Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
“Put yourself in her place! The dreaded night when her lover became a madman!”
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Cast: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart
Synopsis: Dr. Jekyll faces horrible consequences when he lets his dark side run wild with a potion that changes him into the animalistic Mr. Hyde.
Released on 31st December 1931, Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the twelfth version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel to be filmed. Shot a few years before the Production Code came into effect, it’s a pretty racy affair which explores the complexities of the masculine psyche in an overtly sexual manner while also providing a solid, fast-paced thriller.
Fredric March plays Jekyll, an eminent scientist convinced that within each man there reside two personalities, one which appreciates the finer qualities of life and one which craves the baser pleasures, chief of which, he discovers, is sex. Jekyll is engaged to marry Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart), the daughter of Brigadier General Sir Danvers Carew (Halliwell Hobbes). The relationship is a source of deep frustration for Jekyll as Carew refuses to let him marry Muriel until the anniversary of his own marriage which is still about ten months away. What this boils down to is that Jekyll is keen to get his fiance in the sack, but is effectively emasculated and rendered impotent by the Brigadier General’s influence over him, which just makes his darker side all the more aggressive.
Jekyll has one of those stone-walled laboratories beloved of classic Hollywood movies in which potions bubble and steam in oversized containers. He’s been working on a potion that will allow his inner self to come to the fore, and it succeeds beyond his wildest dreams. Hyde initially comes across as something of a comical character with his thick mop of hair and oversized teeth, presumably intended to make him look like a Neanderthal, and it’s virtually impossible to recognise Fredric March under the make-up. He even appears to be shorter than Jekyll, somehow. A few nights before his first transformation, Jekyll made the acquaintance of Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins), a showgirl (and, presumably, whore) in a sexually charged scene which would never have got past the censors a few years later. Mamoulian does a good job of establishing the subconscious desire aroused by Jekyll’s encounter with Ivy by having a shot of her swinging leg superimposed over the following shot in which he argues his theories with a friend. So Hyde, as Jekyll names his darker side, makes a beeline for Ivy’s place of work and it’s not long before he has imposed his will on the terrified girl.
Hyde’s overtly sexual motivation proved impossible for Hollywood filmmakers to fully explore just a few years after Mamoulian’s version was released, but it provides a more meaningful explanation for the nature of Hyde’s behaviour than later versions, which were hampered by censorship issues. The seamless physical transformation, achieved by painting various parts of March’s face different colours that would respond differently to various coloured lights, still looks effective today and is far more convincing than later efforts. March, in a role that finally convinced Hollywood he was capable of carrying off more serious roles than he had previously been given, proves equally adept at portraying both sides of Jekyll’s character, although it would have perhaps been more believable if traces of his latent side had been occasionally visible when his other side was dominant. Hopkins does a good job of projecting Ivy’s helpless, abject terror but that fake cockney accent really starts to grate after a while, especially given her tendency to sometimes go over the top when emoting.
Overall, Mamoulian’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde provides vintage quality both in terms of technical and narrative technique. His choice of point-of-view camerawork might not have been as effective as he might have hoped, but he succeeds in eliciting our sympathy both for Jekyll and Ivy, and keeps the pace of the story moving at an agreeable rate which allows the story to dwell on its metaphysical aspects within the framework of an exciting thriller.
(Reviewed 25th July 2013)