US / 86 minutes / bw / Paramount Dir & Pr: Rouben Mamoulian Scr: Samuel Hoffenstein, Percy Heath Story: Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1886) by Robert Louis Stevenson Cine: Karl Struss Cast: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Holmes Herbert, Halliwell Hobbes, Edgar Norton, Tempe Pigott.
[An essay originally written for the Wonders in the Dark SF Countdown.]
This is widely regarded as the best screen version ever made of Stevenson’s classic tale. Alarmingly, we’re lucky to have it. When MGM was preparing to release its 1941 adaptation, with Spencer Tracy in the dual role, the company, in an act of cultural philistinism that’d almost surpass belief were it not that there have been other examples, sought out and destroyed every print of the 1931/2 adaptation that it could find. It was not until 1967 that a print of the Mamoulian movie was uncovered, and even then it was only the post-Code reissue of 1936, from which about eight minutes had been cut (from the middle of the first transformation to the middle of the second, which must have made things pretty confusing for audiences). At last, in 1994, an unbowdlerized print was discovered, so that now we’re free to watch it in all its glory.
It’s a matter of quiet pleasure to me that Mamoulian’s adaptation has made it into this countdown—albeit by the skin of its teeth—while the wholly unnecessary MGM remake hasn’t.
A note on the release date: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had its premiere on December 31 1931 and went on release a few days later, on January 3 1932. Technically, therefore, it’s a 1932 movie. However, it’s frequently listed as for 1931. Finicky, yes, I know.
Poole (Edgar Norton, left).
The movie opens with Dr Henry “Harry” Jekyll (March) playing on the pipe organ he keeps in his house for recreation. The intention seems to be to remind us of Phantom of the Opera (1925) so as to make us fully aware that this is a horror movie we’re watching. In the opening minutes of the movie Mamoulian deploys subjective camera; we watch through Jekyll’s eyes as he’s reminded by his butler, Poole (Norton), that he’s late for the public lecture he’s due to give. This use of the subjective camera is to prepare us for the first transformation scene, which we’ll see from the viewpoint of Jekyll as he faces himself in the mirror.
Jekyll (Fredric March) expounds his theory at one of his popular lectures.
Back to Jekyll’s present. When he gets to the lecture hall, he explains to a large and rapt audience of students and fellow physicians the underpinning of the movie:
“My analysis of the soul, and the human psyche, leads me to believe that man is not truly one, but truly two. One of him strives for the nobilities of life. This we call his good self. The other seeks an expression of impulses that bind him to some dim animal relation with the earth. This we may call the bad. These two carry on an eternal struggle in the nature of man, yet they are chained together, and that chain spells repression to the evil, remorse to the good.
“Now, if these two selves could be separated from each other, how much freer the good in us would be. What heights it might scale. And the so-called evil, once liberated, could fulfil itself—and trouble us no more.
“I believe the day is not far off when this separation will be possible . . .”
After the lecture he runs into his old friend Dr. Lanyon (Herbert), who tells him they’re expected to tend a wealthy hypochondriacal duchess. No, no, says Jekyll: he’d rather take care of his charity patients and to hell with the fat duchess’s fat fee. So, to Lanyon’s obvious disapproval, he goes off and, near Christ-like, does things like persuading a cute little crippled urchin, Mary (uncredited), to cast aside her crutches and walk.
Mary (uncredited), a charity patient to whom Jekyll restores the power of locomotion.
Later he and Lanyon dine with Brigadier-General Carew (Hobbes) and his daughter Muriel (Hobart), who is Jekyll’s affianced. Carew is insisting that the wedding between the two be postponed for nigh on a year. Both Jekyll and Muriel are desperate to get married as soon as possible, but the old man is obdurate. Obviously for two such righteous youngsters as Jekyll and Muriel the very thought of premarital malarkey is out of the question . . . except that it’s obvious both of them are thinking about it quite a lot.
Muriel (Rose Hobart) and Harry (Fredric March), a happy young couple impatient for marriage.
On the way home through the London streets, Lanyon reproves his younger friend:
Lanyon: “I’m afraid you’ve offended the general.”
Jekyll: “Offended him? It’s a pity I didn’t strangle the old walrus.”
Moments later, Jekyll is rescuing tavern chanteuse and general all-round floozie “Champagne” Ivy Pearson (Hopkins)—spelled “Pierson” in the closing credits but seen written as “Pearson” during the movie—from some drunken pickup. He carries her up to her rooms and checks that her injuries are but slight.
Jekyll (Fredric March) carries the bruised Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) up to her apartment.
In a sequence that involves the slow, sensuous removal of her stockings and garters, she makes it clear that, when a girl says she’d do anything to express her gratitude, she doesn’t mean cooking him a nice meal. Despite the fact that, as we know, Jekyll is in a condition described by Mervyn Peake in Titus Alone (1959) as like a tightened harp-string, he rebuffs her advances. Even so, when she sweeps him into a passionate kiss he doesn’t put up much resistance.
Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) makes it plain to her savior (Fredric March) that her gratitude knows no bounds.
It’s at that moment that Lanyon walks in. By this time, oddly, one of the garters she removed is back on her thigh. Maybe it’s one of them homing garters you’ve read about.
The appalling scene that greets Lanyon when he bursts into the room.
As the two men leave, there’s a neat superimposition of Ivy’s swinging naked leg, to the sound of her final husked words to Jekyll—“Come back sooooon”—over the figures of Jekyll and Lanyon while they’re climbing back down the outside stairs to the street:
Lanyon’s still very dismissive of Jekyll’s theories about being able to separate the wanton and the civilized aspects of an individual. Jekyll’s response epitomizes the Hollywood understanding of science:
“I tell you it’s unscientific not to admit the possibility of anything.”
Needless to say, the unfulfillable yearnings for Muriel and the quite obviously rather more fulfillable yearnings for Ivy contribute to Jekyll renewing his researches into finding a chemical potion that might release his more brutish self from the constraints of his civilized persona.
The potion, appropriately, steams.
The earnest young scientist (Fredric March), hard at work.
Even so, he downs it, and we witness—in Jekyll’s laboratory mirror—the metamorphosis of the civilized man of science into the simian Mr. Hyde, who takes the form of some perhaps Neanderthal evolutionary ancestor of Homo sapiens, his head-shape reminiscent of a gorilla’s or chimp’s, his teeth a picket fence in the wake of a tornado.
This first transformation is one of cinema’s great tours de force. We actually see much less of it than we think we do. The illusion is created by having the subjective camera follow the track of Jekyll’s frantic gaze around the paraphernalia of his laboratory, with snips of various of the scenes we’ve already seen and voices like those of Carew and Lanyon accusing him of base impulses—he wants to hurry up the marriage, he kissed Ivy, etc. . . . While it’s an astonishingly clever piece of cinematic trickery, for much of the time—invested as we are in events—we’re letting our imaginations fill in the details without our realizing it.
The first transformation.
Part of the dramatic metamorphosis of Jekyll to Hyde was achieved by applying a wig and false teeth to March while the camera wasn’t looking, part of it was done by March himself, expertly manipulating his facial muscles, and part of it was done by the clever use of filters: March’s face was made up in some areas using colored makeup invisible to the standard filter, but then the filters were adroitly changed. On the bw film, the effect was to make it seem as if dark patches—bruises?—had appeared from nowhere on the actor’s face. (Later in the movie a different technique was used, essentially a matter of editing akin to what goes on in stop-motion animation. It’s not nearly as effective.)
Reified at last, the brutish Hyde hotfoots it to the tavern—the so-called Variety Club—where Ivy sings, and grabs a table where he and she can have a romantic drinkie. She at first seems to assume he’s just a new and rather more vomitworthy than usual client. (“Strike me pink,” she tells the waiter who informs her of the man’s request for her company. “You interest me. I’ll take a chance.”) He, for his part, presses his suit by use of a string of those appeals that we chaps thought were infernally cunning seduction lines when we were about 15: “I like you when your temper’s up” is perhaps the best of them, although “You should have a place that would set off that fine body of yours” and “I’m no gentleman . . . but I have money” run it close. There’s even “What I want, I get.” Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Trump? What emerges quite clearly in this first conversation with Ivy is that Hyde is hugely jealous of Jekyll, who could have made her his through kindness, civility and good looks rather than through fear.
Hyde (Fredric March) tells Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) she’ll never be free of him.
And fear it is. Whatever Ivy’s bravura beforehand, her revulsion now for him, her terror of him—they’re palpable.
Jekyll might have been able to resist further metamorphoses in order to indulge in the temptations of the flesh—in Hydeness—after this first experiment were it not for the fact that Carew has dragged Muriel off for an extended stay in Bath. Not only is Jekyll free at any time to transform himself into Hyde and dash out through his laboratory’s rear door for a night of brutalized sex with Ivy, the continued isolation from Muriel is, well, tightening that harp string:
Jekyll: “Miss Muriel won’t be home for another month. Can’t even go to see her.”
Poole: “I’m sorry to hear it, sir.”
Jekyll: “Another month!”
Poole: “I beg your pardon, sir, but may I suggest you ought to amuse yourself.”
The remainder of the plot is much as we could guess even if we didn’t know it so well. Muriel and her father get back from Bath and Carew finally agrees the couple can wed as soon as practicably possible.
Eventually Carew (Halliwell Hobbes) gives Mary (Rose Hobart) and Harry permission to bring the marriage forward.
Jekyll resolves to forswear forever his use of the potion. Alas, he’s now incapable of resisting spontaneous metamorphoses: on the night when he’s supposed to be at Carew’s dinner announcing the engagement he’s off murdering Ivy. (Perhaps the most striking moment of many in the movie is when Ivy, believing herself forever rid of Hyde, toasts herself in the mirror just as, over her reflected shoulder, the door inches open to reveal her leering oppressor.) There’s going to be no happy ending to this one . . .
Ivy (Miriam Hopkins), having believed herself free of Hyde forever, is distraught to glance up from her mirror and discover she was wrong.
A recurring motif throughout the movie is that of freedom. Jekyll and Muriel crave the freedom to be physically united, a freedom barred to them by her ghastly old father and the constraints of society. Jekyll is intent upon setting the two aspects of the individual free from each other. Hyde, once first incarnated, throws his head back to swallow the London rain as he rejoices in his liberation from the prison of Jekyll:
“Free! Free at last! Ah! Mad, eh, Lanyon? Eh, Carew? You hypocrites, deniers of life! If you could see me now, what would you think?”
Hyde (Fredric March) rejoices in his freedom from Jekyll.
There’s a long (somewhat bathetic) sequence toward the movie’s end where Jekyll’s greatest desire is to set Muriel free from any obligations of engagement she might have, so that, in being released from Jekyll, she is released also from Hyde. Most poignantly of all, Ivy dreams of setting herself free from the thralldom of Hyde while all the time knowing this can never be: she will be his slave until he chooses to kill her. She tells as much to her sympathetic landlady, Mrs. Hawkins (Pigott), and then later to Jekyll himself. The former hardly believes her; the latter is fool enough to think he can protect her through governing his own impulses.
Mrs. Hawkins (Tempe Pigott) advises Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) to escape from Hyde while she can.
Jekyll (Fredric March) promises Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) that Hyde will never trouble her again. Alas . . .
Overall, the conclusion seems to be that unbridled freedom—the freedom Hyde attains and that so many of us think we want or believe is our right—is harmful not just to others but to ourselves: during the limited period within which Hyde enjoys his release from the shackles of restraint, he murders two people but himself comes to a sticky end. There’s a freedom to put oneself outside the mainstream of society, the movie’s telling us, but it comes at a personal cost, and possibly a terminal one. It’s not that freedom is unattainable, but that its exercise carries with it responsibilities—responsibilities that Hyde is unwilling or unable to acknowledge.
Threatened by Lanyon (Holmes Herbert) . . .
. . . Hyde (Fredric March) starts to demonstrate the potion’s power.
March won a well deserved Best Actor Oscar for the dual role (tied with Wallace Beery for The Champ, something that must have pained the snobby March mightily); the screenplay and cinematography both won nominations. In a more enlightened era, Hopkins might well have repeated March’s feat in the Best Actress category, but she probably showed too much flesh for the Academy’s approval.
The truth is that the impressive performance from March is as Hyde. Anyone male and passably good-looking could have tackled the not especially demanding role of Jekyll at least adequately, but Hyde is a genuinely special creation, requiring true skills from the actor. Every move of Hyde’s is full of vigor—his body language is that of a small boy on the first day of the summer vacation, when the swimming pool or the soccer pitch beckons. His gait is sometimes a caper, sometimes close to a glide. Also, while Jekyll—supposedly a Londoner—has an unreconstructed American accent, Hyde does at least sound English . . . well, most of the time.
It’s not that Jekyll is an entirely vapid, two-dimensional character. As we watch, it slowly dawns upon us that Jekyll isn’t as entirely disengaged from Hyde’s actions as he (and we) might wish to think. In many ways, he’s Hyde’s accomplice. When Hyde is chased through the streets and finally cornered in Jekyll’s laboratory, it’s the hastily reconstructed Jekyll who tries to cover up his alter ego’s trail. Similarly, when Jekyll seeks to liberate both Ivy and Muriel from the horrors of Hyde, he could do so by the simple expedient of jumping off a high building. He chooses instead to try a sort of compromise with his own subconscious—a deal with Hyde, in other words, even though he must know this is a deal with the Devil. These aren’t the actions of the saint we at first thought we’d met.
Carew (Halliwell Hobbes) makes clear his low opinion of Jekyll (Fredric March).
The 1931/2 screen adaptation of Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is part of the Hollywood Gothic tradition that would eventually, although never a major contributor, feed into the film-noir style. In this it resembles the roughly contemporaneous—although I’d argue far less subtle—Frankenstein (1931) dir James Whale, with Boris Karloff, Colin Clive, Mae Clarke and John Boles. There’s another link to Frankenstein: the idea that science is ever in peril of invading God’s province, and the experimenters must pay the price when it oversteps the boundary. Baron Frankenstein dared to create life and was thereby damned. Jekyll experiments with innate human personality, and so his fate must be similar.
There are echoes, too, of Oscar Wilde’s novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890), in that the protagonists of both are in some sense trying to get away from the moral repercussions of their licentious behavior.
Jekyll (Fredric March) relaxes at the pipe organ . . .
. . . while Mary (Rose Hobart) seeks solace from her woes at the piano.
In minor ways Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde shows its age—for example, there’s no musical soundtrack as such beyond a couple of essays by Jekyll on his pipe organ and by Muriel on the Carew family grand. Yet there’s a tremendous modernity in the movie’s open attitude toward sexuality—Ivy’s brazenness is up front and obvious, while it’s made clear that those same yearnings lie within the bosom of the outwardly straitlaced Muriel. Viewing it today, the movie seems as fresh and as full of vigor as it must have seemed on release. As I said when writing about Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for The Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997), which I edited with John Clute, “This movie is a classic of the cinema and a milestone in both horror and technofantasy genres. Its most terrifying feature is that we all know Hydes.” Add to that that it’s one of the masterpieces of science-fiction cinema.
Part of the decor in Ivy’s apartment.
But there’s more!
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931/2) is just one of countless screen adaptations of either Stevenson’s novella or the stage play based upon it, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1887) by Thomas R. Sullivan. Here’s a list (with occasional brief notes) of some of the most enjoyable and/or significant of those others:
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908 US) dir Otis Turner, with Hobart Bosworth and Betty Harte. A lost movie.
- Den Skæbnesvangre Opfindelse (1910 Denmark; vt Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde) dir August Blom, with Alwin Neuss. A lost movie.
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1912 US) dir Lucius Henderson, with James Cruze, Florence Labadie and Marie Eline.
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913 US) dir Herbert Brenon, with King Baggot, Jane Gail and Howard Crampton. You can find this on YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jjLSic_FPBk
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1913 US) dir Frank E. Woods, with Murdock MacQuarrie.
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920 US) dir John S. Robertson, with John Barrymore, Nita Naldi, Martha Mansfield, Brandon Hurst and Charles Lane. Here it’s Carew—father to Jekyll’s betrothed—who sets the staid Jekyll on his path of debauchery; concerned for the future of his daughter, he explains the only way to banish temptation is initially to give in to it. After giving in to really quite a lot of it, Jekyll creates his potion.
- Der Januskopf (1920 Germany) dir F.W. Murnau, with Conrad Veidt, Béla Lugosi (as the doctor’s butler!), Magnus Stifter, and Margarete Schlegel. Murnau changed the names of the dual protagonist to Dr. Warren and Mr. O’Connor to avoid having to pay the Stevenson estate. A lost movie.
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920 US) dir J. Charles Haydon, with Sheldon Lewis, Dora Mills Adams, Gladys Field and Leslie Austin.
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941 US) dir Victor Fleming, with Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Donald Crisp, Peter Godfrey, Ian Hunter and Frances Robinson. The lesser of the two “classic” talkie versions.
- Son of Dr. Jekyll (1951 US) dir Seymour Friedman, with Louis Hayward, Jody Lawrance, Alexander Knox and Lester Matthews.
- Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953 US) dir Charles Lamont, with Boris Karloff, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello. You really didn’t want to know this one existed, did you?
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1955 US TVM) dir Allen Reisner, with Michael Rennie, Cedric Hardwicke and Mary Sinclair. Adapted for the Climax! series by Gore Vidal. A short (~45 min) but really quite pleasing version.
- Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957 US), dir Edgar G. Ulmer, with John Agar, Gloria Talbott and Arthur Shields.
- The Ugly Duckling (1959 UK) dir Lance Comfort, with Bernard Bresslaw, Maudie Edwards, Jon Pertwee and Reginald Beckwith. From Hammer, a surprisingly amusing comedy version updated to the 1950s.
- The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960 UK; vt House of Fright; vt Jekyll’s Inferno) dir Terence Fisher, with Paul Massie, Christopher Lee, Dawn Addams, David Kossoff and Norma Marla. The first of the Hammer Horror riffs on the theme.
- The Nutty Professor (1963 US), dir Jerry Lewis with Jerry Lewis, Stella Stevens and Del Moore. Despite moments of brilliance, a comedy that seems not quite to live up to its promise.
- Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (Canada/US 1968 TVM; vt The Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde) dir Charles Jarrot, with Jack Palance, Denholm Elliott, Leo Genn, Oscar Homolka, Duncan Lamont, Liz Cole and Billie Whitelaw.
- I, Monster (1971 UK) dir Stephen Weeks, with Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Richard Hurndall, George Merritt, Susan Jameson, Marjie Lawrence and Mike Raven. Strangely, the names of Jekyll and Hyde are changed but Lanyon, Enfield, Poole and Utterson all have their accustomed roles in what’s a moderately faithful version of Stevenson’s tale.
- Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971 UK) dir Roy Ward Baker, with Ralph Bates, Martine Beswick, Susan Brodrick, Lewis Fiander, Dorothy Alison and Gerald Sim. A T&A riff.
- Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1973 US) dir David Winters, with Kirk Douglas, Susan George, Susan Hampshire and Michael Redgrave. A musical.
- Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde (1976 film US) dir William Crain, with Bernie Casey, Rosalind Cash and Marie O’Henry. A blaxploitation adaptation.
- Dr. Heckyl and Mr. Hype (1980 US) dir Charles B. Griffith, with Oliver Reed. Horribly misfiring satire from the dreaded Golan–Globus gang. Or is it actually intended as satire?
- Doctor Jekyll and Mister Hyde (1981 UK TVM), dir Alastair Reid, with David Hemmings, Ian Bannen and Lisa Harrow. A good but somewhat stodgy BBC adaptation.
- Docteur Jekyll et les Femmes (1981 France; vt The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Miss Osbourne; vt Bloodbath of Dr. Jekyll; vt The Blood of Dr. Jekyll; vt Le Cas Étrange du Dr. Jekyll et de Miss Osbourne; vt Doctor Jekyll and Miss Osbourne) dir Walerian Borowczyk, with Clément Harari, Udo Kier, Patrick Magee, Marina Pierro, Howard Vernon. Not far short of soft porn, this is quite a sophisticated piece stressing the sexuality aspect. “God knows what the raincoat trade makes of it . . .” wrote critic Chris Peachment.
- Jekyll and Hyde . . . Together Again (1982 US), dir Jerry Belson, with Mark Blankfield, Krista Errickson, Bess Armstrong, Michael McGuire and Tim Thomerson. Deliberately tasteless but entertaining comedy riff, set in modern US.
- The Jekyll Experiment (1982 US DTV; vt Dr. Jekyll’s Dungeon of Darkness; vt Dr. Jekyll’s Dungeon of Death) dir James Wood, with John Kearney, Dawn Carver Kelly, James Mathers, Tom Nicholson.
- Edge of Sanity (1988 UK) dir Gérard Kikoine, with Anthony Perkins, Glynis Barber, Ben Cole and Sarah Maur-Thorp. Jekyll accidentally turns himself into Jack the Ripper.
- Jekyll and Hyde (1990 US TVM) dir David Wickes, with Michael Caine, Cheryl Ladd, Joss Ackland and Ronald Pickup. A lavish treatment marred by a dire performance from Caine in the dual role.
- Dr. Jekyll and Ms Hyde (1995 US) dir David F. Price, with Tim Daly, Sean Young, Lysette Anthony, Harvey Fierstein and Stephen Tobolowsky. In a similar vein to Dr. Jekyll & Sister Hyde (1971).
- Mary Reilly (1996 US) dir Stephen Frears, with Julia Roberts, John Malkovich, Michael Sheen, Glenn Close, Michael Gambon, Ciarán Hinds and George Cole. Based on the 1990 Valerie Martin novel, this tells the tale from the viewpoint of Jekyll’s kitchen maid, who falls in love with him. The movie was widely disliked by the critics . . . although much enjoyed by this one (as was the novel).
- The Nutty Professor (1996 US) dir Tom Shadyac, with Eddie Murphy, Jada Pinkett, James Coburn, Larry Miller and Dave Chappelle. A remake of the 1963 Jerry Lewis outing. It was sequeled by Nutty Professor II: The Klumps (2000 US) dir Peter Segal, with Eddie Murphy, Janet Jackson, Larry Miller and John Ales, which I personally found even less funny.
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2003 UK TVM) dir Maurice Phillips, with John Hannah, David Warner, Gerard Horan, Kellie Shirley, Jack Blumenau, Brian Pettifer and Ellie Haddington.
- Jekyll + Hyde (2006 Canada DTV) dir David T. Reilly, with Brian Fisher, Bree Turner, Jeff Roop and Maria del Mar. An updating in which college student Henry “J” Jekyll comes across the transformational mixture while experimenting with illicit drugs.
- The Nutty Professor (2008 US–Canada) dir Logan McPherson and Paul Taylor, with the voices of Jerry Lewis, Drake Bell, Andrew Francis and Britt Irvin. An animated sequel to the 1963 Jerry Lewis outing.
- Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2008 US TVM) dir Paolo Barzman, with Dougray Scott, Krista Bridges, Tom Skerritt and Danette Mackay. Another updated version, this time set in Boston, with Hyde as a serial killer.
Jekyll and Hyde—often just Hyde—also turn up in supporting roles in unrelated movies, such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) and Van Helsing (2004).