If memory serves me correctly, the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the sixth film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella, was my very first John Barrymore film. It’s kind of noteworthy how, in the silent and early sound era, it was John’s older brother Lionel who was considered the better and more popular actor, whereas nowadays their level of renown has switched a fair bit.
Henry Jekyll is a young, idealistic doctor who operates a free clinic for the poor and also spends much time experimenting in his lab. After dinner one night, his fiancée Millicent’s father, Sir George Carew, claims Jekyll is neglecting the development of his own life by doing too much for others. Jekyll retorts he’s developing himself through this philanthropic service, and Carew fires back by saying everyone has two sides, the good and the evil.
Jekyll begins experimenting to try to find a way to transform these two different sides of the same person into two different bodies. That way, one can obey the evil inclination and baser instincts while retaining one’s righteous soul. Eventually, he successfully concocts a potion which turns him into an ugly, evil creature he names Edward Hyde. Since Hyde is completely unrecognizable, Jekyll tells his servant Poole to let Hyde have free range in the house.
The double life of Jekyll and Hyde thus begins. Hyde finds lodgings in seedy Soho; cohabits with Gina, a dance hall girl (played by the awesome Vamp Nita Naldi); and regularly goes to bars, opium dens, and dance halls. Every time Jekyll drinks the potion to become Hyde, he becomes more and more evil, in both appearance and behavior.
Meanwhile, Millicent is increasingly concerned by her fiancé’s lack of communication, and her father goes to see what might be the matter. Jekyll isn’t in, but Carew catches Hyde in the street, knocking down a little boy. Hyde writes the boy’s father a check to make up for the injury, and Carew notices the check was signed by Jekyll. When Jekyll returns home and transforms back to his normal self, Carew goes to the lab to ask what his association with Hyde is.
Jekyll calls Carew out on his role in this situation, since he was the one who put the idea in his head. Carew remains undeterred, and says he won’t support Jekyll and Millicent’s marriage unless Jekyll comes clean. Jekyll becomes so angry he transmogrifies into Hyde without even drinking the potion. After this, things become very tragic and ugly, without a happy ending for anyone.
This film was hugely successful, and served to increase John Barrymore’s growing reputation as a film actor. Though his oeuvre wasn’t horror, he played the dual role very well, so much so he did the initial transformation without any makeup. It was all done by contorting his face. They didn’t need CGI for awesome special effects.