Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Cast: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart
Over a dozen versions were made during the silent era and over a dozen more would be created afterwards, but only one can truly lay claim to being a genuine genre milestone. Made to compete with Universal's Frankenstein and Dracula, Paramount's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is in every way egual to those celebrated classics in atmosphere and complexity, as well as influence. Where Frankenstein and Dracula created cultural touchstones with their iconic creations, so would this version of Jekyll and Hyde reign as the most imitated and popular in the public imagination.
Expanding upon the narrative of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel, the film weaves a complex plot that works as a parable of victorian repression and the price for suppressing our inner needs and the exploration of sexuality. It was a rather risque concept for 1931 and was heavily censored for a great many years, not being fully restored until the 1980s, when released on VHS and even before that, was not seen until the 70s. There's no denying that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the most potent of all the 30s horror films, containing enough disturbing elements and mature plot directions that made it far ahead of it's time.
The film opens with Dr. Jekyll(Fredric March) playing the organ, as the camera sees everything from his perspective. It's an odd opening device that is almost distracting, but the point is that we the audience are Jekyll. The Doctor heads to a lecture hall by carriage, where he rants about his theory of seperating man's good and bad impulses. He is met with equal amounts of scorn and acclaim, and is chastised by his friend, Dr. Lanyon(Holmes Herbert) who believes his work to be fantastic. Jekyll is a man of society and his radical ideas are frowned upon, as are his work in the poor hospital, where he spends a great deal of time. He is engaged to the beautiful Muriel Carew(Rose Hobart) and desperately wants to be engaged, but is thwarted by her strict and stuffy father, (Halliwell Hobbes), who is a man of tradition and insists that they wait nearly a year to marry. A frustrated Jekyll leaves the home and encounters a prostitute named Ivy Pierson(Miriam Hopkins) being manhandled in the streets and comes to her aid. Taking her up to her apartment to tend to any injuries, he finds her seducing him and is taken in by her wiles, forgetting himself. It's a particularly racy scene as Hopkins disrobes and shows a swinging leg, which remains superimposed for a few seconds over Jekyll as his thoughts remain on his burning passions.
Jekyll hides himself away in his beautifully atmospheric laboratory and works away at designing a drug to seperate the dual sides of man's nature. Experimenting on himself, he finds himself transforming into his inner bestial half ,who declares, "Free at last!" when gazing at his reflection in a mirror. Jekyll quickly reverts back when his butler Poole(Edgar Norton) arrives to announce dinner and that's when Jekyll gives a name to his alter ego: Mr. Hyde. Later, Jekyll learns that Muriel is going away with her father on an extended holiday and the young doctor's emotions literally and both figuratively, bubble over(notice the cauldron in his laboratory) and Jekyll takes the drug again. Becoming Mr. Hyde, he dons hat and cloak and goes carousing. He looks up Ivy at a local bar and offers her champagne and money, even though she is repulsed by his appearance. He shows a genuinely cruel side as well as a brutal and unpredictable one, even breaking a bottle at one point and threatening to shove it in the neck of a jilted suitor of Ivy's. Soon, Hyde takes residence with her, but it's clear that she has the woman in a state of terror, displaying pale skin and bruises from his treatment of her. Hyde discovers that Muriel will return to London and in a brilliant moment of screen terror, plays a cruel mind game with the terrified Ivy, telling her that he's going away and yet may be back at any time. He threatens her not to run away when he's gone, placing hands over her throat and warning her that he'll show her "what horror means", before proceeding to molest her as the screen fades to black.
Jekyll returns to his true self and goes back to Muriel and is able to persuade her father to get them married earlier, in one month's time. Jekyll is very content, until he is confronted by Ivy, who begs for his protection from Hyde, sobbing and begging for his help. Jekyll vows never to take the drug again and leave his demons behind, but after spying a cat slay a bird in a tree in a park, Jekyll transforms into Hyde and goes to Ivy's apartment, where he murders her and runs away into the night. Unable to enter his own home, Hyde gets frantic and instructs a letter to Lanyon to deliver the chemicals to him. Lanyon is suspicious and draws a gun on Hyde who is forced to take the potion, becoming Jekyll. He asks his friend for help and agrees to give up Muriel and tells her that she is free. Devastated by this loss, he peaks at her one last time, only to become Hyde once more. He attacks Muriel and murders her father, escaping back to his home, with the poice in pursuit. Becoming Jekyll once more, he tells the police that Hyde has gotten away, but Lanyon arrives and points to Jekyll as the murderer and he becomes Hyde again, more grotesque and beastly than ever, fighting the police back, before being shot to death by an officer, changing into Jekyll upon death.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a brilliantly realized horror picture and one of the most complex and best produced of the golden age. Rouben Mamoulian's direction is constantly moving and very mobile, unlike many early talkies, bringing life to the proceedings, much as James Whale's gothics at Universal did. Despite some overt symbolism spread throughout, the use by the director fits well into the context of the narrative. His handling of the performers is first rate and this film certainly contains one of the most admirable casts assembled for a horror film. It was Mamoulian who wanted March as Jekyll, while the studio were leaning more towards John Barrymore and Irving Pichel. Happily, Mamoulian won out and March was outstanding in the title role, obtaining an honor that is almost entirely alien to the genre: an Oscar for Best Actor.
March is perfection as both Jekyll and Hyde, adding subtle bits of character that were all but lost on earlier and later performances of the famous characters. His Jekyll is sort of like Colin Clive's Henry Frankenstein from Frankenstein(1931) in that he starts full of passion and fire, but through his own disastrous creation, becomes morose, both mentally and physically. His plight, like that of Frankenstein, is one of sympathy as his character is essentially a good man who was driven to do something noble and fell to evil. In some respects, Hyde can be seen, like Frankenstein's Monster, as less of a villain than society as a whole, which drove Jekyll to his research and into his own personal hell. Of course, his Hyde is a magnificent cinematic creation and is certainly one of the most unforgettable of all movie monsters, ranking with Karloff's Monster and Chaney's Phantom as one of the all-time great horror performances. It also is the one most identified with this particular character. Hyde is such a sadistic and calculating villain that he is consistently fascinating to watch, as he leers at Ivy, later taking pleasure in his tormenting of her. He's such an unpredictable and violent presence that he becomes truly frightening, as his character's behavior becomes more and more violent. The dialouge he delivers is among the best in the genre, suggesting all manners of perversion and terror. It's a very sensual portrayal, Hyde's sadistic pleasures suggested by March's body movements and speech, that was all but lost on virtually all later versions of the story. March is aided immeasurably by a classic makeup job by Perc Westmore, which emphasizes his near-simian, neanderthal appearance, which actually becomes more gruesome as the film continues. According to March, the final makeup nearly took his face off, and indeed the final makeup is rather extreme. The transformation into Hyde, with all do respect to Jack Pierce and Universal Studios, is superior in every way. Utilizing a series of colored filters and light sensitive makeup, the effect is both startling and effective and still impressive, even today.
The rest of the cast are all excellent, particularly Miriam Hopkins who is sympathetic as Ivy and gives the best performance of an actress in a golden age horror picture. Her character's pathetic circumstances, coupled with Hyde's sadistic and kinky nature, make for one of the most memorable and tragic victims in the horror film. Noticer her character's easy going charm in the beginning, singing the ditty that bears her namesake, and her later reprise of the same song as performed in front of Hyde and witness her own transformation. It's a brilliant portrayal that should have been nominated, but wasn't, like so many great performances in the genre.
Rose Hobart is given a pretty thankless role as Miriam, but portrays with conviction and sensitivity and turns her wallflower role into something much more and is probably her best known performance. Halliwell Hobbes is just right as the stuffy Carew and it's pretty obvious where alot of Jekyll's aggressions are bred, judging from this cantankerous bore of a man. Special mention must be given to character actor, Edgar Norton, who made a career out of playing butlers, including Son of Frankenstein(1939). He also had perfomed as Poole in the 1898 play with Richard Mansfield, providing an interesting link to the story's history.
Despite, it's reputation as one of the genuine classics of the genre, the film was unseen for a number of decades. This was due to MGM's 1941 remake with Spencer Tracy, a classy but virtually lifeless production that failed to inject any menace or horror, even though a certain dream sequence was memorable in it's Freudian imagery. The film was shelved for decades, until the late 60s, when it was released in an edited form. Finally it was restored in the 1980s and is now on DVD with the 1941 version, which was practically scene for scene remake of this version. It's no contest though. Mamoulian's version is a genuine film classic, managing to be subtly frightening and thought provoking and lasting as one of the great cinematic examples of sexual repression ever filmed. March's Jekyll and Hyde is a definitive characterization, as important as Lugosi's Dracula or Karloff's Frankenstein Monster and earns it's place in the half dozen or so all-time classic horror portrayals. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the best version of the story ever made and ranks in the top twenty in the history of the horror film. TCM may have picked the 41' version to play on the essentials, but just about everyone else will agree that this film is the real essential.