Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) movie poster

(1931) dir. Rouben Mamoulian
viewed: 08/09/09

Wow.  What a great movie!  I can’t believe that I’d never seen this, given my childhood adoration for the “monster movie” and this film’s classic status.  I don’t know that I would have appreciated it as much, but it’s a remarkable pre-code film, loaded with sex and violence in the way only the pre-code era offered.  And Fredric March, who won a Best Actor Oscar for his performance is well-deserving in this vivid portrayal.

I was joking in my prior entry that there are many Oliver Twists out there.  As well, there are many Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydes out there too.  Hard to imagine that there is a better one, besides the original text by Robert Louis Stevenson.  Director Rouben Mamoulian does a lot of fascinating stuff in this film, shooting from the perspective of Dr. Jekyll through a long opening sequence, setting up that perspective for the powerful initial transformation he goes through to become Hyde, “reflecting” his self-view in a mirror.  I was even struck by how cheap throw-away junk is done with mirrors nowadays with images appearing that weren’t there, etc., etc.  and yet how interestingly the use of the mirror is in this film.

For those who aren’t familiar, the story is of a well-meaning firebrand of a scientist, Dr. Jekyll, who believes that he can separate good and evil in a person’s soul, allowing them to achieve greater good by outletting the evil.  The pent-up evil of Victorian England trransposed with that of the early 1930’s creates a vibe of salaciousness that is still profound today.  With a potion, he lets out his evil side, which he names Mr. Hyde, who is loathsome in looks and personality, an extract more evil than Jekyll could have imagined.

Hyde meets up with a prostitute, who Jekyll had assisted earlier on, rescuing her from a beating by her pimp.  The character of Ivy Pierson, played by the amazing Miriam Hopkins, is a portrayal of a victim domestic violence and abuse, but as well, sexually vibrant and sensitive.  Her story really makes the film, to be honest.  When she tries to seduce Jekyll, she shows her thigh and grabs his hand to put it on her leg.  The vibrance and energy of the sex, the frankness of the desires that Hyde represents are stated in no uncertain terms.

Jekyll is in love with Muriel, whose father has approved a marriage but will not let them wed for 8 months.  Jekyll is pent-up with repressed sexuality, as well as a strong yen for Ivy, who is not prim and proper, but sexy and beautiful.  It’s a somewhat Freudian aspect.  But palpable and frightening.  Hyde seethes with violence, anger, meanness.  The fact that he looks like a Troglodyte (a representation of his primordial being) is both distracting a yet logical.  March portrays the evil side with verve, energy, and aggression.

I was thinking through the film how much it is a story very true to even today, in a sense, not so much the purity of the duality, but of conflicting natures within.  And Jekyll/Hyde in a sense is a drug addict, relying initially on his formula to allows him to be the villain that lives within him.  But like an addict, he is changed, a different person.  And like many people who are abusers of their domestic partners, he displays both a charming side (Jekyll) and the vicious, hidden side (Hyde).  And I was thinking how it would be interesting to see this played without the make-up, highlighting the reality of the nature beneath the metaphor.

But the special effects are also worth noting.  The transformations vary a bit, but some of the most effective are very cleverly done, apparently having used colored filters to hide some of the make-up tones, making his color (or tinting) evolve very smoothly.  Mamoulian’s subjective camera adds to the psychological aspect of the film as well.  It’s well near a masterpiece.

I have to say that I was surprised at just how good this film is.  Released the same year that Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) and James Whale’s Frankenstein (1931), and it belongs right up there in its significance and qualities.  A vibrant, racy film about sex, violence, and human nature.

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