage to explore Richard III on a psychological level never attempted.
But the triumph was short-lived. One month after being hailed as arguably the finest Shakespearean actor America had ever produced, John Barrymore collapsed from a nervous breakdown. The toll of taking on this monumental role had caught up with him.
That good bad schism was taken up again that same year in Barrymore’s movie version of Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde. Robert Lewis Stevenson‘s short story made its way on stage beginning in 1887, two years after its publication.
It tells the story of Dr Henry Jekyll a young doctor virtuous almost to a fault.
For whatever reason this does not sit well with his future father-in-law Sir George Carew who proclaims,”No man could be as good as he looks.”
Oh but he is. Barrymore’s Jekyll is the idealized Victorian male however the back and forth conversations he has with Carew serve as a catalyst to take whatever experiments he’s been working on in his lab to a whole new level.
“Wouldn’t it be marvelous if the two natures in man could be separated – housed in different bodies? Think what it would mean to yield to every evil impulse, yet leave the soul untouched!”
Jekyll works diligently to make this a reality until finally one night he creates the potion to do just that.
In subsequent versions of Jekyll and Hyde the metamorphosis from one into the other is done with special effects. While silent movies did not have the that kind of technology there was still enough available to create a good cinematic transition.
But this is John Barrymore we’re talking about. Yes the convulsions are melodramatic but the result is staggering. Through total control of his facial muscles and body, Barrymore transforms into Mr Hyde right in front of our eyes.
The makeup doesn’t go as far as the 1931 film starring Fredric March (March winds up looking like an ape with a top hat) and that’s fine because it shows the humanity of Hyde no matter how hideous. And it is hideous.
In a strange way Hyde has freed Jekyll from his noble yet strait jacketed existence. Whether on purpose or not Barrymore’s Henry Jekyll was boring. A man too good for his own good.
Hyde explores the dark and sensual side with no moral restrictions yet he still retains the inquisitive nature of his other half.
There’s a wonderful scene in a brothel where Hyde while waiting for his prostitute to be delivered becomes fascinated as to what a Chinese attendant is doing.
In another his use of a cane to inspect, harass and arouse one of the strumpets is remarkable. These kind of artistic touches are pure John Barrymore.
Things get messy as you’d expect especially when Jekyll realizes he can no longer control the transformation process.
His strengths are no match for Hyde. Jekyll’s life is over with no way to get it back but in a certain respect the good doctor is only too happy to contribute to his own destruction.
Jekyll for all of his virtue got a taste of playing God and liked it.
The mood of the film is wonderfully atmospheric with some good ensemble work in particular from the minor players.
On a side note the family resemblance between John Barrymore and his older brother Lionel is startling. There are scenes with John as Mr Hyde where the two men could have passed for identical twins.
In many ways Jekyll and Hyde is the logical extension to Richard III. The constant changing of his character. The good and bad in full view with an audience mesmerized every step of the way.
That’s not to hard to understand when you realize the bridge between these two was John Barrymore.