Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Directed by: Rouben Mamoulian
Written by: Samuel Hoffenstein, Percy Heath (based on The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson)
Starring: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Edgar Norton
The first film of our latest marathon to feature elements of horror and suspense, Rouben Mamoulian’s adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story holds its own against its contemporary Universal monster movies that were scaring audiences globally. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a tremendous critical and financial success at the time of its release, earning an Academy Award for star Fredric March, along with several other nominations. Its pre-code roots are clear from the very outset of the film, where we see more early examples of open human sexuality, malicious stalking, and later on the eventual killing of human beings for pleasure.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde follows the titular Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March), a kind and brilliant young doctor who is in the very upper echelon of his field. He intends to marry Muriel (Rose Hobart), the daughter of Brigadier General Sir Danvers Carrew (Halliwell Hobbes), who does not care much for Jekyll. While Muriel and her father are away, Jekyll develops a drug that supposedly releases the more “sinister” side of human beings. The groundbreaking new drug brings out the worst in Dr. Jekyll, transforming him into the evil Mr. Edward Hyde. The violent Mr. Hyde begins stalking Ivy Pierson (Miriam Hopkins), a young patient of Hyde’s. After the eventual murder of Ivy, Dr. Jekyll knows that he can no longer control the transformations, and tries desperately to push Muriel out of his life before she too is hurt by Hyde. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a suspenseful, atmospheric, and intelligent horror film that rivals most of its contemporaries. Actor Fredric March took home a much deserved Academy Award for Best Actor for his dual-personality performance, with the film also nominated for Best Cinematography and Best Adapted Writing.
Horror films of the 1930’s are most famous for their thick Gothic atmosphere, with many of the most successful examples being based on novels written in the 1800’s. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is no different than many of its contemporaries in this respect, but seems to pull less punches than those other films. We see the sinister Mr. Hyde essentially sexually assaulting a young woman, as well as stalking and eventually murdering her to satisfy his own blood lust. These elements of brutality don’t seem to be found in other horror films of the era. Classics like Dracula, The Wolf Man, and Frankenstein are more famous for the sheer power of their suggestive content, whereas Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is far more upfront when it comes to showing its horrific content. The transformation from Dr. Henry Jekyll to Mr. Edward Hyde is effective and frightening, thanks in part to Fredric March’s incredible performance and the terrific make-up effects by Wally Westmore. The camera focuses on March’s face for nearly thirty seconds during the initial transformation scene, which employs some truly impressive special effects and gives the audience a frightening sneak peek of the primitive-looking Mr. Hyde. Director Rouben Mamoulian expertly uses first person camera techniques to further the film’s suspense, which may be one of the first instances of the technique I’ve seen in a horror film. Mamoulian’s camera follows Hyde through all of his hideous acts, which increases the film’s sense of immersion and implicates the audience as helpless accessories to his crimes. Besides the horrific content found within Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, my favorite example of its pre-code nature is an early scene where Dr. Jekyll first meets Ivy Pierson – she has been hurt in what appears to be a mugging, and Dr. Jekyll carries her up to her room in order to treat her wounds. In a shocking turn of events, Pierson admits she was exaggerating in order to get Dr. Jekyll alone with her, and seduces the young doctor. Miriam Hopkins’ mostly naked figure and dangling leg have become iconic images, and for good reason. The scene perfectly captures a palpable sexual tension and the sexual desires of a young woman, both of which would be prohibited by the proposed Hays Code. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gets away with a great deal in terms of violent and sexual content, largely thanks to the skills of its director and cast, and its famous source material. It’s a landmark moment for the horror genre, and a highlight of the pre-code era as a whole. Unfortunately for the film, it suffers from some of the same pacing issues that affect many of its contemporaries. The buildup to Mr. Hyde’s violent outbursts is longer than I expected, and the film’s ending comes all too suddenly.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde boasts several terrific performances in Fredric March’s award-winning take on Henry Jekyll and Edward Hyde, who is simultaneously brilliant and charming, and depraved and hideous, Miriam Hopkins’ independent and provocative Ivy Pierson, and Rose Hobart’s sweet Muriel Carrew. Director Rouben Mamoulian employs groundbreaking first-person camera techniques to terrify and titillate his audience, and make-up artist Wally Westmore creates a believably hideous Mr. Hyde. While it suffers from some of the same pacing issues that plague early horror films, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a tremendous example of the power that early horror films hold even today. Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is highly recommended.