Hello, and welcome to my post as part of the Barrymore Trilogy Blogathon, hosted by Crystal over at In The Good Old Days of Classic Hollywood, to commemorate the 136th birthday of Ethel Barrymore, and to celebrate the entire Barrymore family, from the 3 siblings, Ethel, John, and Lionel all the way down to present day, with Drew Barrymore. For my part in this, I have deigned to focus on John, in his role in the 1920 silent film and adaptation of the classic novel of the same name, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Interestingly enough, this is actually the first silent film I have ever viewed (though I viewed it for the purpose of this blogathon. I am not at all knowledgeable about the silent era of film, so pardon me if I don’t know terminology, or something.)
For this post, I will focus almost entirely on the performance of John Barrymore. This is not a review of the film, but rather an analysis and judgement of how Barrymore acquits himself. After all, this blogathon is about the Barrymores, not a story we all know.
In this film, Barrymore plays the eponymous Dr. Jekyll and the titular Mr. Hyde, and acquits himself brilliantly. The first thing that I must say is that conveying emotions and information to the audience without the convenience of dialogue, or even noise to speak of besides music, is extremely difficult. Of course, there are “dialogue cards” or whatever they’re called, frames that act as a sort of subtitle, but these cannot be used for every single line of dialogue, or else half the film would be still cards with words. Therefore, much of the information must be conveyed through gestures and expressions. And, luckily, unlike many stage actors in the early-ish days of film, Barrymore does not succumb to what I like to call “Shatner Syndrome,” that is, overacting to a point that is necessary on stage to convey emotion to a audience that is far away, but appears ridiculous on film and television. Look, I know it’s strange to compliment an actor by saying he does not fall to the failings of an actor 50 years his junior, but I have to write using what I know, and what I know is that this:
Is better than this:
Mostly because the second is a close-up, and the first isn’t, but still.
Don’t get me wrong, his performance is far from subtle, but it is not one that is hilariously over-the-top like Shatner. It’s a broad performance, a big, larger than life performance, but not a laughable one.
The story is one that all know.
Plot summary (from IMDb): Dr. Henry Jekyll experiments with scientific means of revealing the hidden, dark side of man and releases a murderer from within himself.
Simple enough, yet requiring the lead actor to play two, entirely separate, characters, which is no easy task. But Barrymore pulls it off with aplomb. The shift from Jekyll to Hyde; in posture, in facial animation, in everything, is incredible, and the make-up, such as the oversized hands still holds up remarkably well. The wolfman-esque change between forms is a bit exaggerated, but still pulled off remarkably, especially considering technical limitations of the time.
The look of Hyde is created wonderfully, especially when dealing with the incredibly vague descriptions of the novel which only say that something about him feeling deformed. Based on that description, it is highly difficult to create a being that will feel like the incarnation of evil to everyone, but this film manages to create it, due to the mannerisms dress, and walk of the character. And the look in Barrymore’s eyes while playing Hyde conveys far, far more than any speech about the nature of good and evil in a man ever could. I find it doubtful that anyone, anyone could possibly play this role as well as John Barrymore did in this, one of Hollywood’s earliest endeavors into horror, a film that clips along quickly and is scored with beautiful and haunting melodies that permeate the film, creating an atmosphere of chills and thrills. The direction is good, and the lighting makes good use of shadows. There are changes from a sepia tone to a more greyscale type of color scheme that can be a bit jarring, but none too problematic.
I give John Barrymore’s dual performance 3 Barrymores out of 3.
I humbly sign out, hoping that I have succeeded in honoring a great and renowned actor. After all, I tried my best, didn’t I? But thank you so, so much for reading, and make sure to check out the rest of the blogathon. Bye!