“You should go out, sir. London offers many amusements for a gentlemen like you, sir,” says Poole to Dr. Henry Jekyll. Jekyll responds, “Yes, but gentlemen like me daren’t take advantage of them, Poole. Gentlemen like me have to be very careful of what we do or say.”
1931 was a year that saw the release of two of the most famous horror films of all time, Tod Browning’s Dracula and James Whale’s Frankenstein. They were critical and box office hits that have endured for over 80 years, and are the films for which their stars are most famous for (Bela Lugosi for Dracula and Boris Karloff for Frankenstein). 1931 also saw the release of another great horror film, Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Although it hasn’t quite reached the iconic level of those two films, it is an Oscar-winning, innovative film that has fared well over the years. I saw it on the big screen at Film Forum four years ago as part of a double feature with Whale’s 1931 version of Waterloo Bridge (both were part of Film Forum’s Essential Pre-Code repertory series), and it was a very enjoyable experience. This review of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is my entry in the Pre-Code Blogathon hosted by Shadows & Satin and Pre-Code.Com (as noted by the logo at the top).
1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde follows the kindly Dr. Henry Jekyll in Victorian London as he creates a formula that, after testing it on himself, unleashes an evil alter ego called Edward Hyde, who commits horrible acts (including murder). Mamoulian gathered a terrific cast that included Fredric March (as Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde), Miriam Hopkins (as Ivy), Rose Hobert (as Muriel), Holmes Herbert (as Dr. Lanyon), Halliwell Hobbes (as General Carew), Edgar Norton (as Poole), and Tempe Pigott (as Mrs. Hawkins). March is simply marvelous in his duel roles as Jekyll and Hyde. He conveys the kindness of Jekyll so good that it’s hard to believe he also brings out the utter cruelty and savagery of Hyde. His performance is so masterful that it won March an Academy Award for Best Actor. Hopkins is also good as Ivy; she oozes sexuality as a bar singer who’s rescued by Jekyll early on only to be tormented and terrorized by Hyde later on. The film was released prior to the creation of the Production Code; when the film was re-released a few years later, eight minutes were cut out (mostly material involving Hopkins, who the censors believed oozed too much sexuality for audiences to handle). Thankfully, the cut footage was restored years later.
Mamoulian’s direction is top-notch. The Oscar-nominated screenplay by Samuel Hoffestein and Percy Heath (based on the novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson with some influence from the 1887 stage version by Thomas Russell Sullivan) explores the duality of man, showing that evil can lurk inside even the most kindest of men. It also explores how an unchecked ego and repressed sexual desire can manifest in the most horrible of manners. The production design by Hans Dreier is atmospheric and effectively recreates Victorian London. The Oscar-nominated black-and-white cinematography by Karl Struss is incredible, particularly the camerawork involved in creating the POV shots of Jekyll looking at himself in a mirror. Wally Westmore’s Oscar-worthy makeup design for the de-evolved look of Mr. Hyde was truly outstanding, especially the makeup process (aided by Struss’ cinematography) that went into the transformation sequences (which are more impressive considering the fact that the film is over 80 years old).
The costume designs by Travis Banton were first-rate and stayed true to the period depicted in the film. William Shea’s editing gives the film a good pace, and Herman Hand delivers an effective score. Mamoulian’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde remains one of the best adaptations of Stevenson’s book, thanks largely to March’s Oscar-winning performance, Struss’ Oscar-nominated cinematography, and Westmore’s innovative makeup techniques. It is a cautionary tale about the duality of man, the dangers of succumbing to one’s own hubris, and the fear of science run amuck. The film remains as chilling now as it was almost 85 years ago.
(Unfortunately, there is no trailer available for this film)