One of the things that pains me most when it comes to lost horror films is the loss of so many firsts. Gone, possibly forever, are the first full-length adaptation of Frankenstein, the first depiction of Stoker’s Dracula, the first film werewolf, the first mummy—and the list goes on and on. And what makes the loss even more of a tragedy is when there are not even surviving posters or photographs for the production. It’s almost as if the film never existed at all.
That’s the case with the first film version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Its loss is especially ironic, considering that theater is, by its nature, an ephemeral medium, and yet we have more artifacts around from the first stage version of the story than we do for the first movie.
|Cabinet card of Richard Mansfield in his dual stage role.|
|Handbill for Mansfield at the Lyceum.|
Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel had become a hit when it was transferred to stage by English actor Richard Mansfield. His transformation into the gruesome Mr. Hyde was thought so convincing that some theater-goers deemed it a little too convincing. At least one spooked audience member wrote to the police in 1888, suggesting that Mansfield might be Jack the Ripper. No one took the idea seriously, but the show closed early anyhow. “There is quite enough to make us shudder out of doors,” wrote one reporter.
Mansfield took his performance on the road, and he continued to play the dual role to great acclaim until his death in 1907. While Mansfield’s performance may have been the most famous stage version, it was by no means the only one: stage versions of Stevenson’s novel were being performed by companies all over the world. One of the better-known productions around the time of Mansfield’s death was that of the Thomas R. Sullivan Company, who had been touring with the show since 1897, with a script by Luella Forepaugh and George F. Fish.
It was this company that Colonel William Selig, of the Polyscope Film Company, saw perform Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde in Chicago, and he was taken with the idea of recreating the show on film. Selig used the theatrical company cast in what would become the first filmed version of the famous story, condensing its four acts into a one-reeler. Otis Turner, who would go on to direct the first silent film version of The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, directed.
|Selig's Chicago studio, before moving west.|
|Hobart Bosworth, film's first Jekyll, on a 1916 cigarette card.|
Being signed by Selig was a life-changer for Hobart Bosworth, the stage actor playing Dr. Jekyll and his evil counterpart. His stage career was pretty much at an end, as tuberculosis was robbing him of his voice, though he was still in good physical condition. Silent film turned out to be the perfect medium for him, and he went on to star in dozens of films, taking rest breaks to keep his tuberculosis in remission. (He lived to be 76.) Co-star Betty Harte also caught the film bug. After signing on to Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, she went to make 107 more silent films in her career.
While the stage play was drastically condensed, the film left the most dramatic elements intact. Like just about every adaptation of the novel, it veered from Stevenson’s story—which doesn’t reveal that Jekyll & Hyde are the same man until the end. The film, like the stage plays, revealed the truth right away, allowing Bosworth to writhe and contort himself into the horrible Hyde. In subsequent scenes, Hyde attacked a girl named Alice, then murdered her father. The film concluded with Hyde, fearing the gallows, taking a poison that ends the life of both identities.
An interesting aspect of the film as described by those who saw it was that it began and ended with the raising of a stage curtain. Though filmed, it was made clear to the audience that they would be watching an adaptation of the famous play. Critics enjoyed it, and one said of Bosworth’s performance that “the change is displayed with a dramatic ability almost beyond comprehension.” (Bosworth was lucky that, unlike Mansfield, he wasn’t rumored to be a serial killer.)
Out of the hundreds of films made by Selig Polyscope, only a handful survive. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde is not one of them. Just as there were dozens of stage productions of the story, though, more film versions soon followed. In fact, Jekyll & Hyde is one of the most filmed novels, ever. Over the next few years, it would be filmed about a dozen times (including a lost version by F.W. Murnau). The total number of film versions today is closer to 125.
The oldest surviving version is a 1912 Thanhouser film directed by Lucius Henderson and starring James Cruze. Not the first Jekyll & Hyde by a long shot, but at least we have it.
You can also placate yourself with the transformation scene from a lot of people’s favorite version: the 1931 Mamoulian-directed Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde with Frederic Marsh.
Is this 1908 film in your secret vault? And if not, do you have a favorite version of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde?