Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a 1931 American Pre-Code horror film directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starring Fredric March. The film is an adaptation of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886), the Robert Louis Stevenson tale 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.
In a London of fog and gas lamps, capes and canes, kindly Dr Henry Jekyll (pronounced by the entire cast to rhyme with ‘treacle’, correctly according to Stevenson) attends a lecture to his adoring contemporaries where he announces that he has discovered that Man’s very soul is split between the good, the desire to love and perform good deeds and the bad, where Man succumbs to his baser instincts.
Whilst walking home through Soho with his colleague, Doctor John Lanyon (Holmes Herbert, The Invisible Man), Jekyll spots a bar singer, Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins), being attacked by a man outside her boarding house. Jekyll drives the man away and carries Ivy up to her room to attend to her. Ivy begins flirting with Jekyll and feigning injury, but Jekyll fights temptation and leaves with Lanyon.
Unable to convince his beloved Muriel’s (Rose Hobart, later seen in Tower of London) father Brigadier General Sir Danvers Carew (the equally splendidly monickered Halliwell Hobbes) that a quick wedding would be preferable to the year he insists upon, Jekyll continues his experiments in his personal lab, waited upon by his faithful servant, Poole (Edgar Norton from Dracula’s Daughter and Son of Frankenstein), eventually developing a potion which he elects to test on himself.
Transforming into a quasi-Neanderthal, dubbed Mr. Hyde, he continues to swagger around the upper class haunts of Victorian London but with unabashed bravado and bestial relish, gatecrashing the club Ivy frequents and seducing her in an extremely unsubtle manner.
Imprisoning her in her own room at a boarding house, Hyde torments and abuses Ivy but as the potion’s effects wear off, Jekyll realises hid absence has done his chances of marrying Murial no favours, he leaves Ivy temporarily, vowing to teach her a lesson if she attempts anything silly. Convincing his future father-in-law that his absence is completely out of character, the marriage finally receives his blessing and a large party is organised to make the announcement public. He sends Ivy £50 by way of apology, prompting her to visit the mystery benefactor and falling for him once again. Alas, Jekyll has been taking increasingly large doses of the potion and upon having a momentary ‘dark thought’, he again transforms into his alter-ego, against his will, even more hideous than before.
Returning to Ivy’s lodgings, he reveals he and Jekyll are one and the same and after some more brutality, he goes the whole hog and murders her. With Lanyon now wise to what is going on, Hyde inevitably ends up at Murial’s house, attacking her and the rest of the household, killing her father in the process. With the police on his tale, Hyde and Jekyll struggle to come to terms with who holds the upper hand – is it too late for Jekyll to make amends?
The film was made prior to the full enforcement of the Hay’s Production Code and this should come as no surprise. The film bristles with sexuality, with barely veiled nods to rape and sexual violence and with the two leading ladies revealing plenty of leg and not a little cleavage. When it was re-released in 1936, the Code required 8 minutes to be removed before the film could be distributed to cinemas. This footage was later 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 coloured 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 the black-and-white film. The effects are not advanced as those of 1940’s The Wolf Man, nor as ageless as 1932’s The Invisible Man but they are nevertheless remarkable.
A disgracefully uncredited 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 make-up came close to permanently disfiguring March’s own face. Westmore later helped create the similarly beast-like inhabitants of Island of Lost Souls. 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 withMetro-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.
When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer remade the film ten years later with Spencer Tracy in the lead, the studio bought the rights to the 1931 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 film also makes better use of music than most other horror films of the 1930’s, including the celebrated studio of Universal. Beginning with the portent of Bach’s Fugue in D Minor, it shows Jekyll as an accomplished organist, the soundtrack making use of this diegetic tool. Miriam too plays the piano, whilst Ivy, of course, sings, the musical world of the good in contrast with the guttural grunts and hissing of Hyde. There is also a rare use of song in an early horror film, Ivy’s ‘theme tune’ “Champagne Ivy”, actually being an adaptation of the 19th Century music hall song “Champagne Charley”.
It was to be March’s only role in a horror film, though it was enough for him to claim the Oscar for best actor (tying with Wallace Beery in The Champ). Though his slightly simpering Jekyll make grate somewhat, his Hyde is a miraculous performance, energetic, twitching and frothing at the mouth with lust and vigour. His almost gymnastic feats in the film’s finale are a thing of wonder. As Hyde once taunts Ivy: ” I’ll show you what horror means!”
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES and MANIA
“Ostensibly a remake of the Barrymore silent, it is really a much more vigorous and innovative work, and a whole lot sexier as well. The later Spencer Tracy version also strived for a sense of eroticism, with mixed results, but this film achieves it.” John McCarty, Psychos: Eighty Years of Mad Movies, Maniacs, and Murderous Deeds, St. Martin’s Press, USA, 1986