Friday, March 13, 2009

6. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Director: Rouben Mamoulian

Cast: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins and Rose Hobart.

Caveman Quotient: A solitary specimen of uncharacteristic tenacity.


I’d like to apologise for my lateness. I really would. You see, I’d been looking forward to discussing today’s film for an awfully long time, and yet when its turn came around it caught me dragging feet and going off to do heinous things like reading novels. I guess sustaining interest in anything can be a trial, especially when one is compelled to remain riveted by an endless parade of mediocre caveman comedies. Thankfully, however, today’s film is not only largely a-comedic, but it manages to avoid being mediocre, too. In fact, I’d even go so far as to declare Paramount’s 1931 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde to be one of the finest horror films ever made.

Now, there’s a problem there. “Thomas,” you might well ask, “what the hell does The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde have to do with cavemen?” The answer is of course “absolutely nothing”, but the film adaptation is a very different matter. In bringing R L Stevenson’s novella to the screen, Rouben Mamoulian and his team made some very bold changes to what was, even in 1931, becoming rather shop-worn material. Discarding Stevenson’s idea of a man trying to slough-off the evil in his soul, the film instead latches onto the modern perception of the Victorian condition and presents a Henry Jekyll who is seeking to escape the physical yearnings and selfish impulses of his base, animal nature. As a consequence, rather than Dr Jekyll’s exploration of the dual nature of man leading to a separation of the “evil” and the “good”, there instead occurs a separation of the “civilised” and the “primitive”, with Jekyll’s imbibing of his transformative potion causing him to degenerate into a hideous Neanderthal.

The choices made by Mamoulian’s film may, on the surface, appear sensationalist and exploitatively lurid. Not only are the spectacularly simian make-up effects and transformation scenes about as far from Stevenson’s novella as you could care to travel, but the entire film is centred around a theme of sexual repression that has almost no basis in the original book. In the novella, Jekyll is described as a bit of a stuffed-shirt, who was wild in his younger days, and who is now obviously trying to grapple with his desire for freedom of action in conflict against the buttoned-down nature of Victorian high society. As Stevenson himself pointed-out, the theme is hypocrisy, in that Jekyll desperately wants to appear a good person while at the same time being able to do every nasty thing he ever wanted. In the film, however, Dr. Jekyll is never really a hypocrite. Instead, he is a victim of his society – an idealist and philanthropist bordering on a saint who devotes a great deal of time to treating the poor in a free clinic that he runs, yet at the same time finds himself driven to distraction by the intense physical desire he feels for his betrothed, Muriel Carew. The crux of the problem is this – Muriel’ father the General is a self-absorbed prig, and insists that the couple must take each others hands on the same date that he and Muriel’ mother wed. The only problem being that doing so requires an agonising wait of eight long months. Given the battle between propriety and human nature that must be raging back and forth within Jekyll’s soul, it only makes sense that the poor guy would start to entertain notions about the duality of man (that he would be attempting to separate the base and civilised portions using a potion of his own devising in the hope of perhaps nullifying it is, admittedly, somewhat more peculiar - but then I guess it does make for a pretty cool story).

Matters are made worse when Jekyll, walking home one night, rescues a pretty young prostitute from a dispute with a John. The minute young Ivy gets a look at him, with his top-hat and cape and gentlemanly manner, she immediately realises that she could be on to a very good thing. She puts the charm on something extraordinary (the seduction scene displays frank sexuality and an erotic charge that must have had quite a few people worried even in those pre-Code times), and it looks as though Jekyll might even succumb, only being “rescued” at the last minute by his friend the prudish Dr. Lanyon. The two men depart as Ivy’s bear leg sways back and forth in Jekyll’s mind like a pendulum, and Henry explains to his friend that repeats of this sort of business are exactly what he hopes to avoid by means of his “experiments”.

The final straw comes when Jekyll gets a little too caught-up in his experiements one night and temporarily transforms himself into a Neanderthal. As a consequence, he manages to almost miss a dinner-date with the Carews, and the General is so flustered that he decides to take Muriel away from Jekyll on a tour of France. She protests, but to no avail, and Jekyll is left alone and bored and thinking about a lot of things, sex chief among them. In the end he figures consequences be damned and decides to give his potion another try. He’s realised by this point that it won’t allow him to escape his baser impulses, but perhaps, with a little finesse, it might allow the good doctor to indulge them. And so once more he swallows his potion, clutches at his throat, and gasps in horror as his teeth lengthen, his skin grows dark and hairy, and he transforms into this:

Needless to say, this probably wasn’t what he had in mind when he started the project.

The Hyde in this version is a fascinating character. Rather than being a figure of pure evil, he is something far more sophisticated and psychologically intriguing – a bundle of atavistic impulse completely shorn of civilised convention. He does things not because he’s evil, but because he doesn’t know any better; it’s only gradually that Hyde grows more sophisticated in himself, developing the necessary emotional equipment to blossom into a heartless, vindictive savage. And so his first action upon transforming is not to go out and beat people up for no real reason, but to finally cut through all the societal red tape and get himself a little tail.

Obviously privy to Dr. Jekyll’s memories, Hyde tracks down Ivy, who is plying her trade in a sort of cabaret deal that suggests The Blue Angel crossed with an Old West saloon. A woman of the world, she sings the number “Anytime Ivy”, which could be considered her theme song of sorts, and when Hyde asks someone to bring her to him she comes without hesitation, secure in the woefully misguided belief that she can handle anything. Hyde - who is self-professedly no gentleman - paws her, makes a show of courting her with some champagne, and then proceeds to threaten her into accepting the unenviable position of his kept woman.

From here the film plays-out as you’d expect it too, with the noble Dr. Jekyll attempting to juggle the demands of his public life alongside Hyde’s relationship with poor old Ivy. Hyde’s relationship with Ivy is one of twisted sadism that is truly painful to behold. In these scenes, Frederic March’s performance is so convincing that it’s very, very difficult not to squirm. Ivy Pearson’s life is, in effect, a living hell. She can’t escape Hyde, for fear that if she goes to the police he’ll track her down and kill her, and there is every sign that her fears are fully justified. What this leaves her too, in the meantime, is a life in which she is kept caged-up like a performing animal which Hyde tortures for his amusement. The most painful of these scenes occurs when Hyde, alerted by a newspaper article that Muriel is returning to London, tells Ivy that he’ll be going away for a while – though he knows not how long. Unfortunately, Ivy makes the mistake of showing a barely discernible hint of relief at this news. Unfortunately, because Hyde, as a living personification of all that Jekyll has repressed, is as much a creature of self-loathing as of desire; and his actions are motivated as much by a yearning to lash-out at a world which he hates, and which hates him in return. And so Hyde proceeds to wheedle Ivy... Do you hate me? No? Then you must love me! If you love me, you must be happy! Why don’t you show it? Why don’t you dance, and sing! Sing for me, damn you! And so he forces her to sing, and so Ivy sings. “Anytime Ivy”, to be exact. And only then, as Ivy lies broken and weeping on the bed, does Hyde proceed to rape her.

It is from this point that Jekyll attempts to reassert himself, swearing-off of Hyde and attempting to make amends with Ivy by sending her some cash. Of course, it’s all woefully inadequate and largely ineffectual. What Hyde fails to realise is that, by this point, he is no longer merely indulging his impulses and has now become a slave to them. That it was Hyde doing all those horrible things to Ivy doesn’t change the fact that Jekyll is the one who knowingly and willingly let Hyde out. In the end, Hyde reasserts himself again and again, potion be damned, and the results are just as disastrous and one would expect.

There are a lot of very good things about this film, but the two most obvious are Rouben Mamoulian’s direction and Fredric March’s captivating performance. The transfer to talking pictures from silent films was not a smooth one, and many directors were plainly baffled by how to balance things like fluid camera work and interesting visual story-telling against the demands of dialogue and sound recording. Many played it safe and let the actors do the work, and as a result many early talkies wind-up looking like nothing but nicely-lit stage plays. Mamoulian, however, had twin backgrounds in both stage direction and silent films, and as a consequence he had a much better idea of how to merge the elaborate direction and cinematography of the silent era with effect utilisation of sound. (He also appears to have been a bit of an arty tinkerer, and that never hurts either). For this film, he went all-out, employing everything from split-screens and double exposures to overlapping dialogue and elaborately-constructed hallucination sequences, all aimed at heightening the apparent subjectivity of the film. He announces his intentions in bombastic fashion in the very first moments of the film, opening with a first person tracking shot that follows Jekyll from his organ, where he is playing the “Toccata & Fugue in D Minor”, past the mirror where he checks his tie, and on a carriage ride all the way to the local institute where a lecture hall of medical students await him. The whole thing plays-out with no cuts, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more audacious opening for a film of this vintage. It’s also brilliant in that it sets a precedent which allows Mamoulian to cut back to shots from various characters’ perspective throughout the film without the audience being jarred by the transition. Equally attention-getting are the special effects - during Hyde's transformation scenes, a series of coloured filters were removed from the studio lights, the absence of each allowing a new layer of Fredric March's makeup to show on camera. The result is that Jekyll appears to transform into Hyde before your very eyes.

March, for his part, is every bit the match of his director. While a bit stiff in the guise of Jekyll, this is obviously a deliberate strategy on the film’s part. Once transformed into Hyde March is not only physically unrecognisable, but his voice, actions and mannerisms are all so perfectly peculiar and inhuman that it really does seem as though he were being played by a different actor. Everything, from facial twitches and his strange, jerky way of moving to the fact that he carries himself so as to actually appear to have diminished in size, is perfect. And the joy he takes in his role. From his first appearance, staring into a mirror and crying out "Free at last!", Hyde looks like just about the happiest man to have ever walked the Earth. Watching the film, it doesn’t seem possible that it could have worked with anyone else in the role – which probably explains why it didn’t work when MGM decided to produce its pointless and slavish remake ten years later. Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner? It sounds like a good cast, true, but aside from a typically good performance by Bergman nothing ever really seems to gel.

Before wrapping-up this confused and painful overview, I should probably also mention the female leads. Rose Hobart doesn’t get all that much to do, but she manages a fine job of selling Muriel Carew as a considerate young woman torn between duty to her father and her own desires for independence and romantic love. It also helps that she has fine chemistry with March, and that they are always believable as lovers (there’s also a nice touch, in that both Jekyll and Muriel are shown to vent their passions for one another through thoroughly melodramatic displays of piano-playing). It’s a rare pleasure to see a “good girl” role that actually generates sympathy and interest.

However, the real honour here goes to Miriam Hopkins who, as “bad girl” Ivy, does excellent service to a wonderfully meaty part. An interesting thing about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is that the film doesn’t really have any villains, only victims of unfortunate circumstance. True, Jekyll does unleash Hyde, ut at first he has no real knowledge of what will occur, and his gradual complicity is ofset by his genuine attempt to make amends. Similarly, Ivy, despite being a prostitute, is never real punished for her sensuality. It’s true that she does meet an unfortunate end, but it’s clear throughout that we are merely supposed to pity the poor girl for having attracted the attention of Hyde - and it is the combination of pitifulness and maturity that Hopkins brings to the role which really makes it work. The scene in which she first attempts to seduce Jekyll is played without a hint of condemnation, and Lanyon, who interrupts the two, is presented throughout the film as a pompous, condescending, overly moralistic prig. The only element of complicity that Ivy could be said to have in her demise is that she overestimates herself considerably in accepting Hyde’s invitation to come drink with her. And, given that she probably didn’t expect to meet a sociopathic ape-man, she can be forgiven this.

In the end, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not a subtle film; but it is a complex and beautifully-made one. There is a genuinely tragic element, and while it may rob to novella of some of its potent vagueness it does manage to provide a highly effective narrative and thematic framework in return. And what’s more, it serves-up scenes of skin-crawling horror and a compelling human drama while at the same time managing to provide a lucid commentary on a topic which, regrettably, remains relevant even in an age when naked chicks appear regularly on network television. It's also rather comforting to find a film about a scientist tampering in God's domain in which the film is explicitly on the side of the tamperers, even as it admits that we may not be able to cope with what we find there.


Four and a half cavemen out of five.


  1. This movie sounds awesome. I've seen a couple (lackluster) silent versions of Jekyll and Hyde, but I will definitely need to seek this one out. I'm glad that it arguably includes a caveman, otherwise I might never have found out about it!

  2. This is also how I am going to justify reviewing The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

    One thing I forgot to mention is that apparently MGM bought-up the rights to this film pulled it from distribution when they put out their own version in '41. This might be why it's not as well-known as the Spencer Tracy version even though that film is in most ways just a pale imitation of its predecessor.

  3. I should probably also note that the 1941 version is essential viewing for anyone who ever wanted to see Spencer Tracy ride through the clouds in a chariot drawn by naked Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner.

  4. In other words, it's essential viewing for every right-thinking man, woman, and child on this big green planet.