My Evil Self is At the Door!

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, written by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath, based on the novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, directed by Rouben Mamoulian, starring Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins and Rose Hobart (1931): Fredric March deservedly won an Oscar as Best Actor for his portrayal of Jekyll and Hyde, though it’s his Hyde that still has the capacity to astonish. Jekyll’s dark side, released by a potion Jekyll has developed, is played by March as a malignly energetic simian, a movie monster who generates neither sympathy nor pathos but only revulsion and horror. There really is something scary about March’s Hyde, something I can say about very few movie monsters. Also, he has something of a conehead. That’s scary in and of itself.

Stevenson’s original novella lacks many of the things Hollywood has always wanted — a clear-cut conventionally moral lesson, a love story — so the film adds these things, for the most part to good effect. Jekyll is a crusading saint in the movie, offering a free clinic to London’s poor and working long hours there in between bouts of wooing his fiancee. But he’s also obsessed with the idea that people have dual natures, and that the animal side of the consciousness can be released and perhaps even discarded with the administration of the right drugs. Well, you know how badly that goes.

Don’t do drugs, kids. Especially drugs that release your dark side and cause you to physically transform into a monstrous, murderous pervert.

Yes, Dr. Jekyll has invented Red Bull.

The screenplay makes manifest the idea that Jekyll is driven in great measure by sexual frustration, and by frustration at the hypocritical propriety of late Victorian England: he wants to get laid, but he also wants to help people without being repeatedly pooh-poohed for his concern for the poor and working class. Hyde, once released, is a rapist and sexual sadist, a murderer — but also “free” in the basest meaning of that word.

During Hyde’s first appearance, March does a lovely bit of physical acting — Hyde stretches again and again, apparently to work out the kinks from being confined for so long. And then he relentlessly pursues a music-hall girl whom Jekyll had earlier helped, ultimately to bring disaster down upon her (and, finally, himself). Hopkins, as the musical-hall girl, is first erotic and light-hearted and then progressively more terrified and broken-down. It’s a gem of a performance, the most sympathetic and saddest in the film.

The movie was made and released before the Hays Office was created to censor movies, and so it’s surprisingly frank for a 1930’s picture. Mamoulian’s direction is refreshingly ahead of its time for a sound film of this era — the camera actually moves around quite a bit, and there’s an odd but ultimately effective use of first-person camera at the beginning of the film. Given the size of a camera in 1931, the staging of the six-minute sequence must have been something of a nightmare. Highly recommended.

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