Did you know the strange story of Jekyll and Hyde was based on truth?
September 23, 2017
Do you know anyone who has ever exhibited our mysterious and primitive dual natures?
I often get DVDs with at least fifty old movies on them. My most recent arrivals had some wonderful silents on them, including the 1920 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring John Barrymore.
It opens with a subtitle that goes something like this: “For each of us there are two natures, the good and the evil. All of our lives there is a fight between them. But in our own hands is the power to choose between the good and the evil…”
In one of the earliest scenes, Barrymore, as Dr. Jekyll is peering through a microscope—we see the slide and it looks very much like honeybees. An associate of Dr. Jekyll’s walks through the door and looks at the slide himself.
“Damn it—I don’t like it—you are tampering with the supernatural!” This is strong language for the 1920s. He continues, “ Stick to the positive sciences, Jekyll!”
Critics agree that some of John Barrymore’s finest acting can be seen in this old production. As the story progresses, Dr. Jekyll wants the two natures of man to be housed in separate bodies. He dreams up a concoction in his laboratory to achieve this. Oh, the gyrations he goes through when he belts it down. The resulting transformation is quite a sight. The dubbed-over organ riffs are very complementary.
It may surprise you to learn that the characters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are based on an actual person. William Brodie of Edinburgh was well-respected, indeed. He lived a model life of respectability in the mid 18th Century. His father was a prosperous cabinetmaker in that straight-laced city. William grew to be a deacon in the mason’s guild and he was a city councillor. By day, he was an accomplished businessman, and by night he was secretly a diabolical gambler and a thief.
The evil side of his personality emerged in 1768 when he was 28. He got the idea to make copies of keys to the bank and robbed it of 800 pounds. He also committed burglaries on building after building and no one was ever even suspicious. He continued to live a life of highest respectability.
His big mistake came in joining forces with some incompetent thieves who later turned king’s evidence against him.
Police found the damning tools of his crimes, he was put on trial, and sentenced to hang. Brodie though he could fool the noose by rigging his clothing with devices to break the fall, but the devices were ineffective and he died on the gallows in October of 1788.
Robert Louis Stevenson collaborated with William Henley in the writing of a play a century later: Deacon Brodie, or The Double Life. It began production at Prince’s Theatre in London in 1884. About two years later, Stevenson turned the theme about the primitive duality of man into the famous short story, The strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
John Barrymore’s surreal portrayal of Jekyll and Hyde was followed by a 1932 production, starring Frederick March, and a 1941 production starring Spencer Tracy. All are good with excellent acting by the players.
Perhaps you know someone who has exhibited our mysterious and primitive dual natures.
Sara Marie Hogg is the author of the award-winning Quite Curious. Please click HERE to find her collection of true stories about the unknown and unexplained on Amazon.