Every month, my friend Karen of Shadows & Satin and I go Pre-Code Crazy and pick a movie airing on TCM.
Fredric March plays Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), an elegant, aristocratic doctor criticized by friends and colleagues for his eccentricity, idealism and kooky theories about healing the soul by splitting off man’s repressed side. Jekyll knows a thing about that side, as he’s being made to wait almost a year to marry the woman he loves, Muriel (Rose Hobart). His desire for her is so powerful that containing it that long is more than he can bear, so he gets to work on his potions and experiments with letting loose his wild side. Right after downing one steaming cocktail, he transforms into an uninhibited, brutish, primitive version of himself. This alter ego, whom he calls Dr. Hyde, storms around town indulging Jekyll’s basest desires, expressing every uncensored thought and fixating on sexy dance hall girl Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) whom he abuses and eventually kills. Over time, the good doctor can’t hide the effects of his sleepless nights, growing anxieties and torturous guilt, while Hyde becomes ever uglier, a physical manifestation of his conscience and evil acts, much like Dorian Gray’s portrait.
It’s a story that’s been filmed numerous times but this pre-Code version is still my favourite because it makes such good use of the era’s allowable naughtiness and excesses to tell a morality tale about the dangers of going too far into things forbidden. Jekyll’s urges boil over like the pot in his lab, March and Hobart communicate exactly what kind of togetherness they’re so eager to rush into, and Hopkins what kind of attention she wants from the doctor. We see Hyde’s savagery toward Ivy, and whatever director Rouben Mamoulian couldn’t show, he creatively suggests by pointing the camera at erotic artwork, conveying the message about off-screen human activity, and making you consider the difference between artifice and reality.
Jekyll is correct that overemphasis on restraint, denial of natural impulses, and fear of facing anything uncomfortable are all ridiculous and dangerous, but his is an age of strict boundaries and harsh rejection for those who cross them. He hopes to strike a healthy balance between extremes, but thanks to his hubris and the time he spends wallowing in depravity and pleasures of the flesh, he loses control of his dark side as well as the timing and intensity of his transformations.
And intensity is the word when it comes to March’s performance. Some find it stagey, but he does wonders with the rollercoaster of emotions and the explosive physicality. His transformation from polished doctor to feral caveman was groundbreaking (and still impressive), and owes as much to his acting as it does to those great effects.
Hopkins is provocative and playful at the beginning when she’s trying to lure him, then tragically has her spirit broken down until she’s suicidal. I love the scenes when she first meets Hyde, and studies him with a combination of horror and fascination. He (likely unintentionally) spits on her when he forcefully pronounces “pig-sty,” and when he tries to kiss her she looks like Sigourney Weaver recoiling from the Alien. The 1st-person camera POV slowly introduces us to the doctor and pays off during so many scenes, like the one where Hyde first marvels at his indecent self in a mirror. It’s a must-see, stylish and daring movie with a sympathetic lead in high, horrific drama.
I have to mention that when one of my TV addictions, Penny Dreadful, returns this spring they’ll add Dr. Jekyll to their cast of characters plucked from classic monster lit–can’t wait to see that, but in the meantime, this version of
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) is on TCM February 12, now please hop over to Karen’s blog to see which pre-Code film she picked this month.