Rouben Mamoulian, 1931
Starring: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart
“I’ll show you what horror means!”
Though this was not the first adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s excellent horror novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde from 1886, it is the first sound version and remains the finest film adaptation to date. This is one of Paramount’s best horror films and certainly gave Universal a run for their money. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is devoid of the humor peppered through Universal’s horror films and benefits from strong leading performances, namely from Fredric March, who won an Academy Award for his performance. The two main female characters are more independent and dynamic than their Universal counterparts and provide a greater degree of complexity for the film.
Dr. Henry Jekyll, who has a reputation for benevolence and brilliance around London, has been experimenting with a way to separate man’s bad and good natures, in order for the positive aspect to be set free. Meanwhile, he is anxiously awaiting marriage to his beloved Muriel, whose conservative father, General Carew, insists they wait almost a year. He rescues a lovely young woman, Ivy, from a man attacking her and she makes advances towards him. Carew takes Muriel away for a few months and in his agonized boredom, Jekyll experiments with a drug that splits his identity and transforms him into Mr. Hyde, a grotesque, violent man. Hyde seeks out Ivy and convinces her to agree to an arrangement: he will pay for a better quality of life if she agrees to a relationship with him. Ivy soon comes to regret this and sees the worst of Hyde’s violent, cruel nature.
In desperation, Ivy’s begs Dr. Jekyll for help, remembering his kindness to her. He promises Hyde will never bother her again, but he doesn’t realize that he will now transform into Hyde without the aid of the drug. Muriel returns and they convince her father that their marriage should happen soon. Hyde, meanwhile, pays Ivy a final visit and murders her because she went to Jekyll for help, revealing that he is both Jekyll and Hyde. Now on the run from the police, Hyde is desperate to transform back into Jekyll, but needs the potion. He reaches out to a fellow doctor, his friend Lanyon, who refuses to give Hyde the potion without first seeing Jekyll.
With little choice left, Hyde reveals himself to a horrified Lanyon, taking the potion and transforming back into Jekyll. Jekyll, now in a state of near madness, is unable to rid himself of Hyde. He has a tearful, almost frenzied reunion with Muriel, where he tells her he must break off their engagement even though he loves her, and she begs him to stay regardless of the consequences. Before he can leave, he turns into Hyde, who attempts to rape Muriel and murders her father when he interrupts the attack, beating the man to death with a cane. He flees back to the lab and transforms into Jekyll, but Lanyon leads the police there. An enraged Hyde emerges and is shot to death by the police before he can kill Lanyon. In death, he turns back into a peaceful looking Jekyll.
Armenian-American director Rouben Mamoulian, one of the most innovative directors of the ‘20s and ‘30s, was known for his impressive work in theater, particularly with musicals, and film. He made one of the first sound films, Applause (1929), directed Greta Garbo in the famed Queen Christina (1933), and also made the first three-strip Technicolor film, Becky Sharp (1935). Though Technicolor was invented as early as 1916, “three-strip” refers to the fourth developmental phase the process went through. Though Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde doesn’t share many themes in common with Mamoulian’s more lighthearted musicals or adventure films, his innovative spirit remained. The transformation process that turns Jekyll into Hyde was kept secret for years until Mamoulian finally revealed it during an interview later in his life (it involves a blend of colored make up and camera filters).
Mamoulian’s interpretation of Hyde, brought to life by make up artist Wally Westmore, would go on to influence future filmmakers and artists, but his version is notably different than Stevenson’s Hyde. Mamoulian shows him as almost de-evolved or bestial, and he looks either Simian or wolfish with fangs, a heavy jaw, and a flat nose. There is certainly a connection between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde and the werewolf myth that Hollywood would help develop in the ‘40s, particularly in this version of the story. Hyde is more animalistic and impulse driven than he is outright evil, unlike the Hyde of the novel, which fits closely with Jekyll’s irrepressible, almost repulsive desire for Muriel. At its heart, this is a film about the disastrous, violent effects of sexual repression and Hyde is its personification.
Oddly for a film of this time, the script makes very few moral judgements, particularly towards Ivy. She is a prostitute, works in a dance hall, and repeatedly attempts to seduce Jekyll, despite his engagement to Muriel, but the film portrays her as sympathetic and somewhat naive. Her abuse at Hyde’s hands must have been shocking at the time and still packs a punch (no pun intended). His treatment of her is brutal and cruel, including physical, sexual, and emotional tortures. She bears obvious marks of Hyde’s sexual sadism, such as numerous bruises and whip lashes and tells Jekyll that he has done other things that she can’t speak aloud. This is clearly a Pre-Code film and most of these scenes would undoubtedly have been censored or removed at a later date, namely Ivy’s violent murder, much of which is shown on screen. There is also the first scene between Ivy and Jekyll to consider, which is probably the most unabashedly sexual scene in ‘30s horror cinema. Ivy's sexuality is unrestrained and thoroughly unembarrassed. The script, again, does not judge Jekyll or Ivy for their enthusiastic interaction (it is really just a kiss, but Ivy is naked beneath a blanket), and makes fun of Hyde’s stuffy friend, Lanyon, when he interrupts them and admonishes Jekyll.
I’ve written before about how men in ‘30s and ‘40s horror films are all complete creeps, but Jekyll tops nearly all of them (with the except of Bela Lugosi, creep extraordinaire). Jekyll’s love for Muriel is obviously fueled by unfulfilled lust and it is no wonder her father doesn’t want them to marry early. There is a particularly disturbing line where Lanyon asks Jekyll if he has forgotten about Muriel and Jekyll replies, “Can a man dying of thirst forget water? And do you know what would happen to that thirst if it were denied water?”
Regardless of his almost pathological need to begin a sexual relationship with Muriel, Jekyll is likable despite being flawed. Fredric March makes the film and his switch between Jekyll and Hyde was certainly worthy of an award. Rose Hobart gives a good performance as Muriel, though she is not onscreen long and is only able to really shine towards the end of the film. Unlike Universal’s horror damsels in distress, Muriel is her own person. She follows the rules of her father, General Carew (Halliwell Hobbs, dripping with Victorian restraint and a love of propriety and order), but puts her foot down on occasion, and even gets carried away by passion towards the end of the film. She is absolutely blown out of the water by Miriam Hopkins. During Pre-Code cinema, Hopkins was able to make a name for herself as the token sexy bad girl in films like Design for Living, again with Fredric March, though she was known for being a drama queen on set. She is excellent here and her performance is only second to March’s.
The film mostly takes place indoors, but we are occasionally treated to some lovely London set pieces soaked with fog and there is a nice visual divide between Jekyll’s aristocratic world and Hyde’s seedier London. Jekyll’s laboratory is simple, but is one of the best and most used sets. Though the laboratory would be a bit over-represented in American horror over the next 10 to 15 years, in 1931 it was a relatively new space for cinematic horror. 1931 would introduce audiences to the the laboratories of both Dr. Henry Jekyll and Dr. Henry Frankenstein. The laboratory was a place of genius, imagination, and creativity, but also a place of violence, death, and the destruction of conventional morality and traditional family values.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not a perfect film and in some respects has not dated well. The middle of the film drags a bit and modern viewers may not be used to the slower pace, but if you can be patient, this is an excellent film. One of my only complaints is the tedious opening sequence, filmed in a single long take, where we see everything in first person from Jekyll’s perspective. As I’ve mentioned, one of Mamoulian’s greatest talents was his innovation, but here it feels showy and overly long.
One of the script’s other flaws is that we don’t really know what Jekyll intends to happen with his experiments. Just as Henry Frankenstein wants to create life with no apparent end goal in mind, Jekyll wants to “split the soul.” He believes that this divide will allow man’s evil nature to briefly run its course and then disappear, but he doesn’t seem to have put much thought into this or realize what will happen when he sets his darker half free. “Free at last!”
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde comes highly recommended, but the slow pace and stiff dialogue may scare away younger viewers only accustomed to more recent styles of filmmaking. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is available as a double feature with the 1941 remake starring Spencer Tracy. I’m still disappointed that no one has put out a special edition of this film, but hopefully that will come sometime soon.