Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Silent Scream Series: Seven things about the 1920 "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde."

1. The first version of Robert Louis Stevenson's famous short story was destroyed in manuscript. His wife read it, was horrified by it, and consigned it to the flames of their family fireplace. Though we have nothing of this original left, we know that the story differed from the current version in that Hyde was not a second personality created through scientific misadventure, but simply an alter ego Jekyll consciously and deliberately assumed in order to do evil. Stevenson's wife reportedly felt that the duality of the main character, without the inclusion of the plot device of scientifically induced MPD that basically lets Jekyll off the hook for Hyde's behavior, was beyond the pale.

2. Punching Jekyll's name into imdb gets you nearly 60 film adaptations of Stevenson's story, including oddball variants like the 1915 silent film gender-swapped variant Miss Jekyll and Mistress Hyde, the driver-safety instructional film Gentleman Jekyll and Drive Hyde, the Spanish trash flick Dr. Jekyll and the Wolfman, the transsexual Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde, a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Rock n' Roll Musical, and, of course, the obligatory Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson's tale is so popular with film producers that three different versions of the tale were released in 1920 alone: two live-action versions and one animated adaptation that starred a ten popular comic strip character called Mr. Zip.

4. John Robertson's 1920 adaptation, starring John Barrymore a the titular protagonist, is not only one of the best versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but it stands up as one of the best horror flicks made in the silent era. This is in no small part due to the excellent performance of Barrymore. John, yet another of the legendary Barrymore acting clan (his brother Lionel appeared previously in the Silent Scream Series in the flick The Bells), was nicknamed "The Great Profile" for his stunning good looks. At the height of his career, he was the most recognized and bankable actor in film and on stage. He famously quipped that he liked being introduced as America's foremost actor: "It saves the necessity of further effort." Unfortunately, he fell victim to the tendency towards hard living that was popularly known as "the Barrymore Curse." When asked about his acting, John answered, "There are many methods. Mine involves talent, a glass, and some cracked ice. His playboy lifestyle wrecked his health and looks and, after a film career that began in 1912, he closed out his career almost 30 years later drunkenly playing drunken parodies of his drunken self.

5. A key scene in any Jekyll/Hyde flick is the transformation scene. Often, this scene is a showcase for the make-up and special effects crews. In this film, Barrymore manages to pull off the first transformation scene without the aid of special effects or facial make-up. In one long take, Barrymore just acts the crap out of the scene, contorting his classically handsome mug into the disturbing visage of Mr. Hyde. It is, to this day, an excellent scene – as believable and effective as anything cooked up by later make-up and effects artists. The only make-up Barrymore uses in this scene is a pair of prosthetic hands, giving him inhumanly long, slender, claw-like fingers. Similar fake mits were later used to great effect by Max Schreck as Orlok in Nosferatu.

6. One of the more amazing scenes in the Barrymore's Jekyll and Hyde involves a Jekyll laying in bed, staring at the roof, pondering his rapidly disintegrating grasp on the direction of his life. Suddenly, from behind the bed, crawls a large creature: half giant tarantula, half Hyde. The creature crawls to the foot of the bed, climbs on top of Jekyll, and then fuses with him. This causes him to transform into Hyde. Like Barrymore's first transformation, this scene still holds up remarkably well.

7. The Alpha Video release of the film suffers from a poor picture and a lousy soundtrack. In fact, the soundtrack is so intrusive and mismatched that I eventually just turned the volume all the way off. Another curious feature of the Alpha Video release is the presence of several different styles of title cards, revealing the multiple film sources Alpha needed to splice to recreate the entire film. There are at least three distinct source films for Alpha's version. Unintentionally, this recreates one of the more interesting aspects of watching silent films now versus how they were viewed back in the day. Unlike modern films, films in the silent era were constantly cut, re-cut, and edited. Between releases, studios would change title cards, remove entire scenes, splice in establishing shots from other films, and even cut longer features into several shorter films (D. W. Griffith's epic Intolerance was cut into three shorter films for one of its many re-releases). In extreme cases, studios would create entire short films by splicing together fragments of older works. You can see "Boo," a nonsensical short made in just such a manner, in the Universal Frankenstein Collectors Edition boxed set. Studios weren't the only ones taking scissors to the films. Local exhibitors and censorship boards would cut films up, either to adjust running times or excise naught bits. Consequently, during the silent era, the Jekyll and Hyde you saw in New York was probably not the same Jekyll and Hyde you saw in Buffalo. The strange patchwork feeling of the Alpha video release actually captures something of the experience film-goers must have had at the time, watching flicks stitched together by a mix of pros and local yahoos.


spacejack said...

Re: lousy soundtrack - I wonder what they do for soundtracks. As I understand it, silent films were accompanied by live music (eg. piano) when shown. I wonder if, when re-releasing silent films, they just find whatever musical track they can afford, or if they actually try to use whatever music would've been played when released.

CRwM said...

Screamin' Sassy,

During the silent era, music was handled in many different ways.

From almost the very beginning of the medium, films were accompanied by music. Usually this was live music, though several efforts were made to synch up the film with some second sound playback device. The most common form of music was piano accompaniment.

The earliest silent film music was all improvised. Studios didn't release any official scores, so musicians were left to come up with their own. Luckily for audiences, films played in proto-vaudeville theaters and music houses. The musicians in such venues were used to playing music to accompany action and, importantly, were used to improvising music to fit audience mood and to adapt to those unexpected things that can befall a live performance.

Depending on the venue, the theater staff might have added sound effects and even dialog (speaking over the film, putting words in the characters' mouths) or narration. For an example of how a live film narrator worked, you can check out the early scenes of Flyboys which features a news-reel which is narrated by a man standing at the back of the theater, reading off a script.

With Birth of a Nation, which was the first film released with an official score, it became common for studios to release an official score to accompany the film. However, there were no real checks in place to ensure that only the official score was used and, much they way the films themselves were altered to suit local conditions, the music was often up for grabs.

During the final days of the silent era, entire mini-orchestras would accompany a flick. So many musicians worked as film accompanists that the film exhibition biz was the single largest employer of musicians.

Modern DVD presentations of silent flicks vary in how they approach the music. Your high end production houses will often track down and re-record the original score or ask musicians to compose an entirely new score for the film.

On the low end, DVD companies will simply find a piece of music that they feel fits the mood of the film and simply play it along side the film, not paying attention to whether or not the music matches the action of the film. This is the case with Alpha's Jekyll.