Saturday, October 1, 2011

"Double" feature: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1920)

Geez, with so many creepy films on tap, it must be getting close to Halloween. We have Alfred Hitchcock's murderous 'The Lodger' (1927) on Saturday, Oct. 2 at 4:30 p.m. in Wilton, N.H., and then John Barrymore in the original 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1920) on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library.

For info on 'The Lodger,' see the post prior to this one.

I'm looking forward to 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' (1920) on Tuesday, Oct. 4. The story is one of those great innovative tales that an author (in this case, Robert Louis Stevenson) comes up once in awhile, and you wonder how no one ever thought of it before. Though published as a novella, the tale seems tailor-made for the movies, and so it's no surprise that it's been made into something like a dozen different versions.

The Barrymore film holds up well, I think. I saw an interesting comment about this version on the Internet Movie Database site: that this original version benefits from being so antique, the Victorian atmosphere is achieved more naturally than in many technically superior remakes!

This is aligned with something I've come to believe -- that the more time that passes, silent film will become more interesting because it captures life in a way that no other medium can.

Weird trivia department: the Wikipedia entry for this film lists avant garde composer Edgard Varèse as playing a policeman! But that's Wikipedia for you.

I sometimes joke that in doing music for silent film, I'm collaborating with dead people. Regarding the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I once collaborated on a stage adaptation of the work with author Kurt Vonnegut, who was very much alive at the time, although he didn't know we were working together.

What happened was that some time in the 1970s, Vonnegut had sketched out a wacky musical comedy treatment of the Jekyll and Hyde story that was never produced. No songs were written, but he thought enough of it to include the script in 'Palm Sunday,' a collage of non-fiction and other material that was published in 1980. (At right is a picture of Vonnegut from about that time. He died, alas, in 2007.)

After graduating from college in 1986, I returned to my hometown of Nashua, N.H., where I found myself in charge of directing an annual student-produced musical variety show at my former high school. For a really slam-bang second act, I figured we'd take Vonnegut's treatment and actually get it on stage.

So I wrote songs where Vonnegut indicated they should go, and off we went. I had a college friend in New York City who actually worked for Vonnegut's wife, Jill Krementz, and I was hoping to use that connection to get the author to attend. It didn't happen -- to our surprise, the internationally acclaimed author had other fish to fry. For a while there, though, it was like 'Waiting for Guffman,' or Godot, or some such thing.

Still, it was a lot of fun. Among Vonnegut's tweaks to the story was to have Dr. Jekyll use LSD in his potion and turn into a giant homicidal chicken, all of which we staged. It was pretty subversive stuff for high school theater, but that all now seems like a lifetime ago. Any cast members out there? Whitney Rearick, whatever happened to you?

Well, here we go again with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde -- this time, the 1920 film version (no homicidal chickens) on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library. Hope to see you there! Here's the press release...

Contact Jeff Rapsis • (603) 236-9237 •

Original 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' to screen Tuesday, Oct. 4 at Manchester Public Library

Silent film thriller starring John Barrymore to be shown on the big screen with live music

MANCHESTER, N.H.—It was a sensational best-selling novel, then an immensely popular stage play. So it was just a matter of time before the movies tackled 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,' Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale of a man tortured by two personalities—one thoroughly good and the other completely evil.

'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' (1920), the original silent film adaptation of Stevenson's classic story, will be shown at the Manchester (N.H.) Public Library on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. The program, the latest in the library's silent film series, will be accompanied by live music performed by silent film composer Jeff Rapsis. Admission is free, with donations welcome.

Starring iconic actor John Barrymore, the film was a huge early hit for Paramount Pictures. It helped establish the "thriller" genre and showed the potential of the movies to vividly tell disturbing and creepy stories.

Dr. Jekyll, a London physician and philanthropist, becomes fascinated with the dual nature of man after the profligate Sir George Carew exposes him to temptation. When Jekyll invents a potion that separates the good from the evil in a person, he decides to live both roles and names the evil persona Mr. Hyde.

Jekyll is in love with Millicent, the daughter of Sir George; meanwhile, Hyde prowls the poorer districts of London, debases and discards Theresa, a dance hall performer. Jekyll's control over Hyde weakens gradually to the point where his alter ego resorts to murder, forcing Hyde into a showdown to save his loved ones and reign in the evil he himself has spawned.

The film put Barrymore, a noted stage actor, on the cinematic map. Following 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,' Barrymore would go on to be one of the biggest stars of early cinema. His handsome visage, dubbed "the great profile," was instantly recognizable to movie-goers of the time, who flocked to see Barrymore in later films such as 'Sherlock Holmes' (1922), 'Don Juan' (1926), and 'The Beloved Rogue' (1927).

Barrymore's performance in 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' is noteworthy in part because, in an era of limited special effects, his portrayal of the early stages of Jekyll's transformation was done using only facial expressions and gestures. Make-up was only used later in the film following the full transformation of the Hyde character.

Stevenson's story has been refilmed many times, including versions in 1931 and 1941, and was most recently remade in 2008 as a TV movie starring Dougray Scott.

In screening the original 'Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde,' the Manchester Public Library aims to recreate all essential elements of silent film experience: high quality prints shown on a large screen, with live music and an audience.

"These films caused people to fall in love with the movies for a very good reason," said Jeff Rapsis, who will improvise a musical score during the screening. "They were unique experiences, and if you can recreate the conditions under which they were shown, they have a great deal of life in them. Though they're the ancestors of today's movies, silent film is a very different art form than what you see at the multiplex today, so it's worth checking out as something totally different."

Rapsis performs his music on a digital synthesizer that reproduces the texture of the full orchestra and creates a traditional "movie score" sound.

‘Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde' will be shown on Tuesday, Oct. 4 at 6 p.m. in the Manchester Public Library's Carpenter Auditorium, 405 Pine St., Manchester, N.H.; (603) 624-6550. Free admission; donations encouraged. For more information on the library, visit For more info on the music, visit


  1. JEFF!
    Whitney here. I was Googling around to make sure there were no compromising photos of or quotes from me online during my current job search and spotted this post. So great that you're still composing and performing.
    I can still hum "What a Rotten Stinking Society This Is!" The show was a hoot!

  2. What a surprise to hear from you! I'll try contacting you through your travel blog to catch up. It's so great you're visiting that part of the world. And you made my day saying that you still hum "What a Rotten Stinking Society..." Ah, one of the rewards of working with young people (which we both were then) is providing the framework for a positive outlook on life. :) Hope to talk to you soon!