Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)


In 1920 Paramount released a feature-length version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Adapting it from a stage play, which itself was adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson's novella, the Paramount version starred John Barrymore and featured what were, at the time, state-of-the-art effects.  Being 1920, the movie was a silent film, and it had to abide certain limitations imposed by the technology of the time.

By 1931 the movie industry had changed, and horror films along with them.  Tod Browning directed a sound version of Dracula, while James Whale brought Frankenstein to the screen.  Both were huge hits for Universal Pictures, so Adolph Zukor decided it was time to give one of his biggest hits the sound treatment.  Initially John Barrymore was considered for a return, but schedule conflicts prevented it.  Eventually director Rouben Mamoulian settled on Fredric March to play the role, despite the fact that March was known for more light-hearted parts.

What also changed in 11 years was what could be done with the camera, as well as advances in makeup and practical effects.  Although the design of Edward Hyde from the 1920 version was considered, by the time filming began it had been decided to cash in on the monster craze and make Hyde resemble a more primitive form of man, with a thick brow and predatory teeth.  He was also more outright monstrous than the low-life criminal portrayed by Barrymore.

The result was an Oscar for March, which was one of the rare times a Best Actor award was given for someone in a horror film.  Watching the film today it is obvious why.  Despite some early reservations from Zukor on whether or not March could pull off the role of Hyde, he gives a performance that, despite the makeup, is chilling in its realism - especially since people like him exist without the help of some fantasy drug. 

Dr. Henry Jekyll is known for his charitable work and brilliant mind, but is also thought of as kind of a crackpot due to his ideas of isolating the two halves of man's psyche so that the good portion can pursue a truly fulfilling life separate from the evil.  His future father-in-law, Brigadier-General Danvers Carew (Halliwell Hobbes), has his reservations about him as well, especially when pushed to allow an earlier date for the marriage to his daughter Muriel (Rose Hobart).  

When chided by his best friend Dr. Lanyon (Holmes Herbert) over a momentary proprietary slip with a music hall girl named Ivy (Miriam Hopkins), Jekyll decides to go through with his experiment.  The result is Edward Hyde, whom Jekyll at first tries to suppress but then lets run loose as his fianc√© spends and extended holiday with her father.  Hyde obsesses over Ivy because of the original encounter between her and Jekyll, and eventually Hyde becomes the dominant personality as he conceals himself when necessary behind the face of his alter-ego. 

Rouben Mamoulian does an amazing job directing this, and it is considered one of his best, which is saying something considering how innovative he was in early sound cinema.  There was definitely a bit that I didn't remember, and I realized why - only recently has the full version of the movie been available, with a good portion of what was cut out rather baffling as it was neither violent nor sexual in nature.  The beginning is quite creative for the time, with the first four minutes of the movie all being from the point of view of Dr. Jekyll himself, and it often switches back to this view during the first portion of the film.  The initial transformation employs a range of psychedelic effects, and a number of different shots of mirrors and split screens to further drive home the dual nature.  It does contain some acting that is more fit for the stage, as well as a lack of incidental music, but Mamoulian's directing was ahead of its time.

Like the 1920 version with Barrymore, everyone else in the movie is a fine actor, but most of them are left in the wake of Fredric March.  His Jekyll doesn't come across as much as a mad scientist as Barrymore's, but he does come across more as a spoiled brat, unlikeable despite his supposed goodness.  He lets Hyde out the second time because he is angry at Muriel and her father, but he also secretly wants to be with Ivy.  When it comes to the latter he is worried more about the impropriety than the fact that the love he so fervently espouses to Muriel can be so easily distracted.  He is obsessed with his maintaining his standing in society, while Hyde has no compunctions about concealing who he is.  It is as Hyde that March shines, bringing to life a man who can barely remain still, is full of his own power and revels in the pain of others.  

The match for March is Miriam Hopkins.  At first Ivy is portrayed as a good-time girl, but as she is forced to endure Hyde as her lover the pain becomes more and more pronounced.  Mamoulian doesn't have to show her bruises to demonstrate how broken she is, and the scene where she performs her music hall routine to try and acquiesce Hyde is emotionally wrenching.  While Hopkins originally wanted to play Muriel, it is Ivy that sticks in the memory.  Ivy is so heartbreakingly human, while Muriel is little more than plot motivation.

One of the major innovations in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was its makeup and effects work.  Mamoulian kept the secret until the 1960s, but he took full advantage of black and white film to use different color filters on an already made-up March to make the audience think he was transforming before their eyes.  

While I still like the concept of Hyde in the 1920 version - more of a twisted, low-life human being than a monster - there is no denying that many of the scenes from this version maintain a power that it is hard to convey in a silent film without the over-emoting becoming unintentionally humorous.  March will also remain the most memorable because, even though MGM bought the film from Paramount to suppress it in order for their 1941 version with Spencer Tracy, Tracy was never able to match the menace March brought to Hyde.  Happily the March version can be seen in all its glory these days, while the latter version has been mostly forgotten.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Time: 97 minutes
Starring: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Holmes Herbert, Halliwell Hobbes
Director: Rouben Mamoulian

 

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