Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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14 thoughts on “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)”

  1. Do you know I’ve never seen this movie? Just bits and pieces, like Jekyll’s transformation and Miriam Hopkins sitting on the bed swinging one leg. But, as usual, you have convinced me. I will be tuning in. I can’t wait!

    1. This is one you have to try, even if monster movies aren’t your thing. For all the reasons above, plus it looks great in ways I didn’t have time to mention.

  2. There’s a lot of innovative cinematography in this movie (I love how they managed the POV mirror shot), but the D.P., Karl Struss, was reportedly unhappy with it. He wanted to do the transformations with lighting, the way it had always been done on stage (the actor wears red makeup, which is invisible under red light, then when he transforms, they bring up blue or yellow lights so that you can see it), but he got out-voted and they went with the caveman instead.

    1. That’s neat (the way it was done on stage) and would have been an interesting effect to see on film. Seen this a bunch of times and am always impressed with how seamless the change is. I also like that they did it from different angles (at the end he’s lying on the table). Yes, very innovative and gorgeous shots, I like the one of Ivy looking at herself in the mirror when Hyde returns. Thanks!

  3. a horror classic that it took me years to finally see after seeing countless images of it in Famous Monsters and other fun books I’d discover as a kid at the local library. You know, the one you and I probably brushed shoulders with each other in while perusing the film book section. haha.

    1. Probably!! Same here, it’s one of the more “adult” themed monster movies, where you get different things out of it once you’re older. That great makeup spooked me as a youngster, and always pleased to see it holds up no matter how old you get and how often you see it.

  4. I LOVE Miriam Hopkins and Fredric March in this film. I think it’s my fave version too – I find it the most unsettling of the versions I’ve seen. And the camera work is so clever, like you mentioned.

    1. Yes it is unsettling, and generally I like pre-code and earlier horror better because the creaky movies work well (not saying this one is though), and like this one they have so much of the right atmosphere.

  5. So long as Ingrid Bergman isn’t trying to do a COCKNEY accent, I’m down with any variation of this story, in any format. This was the jewel of my childhood…I was a little monster (I tried to turn myself into a werewolf at age ten, which may be TMI, hahaha), and I actually thought that the story was a true account. This version seemed to validate that feeling, as it felt so real!

    1. They’re even scarier if you take them as documentaries! lol. it does feel real, the pre-Code approach makes it feel less dated too. These movies have as much effect–and maybe more since we pick up on the adult stuff now–as they did when we saw them as kids.

  6. After I studies psychopathy and sexual sadism, Jeckyll and Hyde make so much more sense to me; it’s odd, but the story predates most of the credible studies on the subject. You’re right, knowing what I know now about human monsters, I can see all of that in this story Hyde is like having Ted Bundy (or for you Canadians, Robert Pickton) just a sip away….brrrr…..

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