Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

*. It’s curious how Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde doesn’t usually get considered alongside the other great horror films of the period. Like the others it had a literary source, and it was made in the wake of the success of Dracula and at the same time as Frankenstein was in production (1931 was an annis horribilis, in a good way). I believe this movie marked the tenth time Stevenson’s story had been filmed. It was a big commercial hit and even netted Frederic March an Academy Award for Best Actor, a feat that wouldn’t often be repeated by an actor in a horror movie.
*. Maybe it’s that Oscar cachet that sets it apart. This wasn’t a Universal film (like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Invisible Man, and The Wolf Man) but a well-budgeted prestige picture from Paramount. That said, it has a lot of the same feel as the Universal pics, which is a compliment to both. What I mean is that it has the same economy in its storytelling, and inventiveness in the direction.
*. Rouben Mamoulian had come from theatre, but took to film like a fish to water. You can tell he was having a lot of fun here, right from that long point-of-view opening. Had there ever been anything like that done before? I honestly don’t know. I love the way it builds up to Dr. Jekyll entering the lecture hall, with a quick moment in the mirror to introduce us to him as he puts on his cape. And such an opening isn’t just meant to show off. Mamoulian uses mirrors throughout the movie in important ways, from Jekyll watching his first transformation (it’s our first glimpse of Mr. Hyde as well) to his appearance behind Ivy near the end.
*. Not all of Mamoulian’s gambles work. Those slow wipes that momentarily stick into a split-screen effect halfway through strike me as ill-advised and ineffective. But they give some idea of how free a hand he was taking.
*. Then there is the economy. Being more a prestige picture this is quite a bit longer than Dracula or Frankenstein, but it still moves pretty quickly (I like how they cut off Jekyll’s opening lecture and let the people leaving finish it talking among themselves as they leave) and the release version ran a fair bit shorter because the censors made significant cuts. The Production Code wasn’t in full swing yet but in some scenes here Mamoulian was going over the line. Albeit not without more playfulness. Look at the suggestive pose the waiter adopts to uncork the champagne, or the pot being brought to a boil (an image the movie will end on, with the pot boiling over).
*. But I can understand the censors raising more than an eyebrow at the scene where Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) transfixes Dr. Jekyll with her garters. There’s a lot of bare thigh on display, and this was at a time when a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking.

*. The studio wanted John Barrymore, star of the 1920 film, to reprise the role but he was already under contract at MGM. Mamoulian was right to want someone younger, and got someone just as handsome in Frederic March. This is a fellow who you can believe is in need of some release. And that’s very much who Hyde is: a randy alter ego looking for the sexual satisfaction he is frustrated in attaining by Victorian codes of behaviour. Ivy, in Kael’s phrase, showcases “the attractions of the gutter.” So while Hyde can be violent when provoked, he really just wants to be Buddy Love.
*. The sexual angle is also part of the Promethean theme. By that I mean scientific curiosity is directly linked to sexual desire, with Dr. Jekyll wanting to pierce the veil of nature. He doesn’t want to play God so much as have a good time. Though he does play God, and there’s an obligatory scene at the end with March holding a Bible and praying for the Almighty to forgive him his presumptions in trying to go further than man should. Ah, but it was God who gave you those hormones Dr. J.
*. The special effects are justifiably famous, holding up well nearly a hundred years later. The main trick was the use of tinted filters to reveal progressively darker make-up. As for the appearance of Mr. Hyde, he’s a Neanderthal that foreshadows the primitive man in Altered States, down to the way he jumps and clambers about like a monkey. The inner man is a reversion to a natural state, taking us back to our days swinging in trees.
*. One of the most remarkable things about this movie is the fact that we nearly lost it. When MGM returned to the property with Spencer Tracy in 1941 they bought the negative and rights to both this film and the Barrymore version and tried to destroy every print of both in existence. For many years it was believed to have been lost. An Oscar winner! I can’t believe people do this. It goes to show what people thought of movies as an art form back in the day. It also made me think of how Bram Stoker’s widow went to court and actually got a judgment ordering the destruction of all prints of Nosferatu for copyright infringement. Today we look on this as madness, but at one time it was quite acceptable.
*. The best version of this oft-told tale? Many people think so. It’s hard to make such a judgment though because there have been so many variations played on its theme, in so many different eras. I think it does nearly everything well: Mamoulian was on, March’s performance is solid, the effects are great, and the lure of the gutter is as strong as ever. Though I think Jekyll today would be less repressed and more pathetic.

26 thoughts on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

    1. Alex Good

      Yep, those are screen caps. I think it’s still a fun watch. Moves well. A little talky in places, with the talk being overly dramatic, but it doesn’t get bogged down in this. Much better than the Michael Caine version!

  1. Tom Moody

    The Spencer Tracy version feels like a pale imitation of this, which may be why the studio wanted to destroy the earlier film. March’s Hyde is genuinely disturbing in some scenes, which could be attributable to Miriam Hopkins’ believable display of fear. Hyde is Manson-like in the way he controls a female by terrorizing her. I haven’t seen this in many years but March’s and Hopkins’ performances have stayed with me.

    1. Alex Good Post author

      The one thing the Tracy version had going for it was the pony girl scene, which is something I will always cherish. But the rest of it is forgettable. I do like March here, especially the chip on Hyde’s shoulder. I didn’t mention that in my notes, but I like the way he seems to resent everyone looking down on him as being low class. Plus Mamoulian really was cutting loose with a lot of inventive stuff here. It’s still a great movie.

      1. Bookstooge

        I’m with you on the book side of things 😀
        In fact, the less new stuff I read, the better, hahahaa.

        I suspect I treat movies like most Americans treat books 😦

  2. Tom Moody

    Lee Child novels are great time-passers. It’s nonstop wish fulfillment of a big guy kicking the crap out of deserving people.
    I enjoyed your essay. Since you wrote it the woke impulse has only made it worse for critics. A “negative” opinion read by the wrong person can result in a loss of work and permanent libels on the writer’s name. Algorithms act as a force multiplier.
    An oppositional stance is good in theory but in practice it can be self-destructive in this environment. Someone has to “have your back.” Who would it be? Editors? College administrations? Webhosts? GoFundMe? This current lack of support for criticism argues in favor of an offline, person-to-person, samizdat kind of opposition.

    1. Alex Good

      I remember when “political correctness” was a big deal back in the early ’90s. I figured it ran its course and we’d seen the last of it. Then when Trump made such a big deal of running against it I was honestly confused as to how such an old label was still pushing buttons. I guess I was sleeping. These woke crusades are insane and just keep fueling the right. It’s amazing to me how much this policing of points of view has taken off. The algorithms may be partly to blame, as the more crazy things get and the more anger is stoked the more traffic it leads to. I think it’s also the case that a lot of the institutions infected (universities, the mainstream media) are stuck in a kind of death spiral anyway. I look at the current environment and despair.


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