“Repeated use of the drugs causes him to change to his evil self against his will…”
Director: Lucius Henderson
Starring: James Cruze, Florence La Badie, Harry Benham
Screenplay: Lucius Henderson, based upon the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Synopsis: Dr Henry Jekyll (James Cruze) puts to the test his theory that certain drugs are capable of dividing a human being into two components, the good and the evil. In his laboratory, Jekyll mixes together certain chemicals and, upon swallowing the resulting potion, transforms into a misshapen, brutish creature… After gazing for a few moments at the stranger in the mirror, Jekyll swallows the antidote, and returns to his usual self. He hurries to write down his discoveries. Later, out walking with the daughter (Florence La Badie) of the village minister, Jekyll proposes marriage, and is accepted. However, in the months that follow Jekyll continues his experiments, until the day comes when he transforms without taking the drug. The resulting creature – who has become known to the local townspeople as “Mr Hyde” – runs through the village and tramples a child before escaping back to the laboratory, where it takes the antidote. A remorseful Jekyll takes his fiancée walking. As the two sit together, Jekyll feels himself transforming. He flees, but is overcome, and soon the terrified girl is being attacked by Mr Hyde. The minister, hearing her screams, rushes to the rescue, only to be brutally struck down before his daughter’s eyes…
Comments: Robert Louis Stevenson published The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde in 1886 and created an immediate sensation. It was one of the first novels to be adapted for the screen in the earliest days of the cinema – there are, indeed, unsubstantiated rumours of a version being filmed as early as 1897 – and to this day the story holds an irresistible attraction for film-makers, with more than fifty versions and variants of the story in existence, and actors from all points of the artistic spectrum – that is to say, everyone from Spencer Tracy to David Hasselhoff – attempting the title characters.
Even John Barrymore, at the very height of his stage success, and believing, as did most professional stage actors of the time, that motion picture acting was nothing more than a crude bastardisation of his own art, was unable to resist the temptation of tackling the ultimate dual role, famously spending several weeks rushing from his Broadway production of Richard III to the Paramount Studio and back again in order to accomplish the feat. One wonders if anything could have better prepared him for playing both Jekyll and Hyde.
But Stevenson’s celebrated work is not the only inspiration for the numerous screen renderings of his story. When the book was released in America and achieved as stunning a success there as it had at home, the actor Richard Mansfield commissioned playwright Thomas Russell Sullivan to create an adaptation of the story for the stage. The play was a triumph for Mansfield, who had the satisfaction of driving his audiences into screaming hysteria with his transformation from Jekyll to Hyde; and ultimately, as would later be the case with Frankenstein and Dracula, this stage version would ultimately prove just as influential, if not more so, in the cinematic evolution of the story as the book from which it was originally derived.
(In what can be considered either a piece of spectacularly good timing or a piece of spectacularly bad timing, Mansfield and Sullivan took their play to London in the latter half of 1888; that is, at the height of the reign of Jack the Ripper…)
But even as Sullivan’s play somewhat eclipsed Stevenson’s book in terms of public influence, it too spawned its own competition. A number of other stage adaptations appeared over the following years, the best known of which was penned by Luella Forepaugh and George F. Fish. The first film production of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde of whose existence we can be certain was released in 1908 by the Chicago-based Selig Polyscope company. This was not merely an adaptation of the stage play: it was a filmed play, with a local company performing the Forepaugh-Fish text for William Selig’s cameras. This historic film is, regrettably, now lost, as is another Selig version, oddly from the same year—and even more oddly, so early on in the game, a comedy.
The British production, The Duality Of Man, and the Danish Den Skǽbnesvangre Opfindelse, both 1910, are also lost, leaving the honour of being the producers of the oldest surviving version of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde to the Thanhouser Company of New Rochelle, New York—which indeed can also claim the oldest surviving version of She. We are left to conclude that Thanhouser took rather better care of their works than most of their contemporaries.
Thanhouser’s She and Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde share much more than their vintage. The two were shot back-to-back during the closing months of 1911, being released in December 1911 and January 1912, respectively, and involving many of the same personnel, most notably James Cruze who, after essaying dual roles in She, performed similar duties here.
The main similarity between the two films is, however, an unfortunate one: both are profoundly unsatisfactory adaptations of their extremely famous sources. Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde even goes so far as to have the theory of human duality, and the severance of good and evil by the use of drugs, not be Jekyll’s own! Rather, a book entitled Graham On Drugs – a 1911 bestseller, I’m sure – states matter-of-factly that, “The taking of certain drugs can separate man into two beings, one representing EVIL, the other GOOD.” Barely has the viewer had time to digest this than Jekyll is in his laboratory weighing and measuring and concocting an historic potion. A little hesitation, a single glance at the heavens, and Jekyll has taken the fatal step.
With cinema still in its infancy, and screen fantasy still looked at somewhat askance in America – as indeed it would continue to be for many years to come – it is not surprising that this critical transformation scene is achieved simply through a dissolve. The fair-haired Jekyll clutches at his throat and drops into a chair, head bowed…and a moment later is replaced by a figure with dark hair, bug eyes, prominent incisors and twisted fingers. One check in the mirror, and this Hyde quickly swallows the antidote; again with a dissolve, he makes a fairly smooth reversion to Jekyll.
The other transformation scenes lack even this basic camera trickery, although the editing is quite clever: the first spontaneous change from Jekyll to Hyde has Jekyll opening the laboratory door, but Hyde stepping through it. Most of the other transformations make use of a brief cutaway to another character.
And these transformations may have been a bit of a cheat in more ways than one. Many years after the event, a Thanhouser stock player named Harry Benham, who appeared in dozens of films over a decade-long career, claimed that he shared the role of Hyde with James Cruze, with the two men using one suit and one wig, but – thankfully – each having their own set of false teeth. While this claim has never been proved or disproved, it may be said that Benham’s explanation for this double casting, that it was the company’s way of speeding up production – which, with all the costume changes, had stretched to an unheard-of seven days – has a ring of truth about it. It may also be pointed out that in several scenes, Hyde, although never “dwarfish”, as described by Stevenson, seems rather smaller than the stockily-built James Cruze could have been.
The overriding problem with this version of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde is that, really, there’s very little there there. A title card tells us baldly that, Some months later, repeated use of the drugs causes him to change to his evil self against his will. What has he been doing during those months? Exactly how much “evil” – the kind that doesn’t automatically bring the law down upon you – could Hyde have been committing in what is, after all, a fairly small village? This Jekyll never provides for Hyde another set of rooms to go with his double life, but continues to operate from his own house; he doesn’t even have a separate laboratory. You’d think, under the circumstances, that the people in “the village”, never mind Jekyll’s servants, would have figured things out long before they do.
Motive is another thing again. Why should Jekyll start – and then go on – releasing his “evil self” at the same time that he becomes “the accepted suitor of the minister’s daughter”? Okay, maybe we can think of an explanation for that one; but the movie never bothers to. It gives us instead a Jekyll to all appearances entirely happy and satisfied with his situation.
(As for the state of mind and heart of the unnamed fiancée during all those many months of Jekyll’s experimentation, well, we never know. Like a good little Victorian woman, she just takes whatever her man chooses to give her and smiles gratefully and non-judgementally.)
That said, the most interesting moment in this film comes when Jekyll spontaneously transforms while out walking with his fiancée. He rushes away from her, but collapses on the steps of her father’s church, where he turns into Hyde…who shakes his fist at the church. He also starts up the church steps, but then stops and hurries away.
Are we supposed to infer that he is unable to enter? It is difficult to say. There is no attempt made at all to let us into Jekyll’s mind or assign a motive for what he does, so we cannot know the significance of these acts; but this is the only point in the whole film that is anything other than completely superficial. Hyde’s first act of real evil follows – the only other thing we ever see him do is bump into and knock over a child – as he attacks the minister’s daughter, then beats the minister himself to death when he comes to his daughter’s rescue.
This also proves to be Hyde’s last evil act, as a local bobby pursues him to Jekyll’s house. Jekyll manages to turn back into himself long enough to divert suspicion, but the jig is up. No longer able to control the demon Hyde, he determines to go away.
Jekyll is in the middle of parting from his fiancée when a final transformation comes upon him. He rushes back to his laboratory, but there is no more of the antidote left; and as his belatedly alarmed manservant calls for help – “That monster Hyde is in my master’s study!” – Hyde swallows poison. Unusually, it is his body that the remaining characters end up staring at in horror, Jekyll’s fate left (from the onlookers’ point of view) unresolved.
It may seem that I’ve been unnecessarily hard on what is, after all, just a short film, with a mere twelve minutes available to it in which to convey the complexities of Stevenson’s story. The trouble is, I’ve seen the Edison Frankenstein; and I know that is perfectly possible for a film to be of such brief duration and yet to have plenty of substance. Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde – like its Thanhouser predecessor, She – is simply a string of random incidents, thematically unconnected and lacking in depth.
However, on the positive side, some interesting use is made of locations around New Rochelle, as was the case with She; and James Cruze is certainly much more effective here than he was in the earlier film. Although his performance is never exactly subtle (when Jekyll tells his fiancée, “I…am going…away!”, he’s not just projecting to the back rows, he’s making sure that the people down the block don’t miss anything), he does have some good moments: I particularly like his breathlessly nervous greeting of the policeman who comes looking for Hyde. On the other hand, Cruze’s leading lady, Florence La Badie, who would go on to become one of Thanhouser’s most popular actresses, is quite wasted here, where it seems unlikely that she received much more direction than, “Sit there and look pretty.”
In short, this is a film that strikes us most forcibly today as a wasted opportunity, a distinctly inauspicious beginning to one of the longest-lasting of all love affairs between cinema and story; and although it seems to have been popular with the public, perhaps it is not so surprising that it would not be very long before another director – in fact, several other directors – took on the challenge of transferring Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde to the screen…