Robert Louis Stevenson’s DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE was first published in 1886, causing quite a stir in its day. The tale of man’s dark side was a huge hit, and over the years has been adapted on stage, radio, and numerous film and TV versions. John Barrymore (in the 1920 silent), Spencer Tracy (a lush 1941 MGM production), Boris Karloff (Meeting Abbott & Costello), Paul Massie (Hammer’s 1960 shocker), Jack Palance (Dan Curtis’ 1968 TV movie), and Kirk Douglas (a 1973 TV musical) are just a few actors who’ve sunk their teeth into the dual role. The best known is probably this 1931 horror film with Fredric March in an Oscar-winning turn as good Dr. Henry Jekyll and his evil counterpart, the snarling Mr. Hyde.
Unless you’ve been living in a cave the past 130 years, you’re familiar with the story, so let’s look at the performances of Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. The incredibly handsome March as Jekyll (here pronounced JEE-kul) is a bastion of goodness, as we see in the opening POV shots where everyone smiles at him riding down the street in his carriage. Jekyll spends his free time working on the charity ward, comforting the ill and infirm, giving of himself to the less fortunate. Henry Jekyll is also the epitome of Victorian Era repression, striving to tamper down his baser instincts. He saves street prostitute Ivy from a beating, and treats her with care and compassion. She comes onto him, and Jekyll obviously struggles to remain restrained.
The love of his life, Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart), is a prim and proper maiden whose father wants the two to wait before being wed. Here March is staid, though frustrated at the thought of a long courtship. He’s like a gentleman in one of those drawing-room dramas, all googly-eyed and saccharine sweetness with Muriel, but trying to retain that stiff-upper-lip façade about it the whole thing.
Jekyll’s been experimenting with a new drug that will separate the two halves of his nature, bringing out only the finer, noble qualities and destroying the animalistic impulses. This backfires, and Mr. Hyde comes out in full, furious force. Where Jekyll was in control of his emotions, Hyde is the Id come to life. Here March (with an assist from Wally Westmore’s incredible makeup) rips off the veneer of morality and becomes an unbridled ball of energy, full of fury and lust. As Hyde, he’s a snarling, simian-like animal, leaping and bounding like a whirling dervish, without a thought for the welfare of others. He tracks down Ivy and asserts control over her in more ways than one, abusing her physically, mentally, and sexually, a really sick S&M/B&D relationship that inevitably ends with him murdering her, a scene that still manages to shock in its brutality. Whereas Jekyll appreciates beauty, Hyde only seeks to tear it down and destroy it. It’s a bravura performance by March, and his Oscar was well-deserved.
Miriam Hopkins as Ivy is both sympathetic and pathetic. Her cockney accent doesn’t quite convince, but her acting as the poor, doomed Ivy sure does. She’s street-wise and sexually provocative, a free soul who knows the way to a man’s wallet is through her body. Ivy’s repulsed by Hyde’s ugly countenance, but she’s willing to take his money at first. It soon becomes apparent that Hyde wants more than just sex, he wants to completely control her mind, body, and spirit. Now she’s trapped in a nightmare of torture and living in constant fear, with no way out except death. Ivy goes from carefree working girl to tormented victim, and Hopkins’ transformation in the part is just as effective as March’s. If the Academy had a Supporting Actress Oscar back then, Miriam Hopkins would’ve been the hands-down winner that season.
Rouben Mamoulian’s innovative direction sets DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE apart from its early Universal horror counterparts. FRANKENSTEIN and to a greater extent DRACULA suffer from staginess, but JEKYLL & HYDE moves thanks to Mamoulian’s dynamic camera tricks. The opening POV shot brings things to life, and Mamoulian’s use of swipes, fade-outs, split screens, tracking shots, and dissolves lets the viewer known they’re watching a FILM, not a filmed stage play. The director’s use of the medium was widely praised, and deservedly so. Mamoulian made other all-time greats still watched and studied today: QUEEN CHRISTINA (with Greta Garbo in another take on duality), BECKY SHARP (the first feature shot in three-strip Technicolor), THE MARK OF ZORRO (with an energetic Tyrone Power), and his last, SILK STOCKINGS (Fred Astaire’s final musical). Cinematographer Karl Struss uses lighting to create two worlds, the brightness of Jekyll’s moralistic life in society and the bleakness of Hyde’s debauchery down in the slums. The Jekyll-to-Hyde transformations were groundbreaking back in 1931, but sadly don’t hold up well. DR. JEKYLL & MR. HYDE is a classic of early horror, and compares favorably to the Universal nightmares of the era, even surpassing them on many levels. If you’re a lover of all things horror, put this one on your Halloween watch list.