(7/10) In a nutshell: By many considered as the best version of Stephenson’s classic book, this 1931 film resulted in an Oscar win for actor Fredric March. Beautifully filmed by Rouben Mamoulian and well played across the board. It also features some stunning visual tricks and strong pre-code sexual content.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. 1931, USA. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Starring: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart. Written by Samuel Hoffenstein, Percy Heath. Based on the play by Thomas Russell Sullivan (uncredited), based on the novel Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Produced by Rouben Mamoulian, Adolph Zukor for Paramount. Tomatometer: 93 %. IMDb score: 7.7
The Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde story is one of the most enduring and classic ones in both literary and film history. Although the motives and circumstances of for splitting one character into two have changed from adaptation to adaptation, the basic premise of the story is still compelling. This 1931 version is the first sound film, and like most films, it is an adaptation of the 1897 stage play by Thomas Russell Sullivan, rather than the book by Robert Louis Stevenson.
I have already written extensively about Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, and for a more detailed look on the evolution of the story, please read the reviews of the different film adaptations from 1912, 1913, and most importantly, 1920.
There is an ongoing debate among film buffs about whether the 1920 or the 1931 version is the ultimate version. I look favourably on the 1920 version, but that is mostly because I am a huge fan of actor John Barrymore, and I think the simian make-up of the 1931 version is a bit over the top, and doesn’t really have any basis in the book. Nevertheless, I do think that as a film the 1931 version is more refined and the performance of Fredric March was well worth the Academy award that it garnered him.
The starting point of this film is Dr. Henry Jekyll (March) and his fiancée Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart). Her father Danvers Carew (Halliwell Hobbes) won’t give the lovers permission to marry – and of course according to Victorian morals this means there will be no rolling around in the hay. And at one point Jekyll remarks to his colleague Dr John Lanyon (Holmes Herbert) that ultimately a thirsting man must have water, regardless of who it is that offers it. In Jekyll’s case the offering comes from a bar singer, Ivy Pearson (a wonderfully seductive Miriam Hopkins) in a sexually dripping scene where there is a flash of underboob and a naked, dangling leg filling the screen – outrageous at the time.
Officially the idea behind Jekyll creating the potion is more of a Victorian moral stance. In a fiery speech before his colleagues Jekyll proposes the idea that in the future one could get rid of one’s dark side through splitting the personality in one good and dark side – and in the dark side the evil of the soul would ultimately spend itself until only good remains. This is of course complete hogwash, and the filmmakers know it. What this film really is about is sexual frustration. This is what brings on the changes.
The rest of the plot is more or less what we have seen before: Jekyll creates the potion that turns him into the hideous, evil Mr Hyde, who goes rampaging through London. Jekyll decides to stop the experiment, but starts turning into Hyde without the potion. Ultimately he tries to attack his fiancée, but the good in him rebels and he kills himself, turning once more into Jekyll in death.
The film was, of course, Paramount’s answer to the popularity of Universal’s horror movies Dracula and Frankenstein (review), both released earlier the same year. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was one of the few classic horror stories that Universal never got their hands on, since other studios owned the rights. (That didn’t prevent them from borrowing the premise in a number of films, though.) Initially John Barrymore was asked to reprise his role, but he was busy. March was given the role, mainly because of his strong resemblance to Barrymore, although he completely made it his own.
The film was adapted from the (uncredited) play by Thomas Russell Sullivan, by screenwriters Percy Heath and Russian émigré Samuel Hoffenstein. The latter would later contribute to such classics as The Miracle Man (1932), The Wizard of Oz (1939) and The Phantom of the Opera (1943). As director was chosen the Armenian-Georgian Rouben Mamoulian (who also produced), one of the most talked-about directors in Hollywood after his groundbreaking film Applause, made in 1929. Applause was one of the first to free up the use of the camera after it had been confined once again to mainly static shots because of the heavy and impractical recording machinery in the early talkies. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde also features some stunning camera work, including impressive crane shots, tracking shots and wild camera spins, most notably during Jekyll’s first transformation, when the whole rooms spins around several times. All in all, the film feels very modern in its visual language, as if unhampered by many of the technical difficulties of the time.
The most impressive visual trick of the film is the transformation. In the first scene we see the make-up revealed gradually on March’s face in one single, unbroken shot, changing from Jekyll to Hyde. The scene is still astounding today, and would paradoxically not work today with all our computer generated images. Here Mamoulian could draw on one of the benefits of black and white cinema – the absence of colour. What the filmmakers did was paint on the make-up in different colours, corresponding exactly to coloured filters on the lights. As the filters were gradually removed, so would the make-up become visible. Mamoulian also used a couple of very well edited replacement shots to add the hair on March’s hands and the canine teeth and neanderthal/ape man appearence of Hyde.
The rest was up to March, who plays Hyde with such joy that it is impossible not to feel for the man. ”Im free!” shouts Hyde when he first looks himself in the mirror, and proceeds to the house of Ivy with such glee and joy over being able to live out his wickedness, that one has to chuckle. Despite the heavy make-up, March infuses Hyde with subtle nuances and tics, although one does wonder what a lovely performance he wouldn’t have given if his face wasn’t plastered over with wax and clunky fangs. I, personally, have never been fond of the ape man-look of Hyde, and it is a shame that it has carried on so heavily in many other representations of him. The make-up itself, once revealed, is not spectacular, and it is March that makes the character so memorable.
The strong sexual content is another thing that makes this film memorable. It was severely hacked up by the sensors at its re-release in 1936, after the Hays Code had been enforced, and it would take decades before cinema was again allowed to portray sexuality so openly.
The actors are all good, although it is March and Hopkins as Ivy that shine in this film. Rose Hobart falls under the peculiar curse of the leading woman, that in so many old films are the most uninteresting characters on screen, confined to longing, pouting and occasional screaming. Ironically this was one of Hobart’s few leading lady roles. They were more often given to Miriam Hopkins, a very popular actress during the thirties and early forties, often in quite risqué roles, such as a rape scene in The Story of Temple Drake (1933) and a ménage à trois with Fredric March and Gary Cooper in Design for a Living the same year. She was nominated for an Oscar in the title role of Becky Sharp in 1935. Her comeback film in 1949, The Heiress, garnered her a Golden Globe nomination.
Holmes Herbert was a theatrical actor who started in silent films with stalwart leading roles, and had supporting roles in many classic Hollywood films of the sound era, including Captain Blood (1935), The Charge of the Light Brigade (1936), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), and The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938). He also became a staple in horror B-films of the era, like The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), The Invisible Man (1933, review), Mark of the Vampire (1935), Tower of London (1939), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), The Undying Monster (1942), The Mummy’s Curse and The Son of Dr. Jekyll (1952).
Halliwell Hobbes was a distinguished actor who also started appearing in lesser B-movies on the flipside of his career. In 1936 he had a role in Dracula’s Daughter, he joined Herbert in The Undying Monster, and appeared in The Revenge of the Invisible Man in 1947. Tempe Pigott as Mrs Hawkins appeared in uncredited supporting roles in The Bride of Frankenstein (review) and Werewolf of London in 1935. Edgar Norton (as Poole) appeared alongside Hobbes in Dracula’s Daughter and had a supporting role in Son of Dracula in 1939.
Fredric March was one of the biggest stars of cinema in the thirties and forties, and had a successful career up until the early seventies. He was nominated for an Oscar in 1930 for The Royal Family of Broadway – in essence playing one of the Barrymores, and it was arguably that role that landed him Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, for which he won an Oscar. He shared it with Wallace Beery, who played the lead in The Champ. Beery is also known for playing Dr Challenger in the dinosaur epic The Lost World (1925). March was again nominated for an Academy award in 1937 for A Star is Born, and won a second time in 1946 with The Best Years of Our Lives. He won a Golden Globe in 1951 for Death of a Salesman, and was nominated for both an Oscar and a BAFTA. He won a special prize an the Venice film festival along with the cast of Executive Suite in 1954. He was again nominated for a Golden Globe in 1959 for Middle of the Night and in 1964 for Seven Days in May. He won the Silver Bear at the Berlin film festival in 1960 for Inherit the Wind. He was nominated for an Emmy three times in the fifties, and is the only actor in history who has won both an Oscar and a Tony twice. That’s the sort of guy Fredric March was. And John Barrymore still kicks his ass.
The director of photography, Karl Struss, was a Hollywood legend, known for masterpieces like F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927) and Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. But he also moved about genre cinema. In 1932 he shot the H.G. Wells adaptation Island of Lost Souls (review). He also filmed Rocketship X-M in 1950 (review), the alien computer film Kronos in 1957 and the sci-fi classic The Fly in 1958. Executive producer Adolph Zukor had also produced the 1920 version.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. 1931, USA. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Starring: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Holmes Herbert, Halliwell Hobbes, Edgar Norton, Temple Pigott. Written by Samuel Hoffenstein, Percy Heath. Based on the play by Thomas Russell Sullivan (uncredited), based on the novel Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stephenson. Cinematography: Karl Struss. Art direction: Hans Dreier. Makeup: Norbert A. Myles, Wally Westmore. Editing: William Shea. Produced by Rouben Mamoulian, Adolph Zukor for Paramount.