Sunday, October 11, 2009

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932): Hyde and Hopkins at Halloween

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.


  1. I absolutely love this film. In fact of the big 3 horror movies that came out in 1931/1932 (this, Frankenstein, and Dracula). This one is by far my favorite.

    I love all the experimentation & symbolism that Mamoulian used in this film. I don't think it all worked but it was fun to watch anyways. And while I though March's makeup looked more silly than scary, his performance was great. I remember at first I laughed when I saw March with that makeup but when Ivy saw him return through the mirror...shudders. Both March and Hopkins were excellent in this movie and you got to love all the things the movie got away with before the code was enforced. I also love that the film didn't have a tacked on happy ending.

    I will even go as far as saying I liked this film more than the novella on which it is based (which relies too much on the reader not knowing that Jekyll & Hyde are the same person. To bad today that is one of the worst kept secrets).

  2. Great post, Rupert. This is one of my ywo favorite March films. They come from opposite ends of his career: this from his early career, and INHERIT THE WIND from his later career. Interestingly, it also teamed him with another famous Jeckyll/Hyde, Spencer Tracy.

  3. Nice post, Rupert! For me, this film and James Whales' INVISIBLE MAN hold up the best of the pre-1935 horror films. Both films move quickly and are anchored by strong central performances from stars who would go to long screen careers in a variety of roles.

  4. This is my favourite Jekyll/Hyde movie, primarily because of March's performance. He really did deserve to win the Oscar that year! And I loved the intelligence Mamoulian brought to the movie. It may have been the most intellectual adaptation of the novella ever made.

    Interestingly, while Paramount didn't make too many entries in the Golden Age of Horror Movies, they did produce another classic with Island of Lost Souls. It's as good as the best Universal films and better than the lesser ones. And it still packs a wallop today!

  5. A wonderful classic film and Tracy rocks in the role....

  6. Oops I mean March, of course although Tracy was great in the later version too...

  7. this is a great classic film :)

    you got tonnes of info in here...will be back to read more! and i even signed up for a blog to showcase great classic films, borrowing some part of your title ;) link me as you can

  8. I'm so glad you visited this film because for many years it was a goal of mine to see it and when I did I was blown away. Truly a scary movie. This fright factor was in many early horror talkies and worked well. While I'm a fan of the Universal horror movies early movies like this still give me the chills.

  9. Really enjoyed this posting, Rupert. I reviewed all three versions a while ago at my blog - I find it hard to decide whether I prefer this one or the Barrymore silent, as both are so brilliant. I also quite liked the Tracy version but preferred the other two. Judy

  10. Being a silent film guy and a member of the Chicago Silent Film Society, it is surprising that I have yet to see the Barrymore version - simply hasn't come across my desk yet.

    But this one starring march is excellent and has some of the most memorable scenes from any of the pre-code horror films of its time.

    You mentioned "the camera taking in the view from Dr. Jekyll's eyes at the beginning of the film" and that scene sort of blew my mind - where we see a direct mirror shot of Frederich March getting ready for a night on the town with his butler helping him. We all obviously know how it was done when we see it, but it makes you laugh because, well, that's movie making! As the camera moves in that continuous shot towards the door, you can only imagine a young March running from behind the false wall to the front door to keep with continuity, and THAT is the stuff that makes a movie fun.

    Excellent review, as always!!



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