Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)

…or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: The Ride.  Because for the first 5 or so minutes of this film, and then in spurts and starts throughout the duration afterward, we’re ‘treated’ to these inexplicable first-person shots from Henry Jekyll’s point of view, going so far as a long tracking shot so that we walk where he walks, look at who he’s talking to right in the eye, and look at him as he looks at himself in a mirror.  This was 1931, when a moving camera was still a pretty new and shockingly impressive innovation, so it seems like Mamoulian’s trying to milk it for all it’s worth in this long, superfluous tracking shot to start the film.  Maybe I’m being unfair looking at this type of over-reliance on flashy camerawork with 2009 eyes, and I suppose he’s trying to put us in Jekyll’s mindset, but that’s bogus, it’s just silly, and like I said, like a ride at Universal Studios.  I only wish that this adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s horror classic would’ve been more actor and character-driven than style-driven with those nonsensical point of view shots, because as it turns out, Fredric March is really, really good from the outset as Dr. Jekyll.  He’s enthusiastic about his work and his harebrained theories concerning the duality of man (that turn out to be not so harebrained after all), perhaps to a fault but still in an endearing kind of way, and even more enthusiastic about his love for and desire to marry his Muriel.  He’s just an affable, likable guy, made even more likable by his charming zeal for science – a zeal that quickly turns from charming to disturbing when he turns his experiment on himself in the name of science, allowing Mr. Hyde to emerge.

March had an impressive screen presence as the enthusiastic yet dignified Jekyll to begin with, but once he transforms into the crude and monstrous Hyde, whoa, what a performance!  This might’ve been the most knee-slappingly entertaining performance I’ve seen since I saw Nicolas Cage ham it up in “Vampire’s Kiss.”  March’s Mr. Hyde looks like a neanderthal, has the subtle mannerisms of both an ape and a man in the way he walks around normal-like and then jumps up and down, climbs bookshelves, laughs almost with a monkey-like “ooh-ooh”, and maniacally slaps people over the head at the drop of a hat, has these weird facial ticks featuring a deranged smile with those disgusting teeth, and just the way he acts and speaks is as vulgar and raucous as Jekyll is regal and professional.  You wouldn’t believe for a second that the same actor is playing both these parts, but Fredric March is convincing and compelling both as intelligent man of science and as malicious animal.  Also helps that the facial transformation from Jekyll to Hyde, shown in its entirety using different types of makeup that responded to separate camera filters, is absolutely remarkable, and more convincing than any present-day CGI that I’ve ever seen – no trying to conceal quick-cuts to get to the next phase of his transformation or cutting to another person’s reaction shot to get away with a lack of special effects, no, the entire transformation from handsome Jekyll to ape-like Hyde is depicted completely uncut in a single take, and you’ll completely buy into it.  Amazing.  If those first-person tracking shots were superfluous, here’s an instance of surface style and special effects that’s anything but.

If the character of Jekyll becomes repetitive and one-note after a while, especially during the increasingly hammy dialogues between he and his potential bride-to-be (although their final meeting, when he’s at the point of barely being able to keep Mr. Hyde at bay, is damn near heartbreaking to see this broken shell of a man long-removed from his prime), then the real selling-point of this film is the dark side of man, personified by Mr. Hyde and the dark underbelly of the world that he calls home.  Early on, Dr. Jekyll finds himself in the ramshackle home of common woman Ivy Pearson, and we’re treated to some very revealing, very sexy leg shots and near-nude shots of the absolutely beautiful yet shrill Miriam Hopkins as she slowly removes her pantyhose and tries to seduce the higher-class Jekyll and he rebuffs her, but these shots that would be unheard of just a few years after this when the Hayes Code would be put into effect foreshadow the coming emphasis on the nature of Hyde, of his cruel, sex-driven, animal-like instincts – the id personified that Jekyll, as the logic-driven ego, is initially able to suppress.  But later, Hyde emerges as the ultimate terror – a hateful, cackling monster with the memories of another man at his disposal, able to use those memories to torture and confuse Ivy, who has no idea who Mr. Hyde really is, and indeed, the scenes of Hyde insinuating himself in Ivy’s life are absolutely terrifying, the way he forces himself on her and she can only cry and scream in terror, even as he commands her to sing for him or brag about himself as a wannabe-Lothario.  Miriam Hopkins’ performance, although overdoing it with the whole cockney thing at first, quickly becomes great and heartbreaking – her fear of Hyde, as seen through sheer despair and hopeless tears, is totally palpable, so that even a performance as silly as March’s does become frightening in a way when we see it through the eyes of someone who’s basically being emotionally raped by him time and time again (without the use of first-person shots, no less! 🙂 ).  And this isn’t nearly as much a cookie-cutter depiction of Jekyll = good, Hyde = evil as I make it out to be, especially once Jekyll rather shamelessly tries to acquit himself of any responsibility for the terrible things that Hyde has done.  Jekyll may have no control over when Hyde emerges, but it was Jekyll who drank the potion.  He ain’t exactly an innocent party in all this, despite futilely trying to convince himself otherwise.

If more of the movie were like this, instead of Mamoulian trying to wow us with long tracking shots or trying to put us in Jekyll’s mindset via ridiculous point of view shots when March’s performance alone would’ve done that just as well, this could’ve been one of the all-time great horror films.  But what am I saying, even though Hyde’s mannerisms and the makeup applied to Fredric March are more silly than scary (but damned entertaining), watching a film this frank about its depiction of the female body – images that would drive the Hyde in all of us wild and scared the censors to death not long after this, and watching Miriam Hopkins’  look of shocked terror when Hyde reemerges in her life and cruelly summarizes to the letter her desperate meeting with Jekyll, a meeting she was so sure was in complete privacy and confidence, and then cower, scream, and cry in complete fear of this man-beast the way a battered woman lives in fear of an abusive spouse, pretty much makes this one of the all-time great psychological horror films anyway, and a great testament to the terrible instincts inherent in all of us –  a film years ahead of its time.


1 comment so far

  1. Beautiful Boobs : on

    Universal Studios is still one of the best film studios and you can also visit their offices `

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