Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) is a silent drama starring John Barrymore, Brandon Hurst, Nita Naldi and Martha Mansfield. Directed by John S. Robertson and adapted from the 1886 horror novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, this film is about a scientist who searches for a way to separate the good and the evil in a man. Set in 19th century England, Henry Jekyll, played by John Barrymore, is an idealistic and philanthropic doctor of medicine who spends his time conducting experiments in his laboratory attached to his home and treats his patients at a free clinic for the poor at his own expense. Jekyll is engaged to Millicent Carewe, played by Martha Mansfield. At a dinner gathering at the Carewe home, Millicent's father, Sir George Carewe, played by Brandon Hurst, suggests to Jekyll the possibilities of man living by his instincts yet having another side to his nature. Carewe later accompanies Jekyll to a London music hall where they watch a flirtatious young dancer named Gina, played by Nita Naldi, perform. For the first time in his life, Jekyll awakens to the sense of "his baser emotions." Spending days and nights in his laboratory with his experiments, Jekyll concocts a potion that transforms him into Edward Hyde, an uninhibited rogue with murderous intent. Hyde begins a relationship with the sultry Gina and makes her life miserable. He goes on a murderous rampage and takes control over Jekyll's soul. Jekyll finds over time that it is becoming more and more difficult to separate his two personas. Jekyll becomes a recluse and spends less time with Millicent. When Jekyll's antidote supply runs out to return to his gentler self he tries to fight the urge of evil. Will Jekyll be able to overcome the forces of evil?
"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" was one of John Barrymore's greatest hits. To turn into Mr. Hyde, Barrymore undergoes a famous on-screen transformation, done without makeup alterations until the moment when a cut provides the viewer with a medium close-up in which he has added warts, new hair, and a false nose. It's amazing how the handsome young man is replaced by an older person with a demonic stare. His eyes now look crazy. His mouth is fixed into an evil grin, and his hands are like claws. A cut then takes the viewer close, and hideous makeup has been added to completely alter his appearance. To watch Barrymore enact this transformation without sound effects, color filters, or camera tricks is an impressive experience. Barrymore's greatest strength as a silent film actor lay in his ability to change physically right before the audience's eyes. Unlike Lon Chaney, Barrymore's changes were more psychological than physical. His transformation from tormented doctor to violent madman shows his tremendous range as an actor. Another memorable moment onscreen is watching Jekyll sleeping in his bed dreaming of being attacked by a ghostly spider crawling upon him. This 1920 production featuring Barrymore remains the best of the adaptations produced during the silent era and the most famous. This film also firmly established Barrymore's film career. What impressed me the most of this version is its horror atmosphere, with the studio sets of the foggy lamplit London slums. Transcending the lack of sound and scratchy picture, this film is worth watching for Barrymore's amazing dual performance as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
It is interesting to note that while filming "The Warrens of Virginia" (1924) in San Antonio, Texas, Martha Mansfield's voluminous 1860's costume went up in flames when a smoker carelessly tossed a match in her direction. She was rushed to a hospital with severe burns; there was virtually no chance of survival. Mansfield died at noon the following day, November 30, 1923. She was 24 years old.