Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1913)

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“In the dead silence of the night, Dr Jekyll plans to set free his evil self…”

 

Director:  Herbert Brenon

Starring:  King Baggot, Jane Gail, Howard Crampton, William Sorel, Matt Snyder

Screenplay:  Herbert Brenon, based upon the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson

 

 

 

Synopsis:  Dr Henry Jekyll (King Baggot) sends a note to his fiancée, Alice (Jane Gail), and her father (Matt Snyder) to say that instead of accompanying them to the opera, he must give more time to his charity patients. At Jekyll’s practice, his friends Dr Lanyon (Howard Crampton) and Utterson (William Sorrel), a lawyer, ridicule him for what they consider his dangerous research. Alice and her father also visit Jekyll’s rooms, but although apologetic, the doctor insists on devoting his time to his patients. That night, however, Jekyll undertakes a dangerous experiment, swallowing a drug intended to releases his evil self. His body convulses, and he transforms into a hunched, twisted figure… The strange creature emerges from Jekyll’s room, bearing a note in Jekyll’s handwriting that orders the household staff to treat the stranger – “Mr Hyde” – as himself. Hyde then slips out into the night, terrorising the patrons of a nearby tavern before finding himself lodgings. From these rooms he begins a career of evil, until one night he attacks and injures a crippled child. Outraged witnesses corner Hyde and force him to agree to compensate the boy. Hyde reluctantly leads one man back to Jekyll’s house and gives him money. During this passage of events, a worried Dr Lanyon sees Hyde entering Jekyll’s house. Inside, Hyde takes a potion that transforms him back to Jekyll. The doctor swears that he will abandon his experiments and never tempt fate again; but that night, without taking the drug, he turns spontaneously into Hyde…

Comments:  The year 1913 saw the worldwide release of four filmed adaptations of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde. Two of them were, like the Lucius Henderson-James Cruze version, short films. Though further details about the production are scanty, it is known that an American version, A Modern Jekyll And Hyde, was released towards the end of the year. Meanwhile, in England, the Natural Colour Kinematograph Company of Charles Urban produced Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde. Unfortunately, the necessity for special filters and projectors capable of handling Urban’s experimental colour system meant that this landmark film, Britain’s first all-colour horror movie, was seen by scarcely anyone.

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The third version of the story was produced in Germany, where the actor Albert Bassermann, who would go to a long career in both in his native country and in Hollywood, caused a minor scandal by persuading a number of stage actors to perform before the cameras in Der Andere, a loose adaptation in which, after an accident, a respectable doctor slowly becomes aware that he has a criminal alter-ego.

The fourth 1913 release, which alone has survived into comparative availability, is a work of some importance in terms of both its own production history and its influence upon later filmings of the story. This version, starring King Baggot as both Jekyll and Hyde, emanated from an outfit called the Independent Moving Pictures Company – or “IMP” – which was not only one of the first production companies to open up a branch on the west coast of America, but also happened to be under the control of a Bavarian immigrant and former Chicago nickelodeon man named Carl Laemmle.

The year before Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde went into production, Laemmle had fought and lost a battle over film distribution rights against the Edison Trust. In retaliation, Laemmle oversaw the merger of a number of smaller film companies, IMP included, and the shaping of this entity into a distribution company intended to rival Edison. Before long, however, this company completely absorbed the various small production houses whose films it marketed, finally emerging as a single powerful organisation known first as the Universal Film Company, and later – after its re-location to the San Fernando Valley in California – as Universal Pictures.

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At twenty-six minutes long, the King Baggot version of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde seems like an epic when compared to its forerunners. The extra running-time does, thankfully, allow for more detail and a rather more complex interpretation of the story, although as a film it is certainly not without some serious shortcomings of its own. The main one of these is that, just like the Thanhouser version, it never gives us any idea why Jekyll is doing these things, or what he hopes to achieve.

There is a fairly lengthy sequence in which, clearly, he expounds his theories to Dr Lanyon and to Utterson, the lawyer, and they in turn dismiss and ridicule them, but it is without title cards; we are given no idea of what any of the three men has to say. It ends in disagreement, but friendly disagreement: the three men shake hands and pat each other on the back, smiling. It is hard to reconcile this with, as a title finally does put it, Dr Jekyll’s plan to “set free his evil self”.

And it is even harder in light of a plot point found for the very first time in this telling of the tale. However flawed it might be, this version of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde played an enormous role in the screen evolution of the tale. As discussed in the review of the Thanhouser short film, the stage dramatisation of the story by Thomas Russell Sullivan was a major influence upon subsequent adaptations of this story, many of which bore a much closer resemblance to that than to the novel.

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For example, the inclusion in the story of a love interest with a father, which is present in almost every film version of the story, is taken directly from the play. Invariably, this plot thread culminates in Hyde killing someone who is close to Jekyll; a horrifying act, yes, but one lacking the frightening randomness of the murder of Sir Danvers Carew in the book, who Hyde kills simply because, all of a sudden, he feels like it. The second common addition is the depiction of a positively saintly Dr Jekyll who devotes himself to the care of the poor, usually while neglecting his social obligations to his wealthy friends, and generally his sweetheart, or fiancée, too.

By now it would be fair, I think, to call the image of Jekyll as a self-denying reformer the standard one. It is, in any case, so very pervasive throughout the various adaptations that I have always assumed that it, too, emanated from the play—but it didn’t. It was invented by writer-director Herbert Brenon for his production of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde; and that gives this version an historical significance that cannot be overestimated. This powerful idea, this reinterpretation of the nature of Jekyll, first introduced here, would be picked up and carried into numerous later films, radically altering the broad concept of the character of Jekyll – his “reputation”, if you like – and in the process, completely perverting the point of Stevenson’s book.

Stevenson’s Jekyll, far from being “saintly”, is a deeply divided character, a man of high aspirations and low tastes who wants to have it both ways: he wants to be good, and be seen to be good; but he also wants to be bad, and not be seen to be bad. Jekyll explicitly denies being a hypocrite, but it’s hard to think of another term that applies so well. It is this impulse, this desire to indulge his worse impulses without being found out or damaging his public character, which not only drives Jekyll into his experiments but, critically, shapes the outcome of them. It is Jekyll’s state of mind that releases Hyde, the bad in Jekyll. Had his motives been purer, it is implied, the result could well have been a Jekyll freed of all evil.

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And this is the fatal problem with far too many film adaptations of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, which adopt the notion of “saintly Dr Jekyll”, then fail utterly to reconcile that concept of the character with his subsequent actions; and the Herbert Brenon-King Baggot version is just as guilty of this as any of its copyists. However, the opening section of this film, that preceding the contradictory transformation scene, is at least quite thoughtfully done. This Henry Jekyll is, put simply, a nice guy. He’s devoted to his patients, fond of his friends and, although he does sometimes neglect her in favour of his work, very much in love with his girl.

I like King Baggot’s performance here, and I like the interplay between him and Jane Gail when Alice and her father come to his office after receiving his note excusing him from accompanying them to the opera. She’s a little hurt – she pouts at him – but she’s not really mad; and as her father turns his back discreetly, the couple, at her instigation, share a kiss. Unfortunately, except for one important scene later on, this is pretty much the end of any subtlety in this film. Once Jekyll transforms to Hyde, Baggot’s performance goes right over the top and, for the most part, stays there.

Even making all possible allowances, King Baggot’s Hyde is the weakest point in this version of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde: try as he might, straggly hair, straggly teeth and straggly fingers, and a duck-walk from being constantly in a crouch, do not “pure evil” make. I’m sure that Baggot, like most of his contemporaries, was going for “ape-like” in his presentation of Hyde, but it just doesn’t work, and it undermines the film.

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(Historical perspective can be terribly cruel: looking at Baggot’s Hyde, with his teeth and his face-pulling and his crouch, all I could think about was Heathcliffe from The Wild World Of Batwoman. Now, there was “pure evil” for you!)

Some effort was, however, clearly put into varying the presentation of the quite numerous transformations. Some are accomplished via dissolves (and rather sloppy ones: the two characters are never positioned properly), some during cutaways, and some have Jekyll or Hyde reeling with hands over face, to reappear as the alternative character. The film’s conception of Hyde also has a reasonable amount of imagination about it. We note that everyone who encounters Hyde instinctively recoils, in a manner which suggests that there is something inherently repulsive about him that goes beyond his grotesque appearance. This Hyde is, at the outset, a threatener; he likes bothering and frightening people, getting a clear kick out of his power to repulse, the way everyone jerks back involuntarily when it seems he might touch them. The film isn’t very explicit about what he gets up to – apart from assuring us that, The evil man had many adventures by night – but importantly, there is an escalation in his violence, until he deliberately attacks and injures a crippled child in a scene that makes for a very pointed contrast with those of Jekyll treating his patients.

It is this act of real evil that makes Jekyll call off his dangerous experiment – “Never again will I tempt fate”: a rare and welcome instance of logical behaviour in one of these films, most of which have Jekyll contradicting himself in words and actions in the space of seconds. (The 1920 Sheldon Lewis version is, in this respect, completely bewildering.)

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What follows is fascinating. Jekyll sits alone, remorseful and guilt-ridden, and is suddenly overcome by a longing for Alice, whose image is intercut with his own. He reaches out his arms, involuntarily…and starts to transform, also involuntarily. Indeed, whenever Jekyll goes near Alice in future, a transformation follows – although he never attacks her: Instead, twice, feeling a transformation coming, he flees from her vicinity. But it is Alice’s father, a seemingly nice old guy who beams approvingly at the sight of Alice and Jekyll together, who is beaten to death by Hyde.

This is the second critical aspect of this film, which is the first to posit Jekyll’s behaviour as having sexual underpinnings; suggesting, moreover, that a lawful sexual desire might somehow play a part in unleashing Hyde. It’s all very tentative, with no real working through of the idea, but it is nevertheless there; and as with his creation of “saintly Dr Jekyll”, this aspect of Herbert Brenon’s film would resonate into the future, playing a significant part in the shaping of nearly every later version of the tale.

The other crucial point here is the way that the spontaneous transformation is presented to the viewer. For the most part, this version of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde is visually static; stage-bound, as many early films were. There is little movement of the camera. Most scenes are presented in medium shot, with the characters grouped together within the frame – although, occasionally, director Brenon tries to open up the frame not by moving the camera, but by moving the characters within the shot. The transformation scene, however, with Jekyll and Alice linked by their similar framing and the cutting back and forth between them, shows the dawning of an understanding of how the construction of a scene can convey a great deal more than the simple visual information provided. It is a rare early example of the use of editing to communicate a complex idea.

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The rest of the film is reasonably faithful to the novel, with Jekyll / Hyde enlisting the reluctant help of Dr Lanyon, and deliberately transforming before him – “Dr Lanyon, man of unbelief, behold!” (In the book, the shock of it kills Lanyon.) But another spontaneous transformation follows, as a guilt-ridden Jekyll gazes at the scene of the murder of Alice’s father; and he must use the last of his drugs to revert again, in order to evade the outraged mob pursuing Hyde.

(The scenes of Jekyll’s remorse give us a clear opportunity to gauge how far dirty minds have travelled between 1913 and now: there’s a shot near a church certainly meant to convey Jekyll’s longing to return to goodness and God, but what it looks like today is Jekyll ogling the altar boys! And Alice pulling him away doesn’t help, either.)

And again from the book, finally Hyde is unable to get hold of the necessary chemicals, and cannot make any more of the antidote that will turn him back into Jekyll. His response is to go berserk inside Jekyll’s laboratory. Lanyon and Utterson, hearing the din, break down the locked door and force their way in, where they find Hyde lying motionless on the floor – there is no hint here, by the way, of suicide – and Lanyon, shaking his head, covers the body with a pulled-down curtain. But when the grief-stricken Alice pulls that curtain back, we see that there has been a final transformation: it is Jekyll whom she takes in her arms one last time…

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(And amusingly, he’s not quite dead: he speaks to Alice before he does die. Next time I’m sick, remind me not to call in Dr Lanyon, will you?)

Despite its flaws and uncertainties, the 1913 adaptation of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde is a film of considerable historic importance. Curiously, after crafting a work that would ultimately prove to have such a profound influence upon the American fantasy film, Herbert Brenon would return only briefly to the realm of the genre movie during his thirty year career, directing the Betty Bronson version of Peter Pan in 1924, and Lon Chaney’s Laugh, Clown, Laugh in 1928.

The other notable fact about this version of the film is the way it heralds a change in the perspective of the movie-going world – or rather, in the way that movies were marketed to the public – with a repositioning of emphasis towards the contributions of the actors.

In this respect, this film may seem, to the modern viewer, not the most appropriate choice of material. Acting, as a film craft, was still in its early evolutionary phase, and some of the contributions here certainly look unnecessarily broad today. Howard Crampton is competent as Lanyon, but William Sorrel as Utterson is distractingly addicted to face-pulling as a way of conveying emotion. Jane Gail, all dark hair and huge eyes, gives an effective performance, however, and an important one too: Alice’s warmth and affection towards her fiancé do much to help convey a sense of the “real” Dr Jekyll, and add a dimension of tragedy to the outcome.

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But of course, it is King Baggot who gives the critical performance, which veers from encouragingly subtle to wincingly overblown. So say modern eyes; but whatever we make of Baggot’s performance today, it was a popular and a critical success when Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde was released. Significantly, Baggot was one of the very first actors ever to receive “star billing”, at a time when most worked entirely anonymously. The shift in attitude and tactics from the production companies is illustrated nicely by comparing the advertising used to promote both this version of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde and the Thanhouser version which preceded it: whereas James Cruze’s name is never mentioned, even in Thanhouser’s own trade paper, King Baggot is loudly trumpeted as “starring in a dual role”. Indeed, so well was he held to have done in depicting both Jekyll and Hyde, he was subsequently allowed not only to direct a short Universal thriller called Shadows, but to play all ten of its characters! Take that, Alec Guinness!

In fact, King Baggot was one of the first screen actors to have not only his name, but his image, heavily promoted to the public. He built a significant career throughout the early years of silent film, before becoming better known during the 1920s as a director and screenwriter. Baggot never gave up acting, however, and over the course of his career appeared in over three hundred films—although to the combined effects of the coming of sound and a drinking problem saw a decline from starring roles to character roles to unbilled bit parts. Nevertheless, his contribution to the development of film was significant, and certainly deserves his star on the Walk Of Fame.

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