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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Anyone doubting the disturbing effects of repression should experience Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. One of the most sophisticated and frightening films in 1930s cinema, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde explicitly explores sexuality and repression in ways that most films of the era merely hinted at or disguised in allegory. Using the characters of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to graphically express these themes, Mamoulian creates a very frightening and complex film for its day.
Dr. Henry Jekyll (portrayed marvelously by Frederic March) is a brilliant scientist who is convinced that he can separate out the evil nature of man using a bubbling concoction of chemicals. One lonely night, ignoring the warnings of his friend Dr. Lanyon (Holmes Herbert), Dr. Jekyll samples his own brew. However, instead of bringing out his goodness, the drug summons out the most evil parts of his personality. Calling himself Mr. Hyde, this sinister half becomes involved with a prostitute, Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins), whom he terrorizes and abuses. Soon, Dr. Jekyll finds that he cannot control when Mr. Hyde will emerge, and a new threat is loosed upon an unsuspecting London.
Rouben Mamoulian’s direction is outstanding, particularly in his use of subjective camera work. Using extended point-of-view shots, we are forced to experience the world through the eyes of Dr. Jekyll. The film begins exclusively from this unique perspective, so much in fact that the first time we actually see the good doctor is through a mirror. We see a young patient looking at him, and thereby us, with admiration and almost religious awe. We, essentially, become Dr. Jekyll, making us sympathize with him. More significantly, it also prepares us for the breathtaking transformation scene.
Standing before a mirror, Jekyll drinks down his self-concocted drug. The camera points at a glass window with March on the other side, presenting us with the illusion that we are looking at ourselves in the mirror. After drinking the potion, we see March start choking and gasping, followed by a spinning whirl of faces repeating all the voices of repression that we’ve previously heard. When the spinning stops and the images clear, March, in full Mr. Hyde makeup, smiles back at us in the mirror. By using these compelling images, Mamoulian forces us to experience the transformation the same way Dr. Jekyll does. It is an intriguing technique, and much more chilling than the usual simple lap-dissolve transformation.
All of the actors give magnificent performances. Miriam Hopkins is wonderful as Ivy, perfectly portraying her early self-confidence and later sheer terror and humiliation. Particularly noteworthy is the scene where Hyde forces her to sing “Champaign Ivy,” the song that she was singing when he first saw her. Far from the confident, teasing manner in which she first sang it, she cries her way through the first half and then screams and runs to her bed. Rose Hobart is almost as good as Muriel. She shows us a Muriel who is sweet, caring and deeply troubled over her fiancée’s unusual behavior. Finally, Halliwell Hobbes as Muriel’s father brings a haughty, upper-class intransigence to his part that is both comic and infuriating. These performances, however inspiring, all serve to highlight the dominant performance of the film, that of Frederic March.
Frederic March took home an Academy Award for his portrayal of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll is a character who, while a good and caring man, is not a saint. He cheerfully laughs at his flirtations with prostitutes and openly pines in sexual frustration for his fiancée. The way March optimistically cheers about the virtues of science and unfulfilled desires presents Jekyll as an extremely self-centered person who, in good Dr. Frankenstein fashion, doesn’t think too much about the consequences of the things he does. When he is happy, March seems almost giddy with joy. Nevertheless, when confronted by the fact that Mr. Hyde has murdered Ivy, March literally collapses and weeps with guilt and grief. And this is only the first of two great performances by March.
The other is, of course, Mr. Hyde. March portrays Hyde in an almost ape-like fashion, scuttling about in a simian crouch. He is the embodiment of all of Jekyll’s repressed desires taken to their sadistic extreme. March’s performance of Hyde is quite comic at first, but soon descends into cruelty and murder. He terrorizes Ivy much in the way an abusive husband terrorizes a wife, beating her with a whip (off-screen) and saying demeaning and cruel things just to humiliate and frighten her. March as Hyde is also constantly moving, as if he is so excited to have been released from Jekyll that he cannot contain himself. All these things he does with a sadistic glee that is most disturbing, particularly for a film made in 1931. March delivers not one but two bravura performances in this film; performances that are diametrically apart, but both equally brilliant.
Whereas other films of the era would hint at or disguise their darker themes, Mamoulian’s film bravely confronts them head on. The level of sophistication in this 1931 film is incredible. Thankfully, there are none of the panicky servants or bumbling Bobbies that inhabited so many ‘30s horror films (such as Minnie in The Bride of Frankenstein or the clueless police in The Invisible Man). These types of characters are absent from Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, enhancing its maturity. Lacking the childishness that permeates so many horror films of the ‘30s, Mamoulian doesn’t feel the need to comfort us with silly comic relief, making Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a much more mature and adult film than many others of the era.
Although the infamous Hayes Code, which prohibited anything too violent or provocative from appearing on screen, was in effect during the film's production, it was still in its infancy and does not appear to have significantly influenced the film. One thing a modern audience will notice is its profound sexuality. Dr. Jekyll’s facial gymnastics clearly show the sexual frustrations he is experiencing when his soon-to-be father-in-law General Carew insists that he wait eight months before marrying his true love, Muriel. Later, when Dr. Jekyll first meets Ivy Pearson, whom the film intimates (but never confirms) as a prostitute, he caresses her leg and happily accepts a passionate kiss. Lanyon chides him, saying “Have you forgotten about Muriel?” In a most telling response, Jekyll exclaims “Can a man dying of thirst forget water?” When Jekyll finally manages to persuade Muriel’s father to move up their wedding date, he comes home and plays the organ in seemingly orgasmic joy.
Once Jekyll has become Mr. Hyde, this level of frank sexual presentation becomes even bolder. Hyde buries his face in Ivy’s bare chest and later grabs and violently kisses her. These are not the staged caresses of typical 1930s movie fare. They are, instead, adult and violent actions illustrating the demented sadism of Mr. Hyde. A dark complement to his actions, Hyde's words cruelly mock Dr. Jekyll’s previous flirtation with Ivy. He sarcastically repeats some of the comforting things that Jekyll had said to her, making her believe that he is always watching her, even when he is not there, leaving her in a permanent state of dread. At one point, he tells Ivy that, if she misbehaves in any way, he’ll “show [her] what horror means!” Later in the film, Hyde attempts to rape Muriel, just minutes after Jekyll has left her. He’s never shown having any thoughts about Muriel previous to this; he’s doing it only to sicken and torment Jekyll.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s other main theme is the consequence of repression, making this film much more than your standard “good versus evil” morality tale. Jekyll is portrayed as a curious, open young man. Mamoulian resists the temptation to portray Dr. Jekyll as a hedonistic libertine, instead giving us a decent, honest man wanting to explore perfectly natural and healthy desires. As a forward thinking scientist, Jekyll wants to learn about the world, and is not afraid of what he might find. The representatives of public opinion, however, do not share these views. One by one, we see all of Jekyll’s desires and goals thwarted by “proper” society. Lanyon puts down his scientific ideas as “absurd theories”; General Carew says that he is “indecent.” When his servant suggests that Jekyll indulge himself in the “amusements” of London, Jekyll sarcastically comments that a “gentleman” like himself mustn’t participate in them. All of Jekyll’s normal desires are mercilessly slammed down by the morality of the era. The film implies that society, as much as Dr. Jekyll, creates Mr. Hyde. It is a savage indictment of conformity and constraint.
This repression, coupled with Jekyll’s admitted lack of concern for consequences, produces one of the most truly evil characters of the Golden Age of Horror. Mr. Hyde unapologetically enjoys his heinous deeds. Initially, his villainous character is not apparent. He triumphantly announces, “Free! Free at last,” lets rain splash on his face, and then merrily walks off. Soon, however, his true nature emerges. Focusing immediately on Ivy in a pub, he quickly takes her back to her apartment, cruelly making her “his” woman. Everything he does to her is intended to hurt or frighten her. He calls her “my pet” and “my bird,” but his words contain no affection, serving only to emphasize her captivity. Constantly reminding her of the awful things he can do to her, he mercilessly reduces the once confident and outspoken Ivy into a quivering mass of panic and fear. Laughing and reveling in his tortures, Hyde is not interested in killing Ivy. Instead, he wants to make her feel pain and fear for no other reason than his own depraved delight. Near the end of the film, Jekyll is sitting on a park bench, happily thinking about his upcoming nuptials. Quoting from a poem, he muses aloud “thou was not meant for death.” However, when he spies a cat attacking a bird, Mr. Hyde is brought forth, in a tight close-up. He cheerfully exclaims “But it is death, yes!” We see the pleasure in his face and hear his sadistic laugh. The next time we see him, he strangles Ivy to death. He has just told Ivy that he is Dr. Jekyll, and it is clear that he is enjoying murdering Ivy just as she has learned his true identity. This virulent sadism sets Mr. Hyde apart from many of the cinematic fiends of the day.
There are many versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but this one is arguably the best. It is incredibly mature in its themes, magnificently acted and superbly directed. It offers us a sophisticated exploration of sexuality and repression, and the cruelty that they can produce. In many ways, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde truly does show us “what horror means.” After The Bride of Frankenstein, I'd say it is the best horror film of the 1930s.