Hyde & seek: Storied film a storied treat


“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” poster. Fair use.

By Helen Stephenson

It’s time for Halloween and that means things that go bump in the night, Mt. Vernon decorated with spooky or fall-themed houses, pumpkin lattes at Starbucks, and a silent film with live accompaniment from the Prescott Film Festival.

This year, the festival is screening the 1920 John Barrymore version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” This version of Robert Louise Stevenson’s 1886 classic tale is considered by many to be the first horror film ever made. It’s also the film that skyrocketed John Barrymore to stardom.

Barrymore didn’t want to follow in his family’s footsteps — his father Maurice, mother Georgiana, sister Ethel and brother Lionel were all actors — but eventually he started working on the stage. His sister Ethel got him acting jobs, and occasionally supported him financially as well.

He lived a life of, well, old-fashioned debauchery. Kicked out of many schools, many times for drinking. There’s a long-standing rumor that he was kicked out of one school for being caught in line at a brothel. That begs the question: Who else from the school was in the brothel line? He actually wanted to be an artist, and did illustrations for the New York Evening Journal. He was eventually fired for being drunk and turning in a poor quality illustration. He knew that the acting jobs paid more, and his family could get him parts to start his career on the stage, so he starting taking small roles. He worked his way up to larger roles and became well known and respected as an actor.

He segued into films in 1912, acting in five short films before getting his first feature, “An American Citizen,” in 1913. One reviewer at the time said Barrymore “delighted movie audiences with an inimitable light touch that made a conventional romance ‘joyous.’” Barrymore later landed the dual leading roles of Jekyll and Hyde in the 1921 film “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

This role is said by film historians to be the one that made Barrymore a star. His talent ranged from comedy to horror. He was very talented and his expertise in one of his methods is evident in this film. When Dr. Jekyll first transforms into Mr. Hyde, Barrymore doesn’t use make-up; that’s Barrymore using his unique ability to contort his face in a maniacal way. Throughout the filming, he was working two jobs — starring in the film by day, and starring in a stage play by night. Barrymore eventually collapsed from exhaustion and the play, “Richard III,” closed.

He led a rancorous life. Married and divorced four times, he was an alcoholic and womanizer. He bought his third wife a heck of a house, though. The estate in Beverly Hills, Bella Vista, had 55 rooms, six swimming pools, a bowling green, skeet shooting range, extensive gardens that necessitated the services of a full time gardener and a totem pole from Alaska. (The last of those has since been repatriated back to the Tlingit village from whence it came.)

Barrymore is considered to be one of the finest actors of the 20th century.

He never received an Oscar, or even a nomination.

When he died suddenly while recording a radio show in 1940, it was said by Errol Flynn in his biography that Barrymore’s friends “borrowed” Barrymore’s body and propped it up for an astonished Flynn to discover sitting in a chair in his living room when he arrived home. Flynn writes, “As I opened the door I pressed the button. The lights went on and I stared into the face of Barrymore. … They hadn’t embalmed him yet. I let out a delirious scream. … I went back in, still shaking. I retired to my room upstairs shaken and sober. My heart pounded. I couldn’t sleep the rest of the night.”

Others deny the story.

Come see Barrymore in the film that made him a star, the way this film was meant to be seen: on the big screen at the Yavapai College Performing Arts Center, with live accompaniment from the inimitable Jonathan Best. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is playing 6:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 31. Tickets are $6-$12 and available at PrescottFilmFestival.Com.

And, oh yeah, come in costume.


Helen Stephenson is the director of the Yavapai College Film and Media Arts Program and executive director and founder of the Prescott Film Festival, where her thirst for independent cinema is quenched.


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