One of the most frequently filmed of all stories, Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was one of a number of Victorian tales dealing with man’s dual nature (Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is another.)
Stevenson’s story of a scientist who concocts a drug that unleashes an evil alter ego version of himself found its greatest cinematic expression in the 1931 Paramount version directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starring Fredric March in the dual role.
Mamoulian adds some arty touches that might have seemed a little too high brow at Universal, where most of the monster classics were being churned out in the early 30s. DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE begins with a subjective camera sequence that makes us feel we are Dr. Jekyll, and includes symbolic shots of various statues, as well as closeups of roiling flames, which either suggest man’s primitive urgings or the fate awaiting Jekyll’s soul for his trespasses against God — take your pick.
The director changed the emphasis from a conflict between good and evil to a conflict between civilized man and man in his primitive state, explaining Hyde’s vaguely Neanderthal appearance.
Much of the film plays upon civilized man’s repressed sexuality. Jekyll, passionately in love with Muriel played by Rose Hobart, argues with her father who stands in the way of their marriage. In the following scene, Jekyll pays a house call on a bar singer named Ivy, played by Miriam Hopkins. (The film suggests, without saying outright, that she is also a prostitute.) He seems to be tormented by her overt sexuality, and in a famous scene she sways her gartered leg back and forth while calling on Jekyll to come back to her, an image that will play itself over in his mind.
Is it any wonder that in the following scene, Jekyll takes the potion that for the first time transforms him into Hyde, a figure who’s free to pursue the pleasures that the upright Jekyll denies himself? “Free at last!” Hyde proclaims, staring at his grotesque visage in the mirror.
The film utilizes a plot device, not present in the book, of having Jekyll cross the paths of a so-called virtuous woman (Muriel) and a “bad girl” (Ivy). It’s a structural element that would be repeated in subsequent versions.
Hopkins as Ivy simmers with Pre Code sexuality, adding a real edge to the film. She draws Jekyll’s lust. Tragically, she also attracts Hyde’s abuse. March is at his most terrifying as he torments Ivy, psychologically and physically. In desperation, she seeks out the good Dr. Jekyll for help who promises, in vain, that Hyde will not return. Of course Hyde does. Enraged at her for going to Jekyll, he murders Ivy, asking as he strangles her: “Isn’t Hyde a lover after your own heart?”
Miriam Hopkins’ performance is unabashedly sexual and heartbreakingly real. Film historian Greg Mank argues that, alongside March, she deserved an Oscar for her work on the film.
The transformations scenes are remarkable, surpassing the much cruder scenes later used by Universal for its Wolfman films. In addition to lap dissolve and other techniques, Mamoulian’s film employs the gradual removal of colored filters to reveal layers of makeup, achieving an organic metamorphosis that happens within a continuous shot. How this was achieved was kept secret by Mamoulian for decades after the film’s release.
March gives an outstanding performance. His Hyde is so bestial, so different from the civilized Jekyll, that we almost forget both parts are played by the same actor. (something that almost never happens in other film versions.)
HYDE: “Do you want to be left as you are, or do you want your eyes and your soul to be blasted by a sight that would stagger the devil himself?”
HYDE: “If you do one thing I don’t approve of while I’m gone, the LEAST little thing, mind you… I’ll show you what horror means”
- This classic film was almost lost forever. A decade after its release, MGM remade the story with Spencer Tracy, suppressing the earlier version and destroying prints so as to allow the new version to stand alone. Luckily, prints showed up years later and the film was saved from obscurity.
- Fredric March won an Oscar for his performance, the first monster performer ever to do so. (And the last, unless you count Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Hannibal Lector in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS. )
- The Hyde makeup becomes progressively more savage as the story unfolds, perhaps an idea inspired by Wilde’s Dorian Gray, in which Gray’s’ brutal actions manifest themselves over time in the face in his portrait. Historian Mank reports that the final makeup was so punishing that March spent several weeks in the hospital after the film finished and there were fears, fortunately unfounded, that March would be permanently disfigured.
“He went for a little walk! You should have seen his face!”