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Film Fri(Satur)day: "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (1931)

This week's "Film Friday" is a very special one. Since it is Halloween, I thought it was only fitting if I told a little bit about what is considered to be one of the greatest horror films of all time (incidentally, this is the only classic horror picture I have seen so far). However, with the Universal Pictures Blogathon, I was not able to post this on time, so this week's "Film Friday" is actually a "Film Fri(Satur)day," which makes it even more appropriate.

Theatrical release poster
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) tells the story of Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March), a respected physician in Victorian London who is convinced that man lives with an eternal struggle between his good and evil sides. One evening, Jekyll attends a party at the home of his fiancé, Muriel (Rose Hobart), and asks her father, Brigadier General Sir Danver Carew (Halliwell Hobbes), permission to marry her earlier than they had originally planned, but he sternly refuses. Later, while walking home with his colleague, Dr. John Lanyon (Holmes Herbert), Jekyll saves bar singer Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins) from the advances of a brutish attacker. Ivy then tries to seduce Jekyll, but he resists her charms.

Meanwhile, the Carews leave London for a few months and Jekyll develops a potion to bring forward the evil persona within himself so that it can be anihilated. In doing so, however, he transforms into Mr. Edward Hyde, a hideous creature without compassion or remorse. As "Mr. Hyde," Jekyll then goes to the music hall where Ivy works and promises to tend to her financial needs in return for her company. Although repulsed by him, she accepts his offer, but Hyde soon becomes violent, torturing her physically and pshycologically. When Ivy goes to see Jekyll and begs him to save her from Hyde, he realizes the pain that he (Hyde) has caused her and gives his word that she will never see Hyde again. Later, however, on his way to the Carews' home to celebrate their return, Jekyll suddenly changes into Hyde again, without the use of his potion, and kills Ivy. Turning back into Jekyll, he realizes the monster that he really is and goes to the Carews' to break his engagement. As he arrives, he transforms into Hyde again and assaults Muriel, who is saved by her father. Enraged, Hyde viciously murders Sir Danvers and then runs aways, just as the police arrive and chase him back to Jekyll's lab. He changes back into Jekyll, but when the police reach the lab, he becomes Hyde again and is fatally shot by one of the officers. As the evil Mr. Hyde dies, he transforms one last time into the good Dr. Jekyll.

Dr. Henry Jekyll: Oh, God. This I did not intend. I saw a light, but did not know where it was headed. I have tresspassed on your domain. I've gone further than man should go. Forgive me. Help me!

One day in late 1885, Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson announced to his family that he was "working on a new story that came to him in a dream, and that he was not to be interrupted or disturbed even if the house caught fire." After writing furiously for three days, he revealed that his new story told of a "seemingly respectable" Dr. Jekyll, who invented a potion that transformed him into another person, the "bestial murderer" Mr. Hyde. Upon hearing this, Stevenson's wife, Fanny, pointed out that he had "missed the allegory" and suggested he turn the wicked Dr. Jekyll into a good man who has trouble controlling his evil instincts, as though he represented "the dual nature of Victorian society: prim and proper on the surface, unrestrained and lewd underneath." Following Fanny's advice, Stevenson threw his manuscript into the fire and re-wrote the story in six days, naming it Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

Published in January 1886, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was an instant success on both sides of the Atlantic. The Victorian England which birthed the novella was both shocked and fascinated by it. While the story openly defied the concept most valued by the Victorian rulling class, "moral propriety," it was also the perfect description of the "outward respectability and inward lust" that characterized the largely hypocritical English society of the time. In 1888, Stevenson's short novel was adapted for the London stage, but its run was cut short by accusations that it encouraged a series of gruesome murders by the killer known as Jack the Ripper. Since then, Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become a worldwide favorite and the phrase 'Jekyll and Hyde' has even entered the language of psychiatry in association with the rare mental condition called dissociative identity disorder, or "split personality," where within the same body there exists more than one distinct personality.

Fredric March and Rouben Mamoulian
on the set
As Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Stevenson's novella has been adapted for the screen numerous times, beginning with a now lost one-reeler released in 1909. Two of the earliest surviving versions include a 1912 short starring James Cruze and a silent film made by Paramount Pictures in 1920 with John Barrymore in the dual role of Jekyll and Hyde. However, neither of these adaptations nor the subsequent ones have the same prestige as Paramount's 1931 Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, widely regarded as the most remarkable screen version of Stevenson's story.

Paramount's decision to produce a second adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was in response to the enormous success of Universal's Dracula (1931), which had whetted the American moviegoing public's appetite  for horror pictures. To helm Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Paramount hired newcomer Rouben Mamoulian, who had been a stage designer and director before coming to Hollywood in the late 1920s. Mamoulian's morally complex interpretation of Stevenson's novella did not involve the usual theme of "good versus evil," but "the spiritual versus the animalistic," with Hyde representing a "primeval man" rather than a monster. As a result, his Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde focuses on the relationship between man and nature and the consequences of instinct repressed and distorted, transcending the horror genre by aiming "not to frighten, but to entertain and disturb." Mamoulian's version also emphasized something that was absent from the original story, the contrasting characters of two leading ladies, Jekyll's upper-class fiancé and Hyde's promiscuous music hall singer, both of which had been created by playwright Thomas Russell Sullivan for his 1887 stage adaptation.

Transformation from Jekyll to Hyde
Paramount wanted middle-aged character actor Irving Pichel to star, but Mamoulian thought "Jekyll should be young and handsome" and pursued instead 34-year-old Fredric March, who had just received his first Oscar nomination for his performance in The Royal Family of Broadway (1930). Although hesitant to play a monster, or even an animal in Mamoulian's term, March was attracted to the psychology of the role and soon accepted the offer. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also provided a golden opportunity for him to break away from the mostly light comedies he had appeared in until then and showcase his dramatic acting abilities.

The shambling image of the Neanderthal man was Mamoulian's model for Hyde's appearance, complete with protuding false teeth and hairy hands created by make-up artist Wally Westmore, who also used pieces of surgical cotton to force open his eyes, drooping the lower lids to suggest "an animalistic leer." To accomplish the remarkable Jekyll-to-Hyde transition scenes, Mamoulian and expert cameraman Karl Struss, winner of the first ever Academy Award for Best Cinematography for his work on F. W. Murnau's Sunrise (1927), covered March's face with specially toned make-up, exposed in stages to a series of variously colored filters to reveal the beastly aspect of Hyde. As an eerie accompaniment to the transformation sequences, Mamoulian applied a sound collage combining the recorded sound of his own heartbeat with the reverberations of a gong played in reverse. Because of the heavy make-up that almost damaged his face permanently, March later called Hyde the most "unpleasant" role of his career.

I conceived Mr. Hyde as more than just Dr. Jekyll's inhibited evil nature, I saw the beast as a separate entity — one who could, and almost did, little by little, overpower and annihilate Dr. Jekyll [...] To me, those repeated appearances of the beast within him were more than just a mental strain on Jekyll — they crushed him physically as well. I tried to bring this out by increasing lines and shadows of Jekyll's makeup as the picture progressed, until, in the last scenes, he looked as though he already had one foot in the grave. Hyde was killing Jekyll physically as well as mentally.
(Fredric March)

Miriam Hopkins as Ivy Pearson
Mamoulian wanted the "big-boned and bovine" newcomer Miriam Hopkins to play Soho temptress Ivy Pearson, but she thought the part was "unsympathetic" and campaigned instead for Muriel Carew, "the safe character." To convince her to take on the role, Mamoulian "walked out on her and snapped: 'All right, that makes it easy, I'll have no trouble finding someone to play Ivy. Half the actresses in Hollywood would give their eye teeth for the part.' She called me back and gave in." The role of Muriel was then given to another newcomer, Rose Hobart, who had recently made her film debut in Frank Borzage's drama Liliom (1930).

Although at the time "censorship was lax and Hollywood made the most of it," the erotic nature of Ivy's scenes still caused some agitation within the Hays Office. In August 1931, the Association of Motion Picture Producers (AMPP) advised Paramount studio chief B. P. Schulberg against the line in which Ivy tells Hyde, "Take me!" and Hyde's line, "I am going to take you!" deeming the dialogue "overly brutal" and "too suggestive." Additional caution was recommended for the scene in which Hyde snaps Ivy's garter, as well as for the reference to her "customers." The censors also objected to a sequence that showed Ivy undress in front of Jekyll when he first comes to her room because it was too long, stating that it should not drag "simply to titillate the audience." Despite the warnings, the Hays Office praised Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as "magnificently done" and passed it without making any cuts to the finished product. However, the unbridled violence and sexual undertones of the story finally alarmed the Hollywood censors in 1935 during a crackdown on films released before the Production Code was rigorously enforced. In order for the picture to be re-issued, Paramount had to eliminate the undressing scene and the line in which Jekyll tells Ivy he "wants her."

The set of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Paramount was confident enough in the film to grant Mamoulian seven weeks of shooting time and a budget of $500,000, twice the cost of most A-pictures at the time. Art director Hans Dreier brought a German expressionist aesthetic of menace to the streets and interiors of Victorian London in 35 historically accurate sets constructed to allow the greatest variety of camera angles and control over lighting, rain and fog. Mamoulian explained that camera angles "must be used to match the dramatic angle of the scene, never for their own sake," adding that the angle "definitely enters the realm of the psychological. It can convey the underlying significance of a sense as nothing else can."

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde premiered at the Rivoli Theatre in New York on December 31, 1931 and it was an instant critical and commercial hit, becoming one of the biggest money-makers of 1932. Mordaunt Hall of The New York Times, for instance, wrote that the film "emerges as a far more tense and shuddering affair than it was as John Barrymore's silent picture." Much of Hall's praise was directed at Fredric March, whom he called a "stellar performer," adding that "[his] portrayal is something to arouse admiration, even taking into consideration the camera wizardry. As Dr. Jekyll he is a charming man, and as the fiend he is alert and sensual." Hall finished his review by noting that "Miriam Hopkins does splendidly as the unfortunate Ivy [and] Rose Hobart is clever as the sympathetic Muriel," additionally commending the detailed settings for enhancing the scenes.

At the 5th Academy Awards on November 18, 1932, March won his first Oscar for Best Actor, "tying" with Wallace Berry for his work in the boxing drama The Champ (1931), though the Academy later revealed that March had in fact topped Beery by one vote. In addition, Karl Struss received a second nomination for Best Cinematography, while Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein were mentioned for Best Adapted Screenplay. Although Miriam Hopkins did not win an Academy Award for her acclaimed performance, her Ivy reigns as the top "bad girl" of Horror's Golden Age, even though Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was largely "lost" for decades. As Gregory William Mank writes, "the theatricality and ferocity of the actress work in the character's favor; those piggy eyes and hungry smile suit a Soho streetwalker making her all the more striking in her climatic humiliation and horror."

Publicity still for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

While I am not a huge fan of the horror/gothic genre in general, I did like Robert Louis Stevenson's novella, which I think captured the decadent charm of Victorian London perfectly, in addition to offering a reasonable examination of the duality of human nature. In contrast, I did not enjoy Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde at all. Firstly, I think the female characters are a pointless addition to the story and Ivy ultimately turned Hyde into an oversexed creature rather than the menacing beast that he should have been. Furthermore, Fredric March, although effective as the tormented Jekyll, was too twitchy as Hyde, making the character look a bit silly at times. Neverthless, I do have to praise the film for its amazing sets and visual effects as well as Mamoulian's expert direction, all of which succeeded in imbuing Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde with the same dark atmosphere that is present in Stevenson's original story.

Dark Romance: Sexuality in the Horror Film by David J. Hogan (1986) | Horror and the Horror Film by Bruce K. Kawin (2012) | Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen by David Lurhssen (2013) | "On My Way": The Untold Story of Rouben Mamoulian, George Gershwin and 'Porgy and Bess' by Joseph Horowitz (2013) | Robert Louis Stevenson: Finding Treasure Island by Angelica Shirley Carpenter and Jean Shirley (1997) | Women in Horror Films, 1930s by Gregory William Mank (1999) | IMDb | TCMDb (Article) | TCMDb (Notes) | The New York Times contemporary review by Mordaunt Hall


  1. I'm puzzled how you think Hyde isn't menacing at all in this version, you sell this, objectively speaking, masterpiece of horror quite short in your review.


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