There are some curious superlative exceptions in the history of cinema. The great epic of the American screen – Gone With the Wind – was made by someone other than Cecil B. DeMille. Humphrey Bogart’s greatest romantic role was opposite someone other than Lauren Bacall. And, in my opinion, the best and most frightening horror film of the 1930s was not made by Universal, but rather Paramount. That would be Rouben Mamoulian’s 1932 (well, technically it premiered on New Years’ Eve 1931) version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Fredric March in the titular role(s).
Adaptations of Robert Lewis Stevenson’s classic nightmare have been coming out almost since it hit the book stands, and almost all of them, of necessity, drop the mystery angel of the original to focus on Dr. Jekyll himself. The great shocking twist of the original has so far passed from being a surprise that it’s become part of the language itself. This version is no exception, and it follows what might be called the ‘standard alternate’ take on the plot, where Dr. Jekyll is a young man of especial moral rectitude and whose dual identities are served up with matching female leads: an upper-class fiance and a prostitute.
Dr. Henry Jekyll (by the way, this is the only adaptation to pronounce it – correctly – as ‘Jee-kyll’) is a wealthy and respected young doctor in Victorian-era London, known for his spirited, non-conformist personality, his daring scientific theories, and his commitment to charity work. We meet him delivering a lecture at the medical college about the duality of man’s soul before blowing off a duchess to attend to the hospital charity ward. His work there makes him late for a dinner party with his fiance, Muriel, daughter of the pompous General Carew. After some passionate flirtation with her (love-making in the old sense), he appeals to the General to allow an earlier marriage than originally planned, which the stubborn old man refuses, insisting on an eight-month interval and later whisking Muriel off for an extended holiday.
Fuming on the way home with his colleague, Dr. Lanyon, Jekyll happens across a prostitute named Ivy being assaulted by her latest client. He carries her into her apartment, where she quickly sets to work trying to draw him in, even stealing a kiss (just as Lanyon walks in, of course).
Later, working through his frustration, Jekyll hits upon exactly the right combination of chemicals to test his theory that it may be possible separate the two halves of man’s soul. Drinking the formula, he collapses amid a whirl of sound and imagery, and when he awakens he looks in the mirror to see a strange, gruesome face looking back…the face of the newly emerged Edward Hyde, whose first words declare just how terrible a mistake Jekyll has made:
As the above description indicates, the first act of Jekyll and Hyde doesn’t really feel much like a horror film; more like a romance or psychological piece done in a highly experimental style (more on the direction in a bit). We get to know Jekyll pretty well before things actually get going, aided by March’s brilliantly nuanced performance in the role; an exuberant, revolutionary-minded scientist with a winning manner, whether at the bedside of his patients of wooing his fiance. Full-hearted, vibrantly alive, humorous, and overall a thoroughly admirable and likable figure (among the many great little bits that March throws in as Jekyll is when, just about to test his formula on himself, he casts a wry glance at the skeleton model hanging in his lab).
Though even now there are hints that his goodness may not be so complete at seems. Admirable as he is in the charity ward, some of his lines suggest that at least part of his motivation is less concern for his patients than delight in shocking his upper-crust friends. And for all his exuberant declarations of love for Muriel, it’s fairly clear that his primary reason for seeking an earlier marriage is the great strength of his sexual desire for her; not necessarily a bad thing, of course, and he seems to love her personally – they play off each other very comfortably while flirting – but another indication that his true feelings are less high and pure than they seem at first glance (as is his willingness to hang around for Ivy’s impromptu strip-tease and not-exactly-resisted kiss).
All this sets the stage for when Hyde enters the picture, and things really ramp up. All those little weaknesses we’ve glimpsed in Jekyll, his arrogance, his concupiscence, his self-righteousness, all come bursting out in full flower in the form of Edward Hyde.
Interestingly enough, our first impression of Hyde is, well, rather positive. His intense love of life, his reveling in each sensation, his constant laughter and giddy delight at his freedom is rather infectious. When he first ventures forth into London out the back door of Jekyll laboratory (a motif direct from the book, were Jekyll’s house fronts on a fashionable street while his attached laboratory lets out in a dingy alleyway), it’s amid a torrential downpour. Hyde eagerly sweeps off his hat and turns his face to the sky, reveling in the feel of the rain. And as I say, he’s full of laughter and glee for most of his initial night out, sounding as if he is simply happy to be alive. But as soon as he starts interacting with other people, we get signs of his true nature. Ivy’s landlady gets his cane thrust playfully up her skirt. At a music hall, Hyde casually runs his fingers along a woman’s bare shoulders in passing. A waiter who grumbles about the lack of a tip gets immediately thrashed (side note: in an amusing and well-judged detail, the bottle of champagne Hyde orders comes accompanied by beer glasses, showing how unusual the order is for this establishment).
All this is done automatically, without forethought and without the least sign of regret. Hyde simply takes what he wants at every turn, whether amusement, stimulation, or retribution. He can go from cackling with laughter to snarling with rage in the space of seconds, and from anger to murderous intent equally fast, then back to laughter.
As noted, March’s Jekyll is excellent, but his Hyde is mesmerizing; the best part of the film. He dives into the role with incredible abandon, cackling, snarling, stretching, and declaiming great juicy bits of dialogue all while both his face and voice are distorted to the point of being nearly unrecognizable, leaving only the gestures and body language of the two roles to be eerily the same.
He is also quite frankly terrifying. There’s a passage in the book where Jekyll comments that Hyde is the only man on earth who is pure evil. The line doesn’t appear in the film, but March’s performance sells the idea in all its force and ugliness. It isn’t just his capacity for sudden, violent rages either. As the story goes on he develops more refined powers of cruelty, which he exercises to the full on poor Ivy, who ends up living as his mistress in a posh love nest that he rents for her.
Here the film enters some disturbingly realistic territory as Hyde not only physically abuses her, but psychologically tortures her as well, breaking down her personality, forcing her to speak and act according to his command, dangling the possibility of his departure only to make her relief at the idea one more reason to terrify her, and driving her to a complete breakdown before finally taking her in his arms, cackling with delight.
Topping everything off and making Hyde’s reign of terror all the worse is the fact that we’re frequently reminded (as when he presages the consummation of his triumph by mockingly quoting one of his medical admonitions) that this is Jekyll: the charitable, idealistic, gallant figure we met and liked in the opening scenes. This is what was lurking inside him all that time, waiting to be set free.
Exactly how close the connection between Jekyll and Hyde is remains somewhat ambiguous throughout, but all the hints we receive indicate that it is far, far more complete than either we or Jekyll would wish. They certainly share memories: Hyde knows exactly where to find Ivy and tosses snide remarks alluding to Jekyll’s encounter with her (“One of those nice, kind gentlemen who admire your legs and talk about your garters”). Later on, Hyde shows the capacity to perfectly imitate Jekyll’s voice and style in a letter. Most of all, there are several chilling moments where Jekyll is very clearly speaking and acting through Hyde, such as a bit where Hyde, obliged to drink the potion and transform in front of Lanyon, pauses to gloatingly throw the other man’s past skepticism in his face before transforming.
In any case, the worst part of this is that Jekyll keeps using Hyde, regardless of what he must know Hyde is doing. It’s implied that he has to keep coming back to the laboratory to ‘top him off’ and keep him in being. In this way, whatever he might try to tell himself, he makes himself responsible for all of Hyde’s cruelty.
This leads to an interesting question: just what did Jekyll think would happen when he took the potion? His opening lecture has him grandiloquently speculating that “the evil would satisfy itself and trouble us no more” while the good would ascend to far greater heights. In this he seems almost to adopt a Freudian idea that suppression is the cause of problems and evil, and that once the baser impulses were set loose they’d work themselves out rather than grow and build upon themselves. In any case, he very clearly believes that his ‘good’ self will inevitably prove the superior, dominant personality of the two, a delusion he clings to all the way up to the end, insisting time and again that he will be able to prevent Hyde’s reappearance, however vain such promises have already proven.
One of the film’s key decisions here is that Hyde’s first appearance is cut short before he can make much of it. A timely interruption by Jekyll’s elderly servant, Poole, forces him to hastily transform back in Jekyll (Jekyll’s established tendency to work with lower-class patients allows Poole to accept his story of the rough voice he heard being “a friend who just went out the back way” without straining credibility). What this means is that when Jekyll finally decides to unleash Hyde, he does so consciously, knowing full well what he is doing. This is further reinforced by an intermediary scene where he goes to Muriel to desperately beg her for an earlier wedding, fearful of what continued temptation might mean for him.
Again, I have to praise March’s performance here as he wrestles with the final moment of decision, tapping his foot, grumbling into his pipe, and finally giving way with a brusque toss of the head (a pot in his lab boils over at just this moment).
It seems, from what we can gather, that Jekyll has convinced himself that what he does as Hyde ‘doesn’t count;’ that he can use him, enjoy all the sinful pleasure through his evil self, and then drop him when he doesn’t need him anymore. This is indicated by the fact that, when Muriel returns, he immediately tosses away the key to the back door (declaring “I’ll have no further use for it”), resumes his protestations of undying affection, and explains his neglect of her letters (we see a pile of them on his desk) with talk of “strange sickness of spirit” relating to his work. Meanwhile, he sends Ivy an anonymous ‘gift’ (payment? Apology?) of fifty pounds.
In other words, Jekyll reveals himself in all of this to be a far greater hypocrite than any of the stuffy, pompous conservatives that he holds in such contempt. His grandiose talk of science and life and love are revealed to be, at bottom, just base animal desire that he lacks the character to keep in check. His frustrations are understandable, but his reactions to them are utterly inexcusable and reveal the essential baseness and weakness of his character, disguised behind professed high ideals.
As Chesterton so astutely pointed out, the chief moral of the story is not that a man can really be two men, but that he can’t. Jekyll can put on Hyde’s face and set him loose, but that doesn’t make him a different person and doesn’t exempt him from Hyde’s actions or their consequences. He can’t simply dabble in unspeakable evil and then put it aside again when he’s ‘done’ with it; the soul of man does not work that way. Hyde cannot be shut up so easily, and his crimes can’t be simply swept aside. The grim final image of the film underlines this fact, where it is Jekyll, and Jekyll alone, who must suffer the consequences of what he’s done.
(Incidentally, the film has grown if anything more relevant in the ninety years since its release, given how this is exactly the attitude many of us have towards our online personas).
It’s an interesting perspective: the ‘Victorian’ attitude in the form of Lanyon and Carew remains unappealing throughout. Lanyon’s a narrow-minded, self-righteous jerk from beginning to end (at one point even sitting ‘in judgment’ over Jekyll), and Carew is a selfish and pompous old man. Yet in the end, Jekyll is revealed to be far worse than either of them for his hypocrisy and attempts to ‘have his cake and eat it’ so to speak; his willingness to let his evil self off the leash with all that implies.
It’s all the more striking in that this was made before the modern world fully followed in his footsteps.
What we have here, almost accidentally, is the Victorian and modern (and in today’s modern) approaches put side by side: on one hand stuffy, hypocritical self-righteousness looking down with distaste on desire, exploration, and expression. On the other, a complete willingness to dive fully into these things, set off by high-sounding ideals and superficial jollity masking its fundamental ugliness and brutality. Hyde’s actions – his causal sexual advances and crass jokes, his offers of material wealth and comfort in exchange for sexual favors, his utter lack of manners or refinement or compassion – are disturbingly familiar images of modernity, as are Jekyll’s excusing talks of science, advancement, and freedom. Both this and the stuffy Victorian attitude are repulsive, but the former is shown to be far more so.
Caught in between are the two women of the film, and I have to give praise to Miriam Hopkins as Ivy, who gives a performance to equal March’s. At the start of the film she’s a cheery, forthright ‘lady of the evening’; loudly cursing her latest John before abruptly falling silent as she catches sight of Jekyll’s fine evening clothes and at once making a play for him (you can practically hear the word “jackpot!” running through her brain). This renders her later condition of nearly paralyzed terror under Hyde’s rule all the more striking, conveying to us just how much she’s had to endure and how thoroughly she’s been broken by him. In between is a brief moment of quiet conversation with her new landlady, in which her polite, gentle tone assures us that, whatever her background or profession, she’s a fundamentally decent person at heart who absolutely does not deserve her fate. A large part of the film’s power comes from Hyde’s cruelty as expressed through Ivy, and Hopkins sells it as powerfully as March does.
One of her best scenes, though, comes when she decides to go to Dr. Jekyll for help, heartbreakingly pouring out all her misery and terror to the man who, though she doesn’t know it, is responsible for it all and begging him, her angel, to help her. Offering him anything….
Jekyll, meanwhile, is shown to be equal parts ashamed, afraid, and…tempted, taking her head in his hands exactly as Hyde did.
(Another great touch in this scene is the way Jekyll looks past Ivy when she shows him the whip marks Hyde left her with, unable to face the sight of his own cruelty).
On the other side we have Rose Hobart as Muriel, who has the far less juicy role as the most honestly decent person in the film. It’s a rather thankless job, but she affects it with as much effort as she can, cheerfully matching Jekyll’s flirtations and growing increasingly concerned and finally defiant on his behalf as his tragedy mounts. In particular, she reinforces just how indefensible Jekyll’s actions have been, both by her continued faith in him (which we and eventually he know to be completely unjustified) and the fact that she shows that she suffered from their separation as well…only, unlike him, she was committed enough to endure it. Muriel serves as something like the ideal that Jekyll is striving for, and thus shows up just how far he’s fallen short. She also provides something like the film’s idea of the correct balance of propriety and rebellion; where she is morally upright, but pushes back against genuinely unreasonable strictures.
Miss Hobart gives a perfectly fine performance, particularly in her final scene where Jekyll miserably gives her up for her own safety, though of course unable to explain why (March is great in that scene as well, rendered scarcely coherent by his agony of guilt), though it must be admitted that hers is a rather thankless and unmemorable role, particularly compared to that of March or Hopkins.
Before this, Fredric March had been mostly typecast as a romantic lead in light comedies, to the point where it’s said he was almost ready to quit Hollywood in frustration (as Dracula leading man David Manners eventually did). His eye-popping turn as Jekyll and Hyde revived his career and catapulted him into the front ranks of dramatic actors for the remainder of his career, while earning him the first of two Oscars; the only such to be given to a performance in a horror film for another sixty years (until Sir Anthony Hopkins won for Silence of the Lambs).
As you can see, there’s a lot of ‘meat’ on this film: a lot of very well-crafted psychology and delvings into the blackest parts of the human psyche, all with some pretty astute moral ideas. But leaving the writing and acting aside for a moment, let’s talk about the direction.
That, along with March’s performance, is one of the film’s great claims to fame. It’s certainly one of the more remarkable early sound films in terms of the direction and camera work. The film opens with a long – over three minutes – single shot done from Jekyll’s point of view as he plays the organ, chats with Poole, dresses, and drives to the university lecture hall, passing through multiple interior sets and looking into a mirror (our first glimpse of Jekyll) before the first cut, which only takes us to the university where the POV shot resumes as he makes his way into the lecture hall.
Point of view shots are used freely throughout the rest of the film, most memorably for the whole of Jekyll’s first transformation, during which the room spins about him and he’s bombarded with imagery and voices from earlier in the film, along with a variety of sounds and abstract images (Walt Disney copied many elements of this scene for the Queen’s transformation in Snow White). We then get our first view of Hyde, as with Jekyll, in a mirror.
But the POV shots aren’t the only visual trick. Mamoulian also uses creative scene transitions, such as diagonal wipes that linger for a moment, giving us two separate, parallel actions (e.g. Ivy having the whip marks Hyde left her with tended crossed with Muriel rebuking Jekyll for his inconstancy). Or fade-aways will linger for a long time over the next shot, as when Ivy’s dangling bare leg remains superimposed over Jekyll and Lanyon as they walk away from her apartment, showing that it’s still fixed in the former’s mind (and probably the latter’s as well). It’s all done in a very creative and strikingly original way: the kind of thing that’s rare to see in any film, let alone one done only a few years into the sound era, when cameras tended to get locked down so as not to interfere with the new sound equipment.
Likewise the transformation effects are generally eye-popping. Through camera trickery, we see Jekyll’s skin darken and distort before our eyes (a simple, but brilliant trick involving tinted lenses capturing different degrees of makeup, coupled with well-disguised cuts). Later transformations fall back on the more prosaic ‘progressive fade-away’ technique used in films like The Wolf-Man, but with enough steps as to remain fairly effective. Actually, my favorite transformation is the simplest: just a matter of body language as Jekyll, viewed from behind, seems to almost deflate and then re-inflate as he turns into Hyde. March’s make-up is not as impressive as it might have been, though I think it strikes a good balance of being monstrous, but not unacceptable for a man walking about the lower-class regions of London. It also convincingly distorts his face to the point that no one would reasonably recognize him (and lord knows he paid a price for it; the final and most extreme Hyde mask put him in the hospital for weeks and nearly scarred him for life).
I’ve praised the film a lot, naturally, so what’s on the other side? Well, in the first place it’s a product of its time, which means that a good deal of the acting and dialogue ends up being a bit more stilted and stagey than most modern viewers are used to, particularly in the early stages where it’s largely a ‘straight’ romance. The worst example is a little girl Jekyll helps to walk early on, whose performance is very awkward, all the more so since it never factors into anything else (originally she was meant to be the girl Hyde tramples during one of his first outings, as in the book, but that scene ended up being cut). Likewise the creative and sometimes bizarre camera work, with a lot of extreme close-ups, can be kind of uncomfortable and jarring at times.
Also, Lanyon in particular comes across as a bit too much of a strawman, with his talk of “no man can go against the traditions of his time” (who talks like that, even in the Victorian era?) and his rather unbelievable preoccupation with the ‘transgressive’ nature of Jekyll’s work when Jekyll has just confessed to a murder. One of those characters who comes across as the writer’s idea of a Victorian snob rather than a believable image of the real thing (General Carew, selfish and pompous, but still humanly affectionate to his daughter, is a more convincing prospect).
There’s also just the rather amusing questions such as how, exactly, Jekyll knew his mixture had succeeded simply from examining a drop of it under a microscope, or why he has a cauldron perpetually boiling in his lab at all hours.
In summary, I’d call this one of the great horror films of all time, and certainly one of the best of the 1930s (which is saying a lot given the number of genre classics that decade produced), with possibly the single vilest monster of the era brought to life by a brilliant performance. It’s one of my all-time favorites. Definitely a canon work, and more than that: barring the original novel, I’d call this the definitive version of the story.