Hot on the heels of his “31 Days of Hammer” in January, his “31 Days of British Horror” in March and his “31 More Days of British Horror” in May, Jules is travelling across the pond this July with… you guessed it… 31 Days of American Horror!
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Starring: Frederic March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Holmes Herbert
Even by 1931, there had been no less than four previous screen adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella The Strange Case Of Doctor Jekyll And Mr Hyde, most notably the 1920 version starring John Barrymore.
This time around though, taking full advantage of those heady pre-code days, Paramount Pictures really went to town, throwing a massive $500,000 budget at a lavish production which pushed the limits of just what you could put up on screen.
Their version of Doctor Jekyll And Mr Hyde would play fast and loose with Stevenson’s story, retaining only some characters (albeit bringing a few in from a previous stage play) and the central idea, but amping up the horror aspect and featuring a transformation scene so innovative that it baffled viewers for decades to come.
Dr Henry Jekyll is a doctor in Victorian London who has come up with a theory about the duality of human nature, that there is an intrinsically “good” aspect of personality quite separate from a more animalistic side that is “evil”.
He’s also engaged to be married to Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart), but her father Brigadier General Sir Danvers Carew (Halliwell Hobbes) is insisting the wedding be put back another few months. Clearly sexually frustrated, but hamstrung by the Victorian values of his high society, Jekyll finds himself tempted by a bar singer, Ivy Pierson (Miriam Hopkins), being attacked by a man outside her boarding house.
Resisting his primal urges, he takes his research to the next step, creating a formula that splits his personality into two separate people, creating the bestial, evil Mr Hyde.
Acting on those impulses that his alter-ago couldn’t, Hyde makes a beeline for the helpless Ivy, forcing her into an abusive relationship where she is his property, if not his slave.
Overcome with guilt, Jekyll sends money to Ivy then promises that she will never see Hyde again, but the beast is never far from his mind and can now transform himself without the aid of the serum…
It’s quite unusual to see a film of this vintage that treads such a fine line of sexuality and violence while looking so spectacular. Clearly, money was spent recreating large parts of Victorian England and populating it with a sprawling cast of extras.
Wide open shots of gorgeous townhouses of the wealthy are contrasted with tight close ups of the lower-classes, giving a living, breathing backdrop to a story that’s as much about the mores and hypocrisy of its society than it is about the nature of man himself.
The opening scene, shot in first person perspective through Jekyll’s eyes sets up the whole narrative – we first see him as he sees himself in the mirror, but also as his servants and those around him see him. It’s a bit on the overlong to be honest, but it’s important as Jekyll’s issues don’t just come from how he sees himself, but how he is perceived and *wants* to be perceived by others.
Jekyll is a good man, devoting his time to helping the poor, stepping in when Ivy needs rescued and genuinely in love with his fiancée, but his sexual repression, exasperated by his future father-in-law extending his nuptials ever further, lures him down a path that will eventually doom him.
After his rescue of Ivy, she attempts to seduce him by grasping his hand onto her bare thigh, before stripping naked in bed after throwing her garters at him. It’s racy stuff for 1931, but director Rouben Mamoulian leaves us in no doubt what’s on his mind after he leaves, overlaying her bare leg suggestively waving from her bed over the top of the screen as Jekyll and his friend Dr Lanyon (Holmes Herbert) leave her boudoir talking about the concept of innermost desires.
Mamoulian has plenty of tricks up his sleeve though, such as splitting the screen between Ivy and Muriel by a jagged diagonal wipe, but nothing has quite the impact as those initial transformations. Using an innovative red filter and makeup combination, Jekyll seems to change before our eyes, without the need for cuts. It’s breathtaking stuff and you’re still marvelling at it when the inevitable edits have to come in to give him the full Neanderthal look.
Sadly each one doesn’t get the same love and attention as by the end it’s more obvious camera dissolves at work, but it doesn’t detect from the magnificently grotesque monster that is March’s Mr Hyde.
His animalistic glee at his freedom for Jekyll’s psyche is disturbing, standing baptising himself in the rain like a mockery of birth, his ape-like agility and propensity for swift, joyful violence only adds to his ability to instil fear, but it’s his “relationship” with poor Ivy that really chills to the bone.
It’s brutally realised, with Hyde keeping her by sheer terror, torture and implied sexual violence. The scene where he tells her “Forgive me, my dear. I hurt you because I love you. I want you and what I want I get” is one of the most upsetting of the entire era, due in no small part to Miriam Hopkins’ amazing performance, frozen with sheer terror, dreading what the animal will do to her next. It’s a hard, hard watch but riveting all the same.
Playing both roles, Frederic March does a sterling job and quite deserved his Academy Award for best actor. His Jekyll is warm and appealing, his Hyde is the worst person imaginable, but March utterly convinces in both.
As an examination of how Victorian society was a hotbed of not just inequalities, but rampant hypocrisy too, Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde is an unqualified success, but it also works magnificently as a statement on the psychology of man and the beast that lurks inside of us all. And if you’re just looking for a straight-up, griping horror film that looks magnificent and will stay with you long after the credits roll, well it’ll do just that too.
It’s not an easy watch at times, far from it, but it’s an essential one.
The Writer of this piece was: Jules Boyle
Jules tweets from @Captain_Howdy