As Halloween approaches, the blogosphere will be filled with words and images devoted to the celebration of this much lauded holiday. As far as film blogs go, there is much fodder for this fun filled fright fest. Although I enjoy the Universal horror set as much as the next guy and one couldn't get more delightfully creepy than Vincent Price, I wanted to spotlight a film from a studio that was the least likely to have a reputation for scary flicks.
Paramount in 1931 was home to stars such as Gary Cooper, Marlene Dietrich and Claudette Colbert. European elegance and sophistication displayed by directors like Ernst Lubitsch became the studio's trademark. So it was unlikely that one of their top productions that year would be an installment of the scary supernatural genre. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, premiering on December 31, 1931 but generally released after the New Year, was based on Robert Louis Stevenson's story of a Victorian physician who discovers a formula which releases the dark, uninhibited side of his human nature. The sinister side, known as Hyde, is attracted to a sluttish dancehall singer while the refined and genteel Dr. Jekyll (pronounced in this version as Jee'kyll) is engaged to a mild mannered young society lady.
Arguably the best of the three famous film versions of the tale (a 1920 silent with John Barrymore and an opulent 1941 version from MGM starring Spencer Tracy), it stars Fredric March as Jekyll/Hyde, a role which garnered the actor his first Academy Award (for which he tied with Wallace Beery in The Champ). By way of early but impressive special effects and the artistry of make-up whiz Perc Westmore, the handsome March was transformed into the hideous Mr. Hyde, the carnal, brutal, decadent essence of the human dark side. This image, along with that of Lon Chaney's Phantom, Karloff's Frankenstein's monster and Lugosi's Dracula, shape the iconic image of Hollywood monsters from the early film era.
As much as Jekyll launched Fredric March into full fledged stardom, it pushed female lead Miriam Hopkins one step closer. Originally interested in the refined fiancee of Jekyll ( a role which was played by Rose Hobart), she was convinced by director Rouben Mamoulian to take the risque role of prostitute Ivy Pearson, object of Hyde's desire. With the enforcement of Hollywood's Production Code still a few years away, Hopkins' performance was quite raw and erotic and her stock in films increased considerably after her role in the film. Later the same year she would star in one of the decades most sophisticated comedies, Trouble in Paradise.
Mamoulian was an intelligent, innovative and creative director and these traits were very evident in Jekyll/Hyde. His is a very stylized production, with elaborately detailed Victorian sets, effective use of black and white as colors and several elements of the creepy kind: the camera taking in the view from Dr. Jekyll's eyes at the beginning of the film, straight on close ups of the actors faces in various forms of emotion and enthusiastic organ music, such as not heard since the Phantom of the Opera. Fine performances are given by all the principal actors and Karl Struss' excellent cinematography was nominated for an Oscar as was the writing of Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein, who adapted the Stevenson classic. The mix of horror and eroticism make Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde a unique and intriguing alternative to the standard spooky fare offered the classic movie lover this All Hallows Eve. Enjoy.