|Directed by||Rouben Mamoulian|
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a 1931 American Pre-Code horror film directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starring Fredric March who plays a possessed doctor who tests his new formula that can unleash people’s inner demons. The film is an adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), the Robert Louis Stevensontale of a man who takes a potion which turns him from a mild-mannered man of science into a homicidal maniac. March’s performance has been much lauded, and earned him his first Academy Award.
The film was made prior to the full enforcement of the Production Code and is remembered today for its strong sexual content, embodied mostly in the character of the bar singer, Ivy Pearson, played by Miriam Hopkins. When it was re-released in 1936, the Code required 8 minutes to be removed before the film could be distributed to theaters. This footage was restored for the VHS and DVD releases.
The secret of the transformation scenes was not revealed for decades (Mamoulian himself revealed it in a volume of interviews with Hollywood directors published under the title The Celluloid Muse). Make-up was applied in contrasting colors. A series of colored filters that matched the make-up was then used which enabled the make-up to be gradually exposed or made invisible. The change in color was not visible on theblack-and-white film.
Wally Westmore‘s make-up for Hyde — simian and hairy with large canine teeth — influenced greatly the popular image of Hyde in media and comic books. In part this reflected the novella’s implication of Hyde as embodying repressed evil, and hence being semi-evolved or simian in appearance. The characters of Muriel Carew and Ivy Pearson do not appear in Stevenson’s original story but do appear in the 1887 stage version by playwright Thomas Russell Sullivan.
John Barrymore was originally asked by Paramount to play the lead role, in an attempt to recreate his role from the 1920 version of Jekyll and Hyde, but he was already under a new contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Paramount then gave the part to March, who was under contract and who strongly resembled Barrymore. March had played a John Barrymore-like character in the Paramount film The Royal Family of Broadway (1930), a story about an acting family like the Barrymores. March would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance of the role.
Fredric March (aka Mr Hyde) with director Rouben Mamoulian and a cheeky Miriam Hopkins on the set of ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1931)
When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer remade the film 10 years later with Spencer Tracy in the lead, the studio bought the rights to the Mamoulian version. They then recalled every print of the film that they could locate and for decades most of the film was believed lost. Ironically, the Tracy version was much less well received and March jokingly sent Tracy a telegram thanking him for the greatest boost to his reputation of his entire career.
The remarkable Jekyll-to-Hyde transition scenes in this film were accomplished by manipulating a series of variously colored filters in front of the camera lens. Fredric March‘s Hyde makeup was in various colors, and the way his appearance registered on the film depended on which color filter was being shot through. During the first transformation scene, the accompanying noises on the soundtrack included portions of Bach, a gong being played backwards, and, reportedly, a recording of director Rouben Mamoulian‘s own heart. Only in the late 1960’s did Mamoulian reveal how they were done.
“I’ll show you what horror means!”
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is Paramount doing Universal better than Universal did themselves. While this was a cash-in on the genre success of the smaller studio, if all bandwagons were this well made then cinema would be a much richer experience.
Oh, it’s dated of course. A form of stiff melodrama where women still said things like “Darling… I wish this moment would last forever” and men replied “Oh, I love you… be near me always.” And I love how the camera coyly veers away during the kissing scene. An odd dialogue gem is Dr.Jekyll (Frederic March) proclaiming: “We’ll be so gloriously happy that even the French will be jealous of us.” Look out too for Edgar Norton as Poole, offering advice to Jekyll when told his fiancée will be away for a month. “I beg your pardon, sir,” he says, “but may I suggest that you ought to amuse yourself?” Yes, the dialogue is overblown, but in a wonderful, glorious way. Like a great stream-of-consciousness from the pen of a man who sees screen realism as just a petty distraction.
But what really works is the innovation of the film, almost dripping off the celluloid. I don’t know if those wipes from scene to scene, the fades and the first-person perspective were originated here, but they’re used superbly nonetheless. Often the frame hesitates between wipes, carving the illusion that so much is going on simultaneously that one screen cannot house it all. And the single take transformation (As Hyde says, “What you are about to see is a secret you are sworn not to reveal” – it’s tinted lens effects were kept hidden for many years) is absolutely magnificent, even 70 years on.
Every single shot is worked out with a mind to an unusual angle, or a unique way of framing things, but never so that it’s showy. Often the main action will be taken via longshot, the camera choosing to focus on a sole candelabrum in the foreground while the scene plays out. It’s subtexts of bare backs; cleavages, thighs and garter belts are also quite racy for the time. Look how even when Jekyll has left Ivy behind, her seductively rocking leg is merged with the next scene for nearly half a minute to indicate temptation is lingering in his mind. Outstanding.
The sets, too, are unparalleled, street settings often running to several levels and making a mockery of the rival studio’s sub-realist fare. The outdoor segments set to rain are exquisite, and look out for an amusing scene – the first between Miriam Hopkins and Hyde – where they engage in an accidental spitting competition. As he says the phrase “pig sty” an unintentional (?) spray of saliva coats his co-star, while a large globule of phlegm hits him in return as she says “Buckingham Palace.”
Weirdly, the Doctor’s name is pronounced “Gee-kul”, not the commonly held “Jek-ull”. I’ve always thought Jekyll seemed a creepier name than the passive-sounding Hyde. Maybe that’s the point, and the duality of such a concept is passed forward by many shots of Hyde seeing his face via a mirror. March is not without the wit to add humour to his other persona (who resembles more Dick Emery’s comedy Vicar than anything truly horrific), and is in equal terms expert in both pathos and menace. His physicality in the role also cannot be overlooked. Not only that, but you get the real feeling that you’re joining March on a discovery; with each new turn of plot as much a surprise to him as it is to us. This is a real loving performance, a far cry from the “take the money and run” sensibilities of The Wolf Man.
Hyde has his violent moments, threatening to glass a man with a broken bottle – “His face was made for it” – and intimating rape. It’s a showstopping performance and there’s even one scene where Hyde appears to break the fourth wall – yet he’s looking through the camera and into the next room. Mere technicalities are beneath the thoroughly insane Hyde. “I shall go only as far as the door, and the sight of your tears will bring me back” he hisses to a terrified Hopkins with double-meaning menace.
With it’s literary script that encompasses both Bach and Shakespeare, it’s a lovably fluid, fast-paced piece. Sometimes it’s not always subtle – take the scene where Hopkins tells Jekyll he’s got “the kindest heart in the world” and asks him for a bottle of poison “so I can kill myself, sir.” But look at the anguish on March’s face as the guilt of his alter ego’s actions bleed through. If only all films could be made with such care and love in their craft. Absolutely Tremendous. 9/10.
Watch It for the Camera Work
Author: evanston_dad from United States
17 November 2005
What happened to movies in the late 30’s and early 40’s? Why did they become so stale and stagey? “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” would be considered downright antique to many of today’s casual filmgoers, but it feels so much more dynamic technically and thematically than many films that came out later in its decade. The answer, of course, is that this movie came out before enforcement of the Production Code, at which time artistry in films–both style and substance–took a nose dive.
This film is worth watching for its stunning camera work alone. It doesn’t suffer from any of the awkwardness other films working in the early years of sound do. The camera’s always moving, there’s terrific use of light and shadow, and the scenes showing the transformation of Jekyll to Hyde are seamlessly filmed in what appear to be uninterrupted shots, leaving you to ponder the sheer physical behind-the-scenes mechanics of them.
But this movie isn’t just more technically advanced than films later in the decade; it’s more adult in content too. No filming of this story ten years later (I’ve not seen the Victor Fleming version for comparison) would dare add the level of sexuality that this story does. Fredric March is very good in the dual role, and when he transforms into Mr. Hyde, you can see that it’s everything within his power not to rip the dress right off whatever female he happens to be with and mount her right there. I’m not exaggerating; the film is really that frank.
Creepy good fun.