Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) ***Ĺ
Robert Louis Stevensonís The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been a favorite of horror directors ever since there were such things. If you count short features, the novella was filmed at least ten times between 1908 and 1920 (the latter year accounts for four adaptations all by itself!), and while the pace of Jekyll-and-Hyde movie production never reached quite such a fevered pitch after the advent of sound, new films based on Stevensonís book have continued to appear at a fairly steady clip ever since, particularly in the wake of the TV-movie boom of the 1970ís. Of the talkie versions, opinion seems fairly evenly divided over whether the 1931 or 1941 interpretation is the definitive one. I, personally, would say itís a toss-up. The 1941 version with Spencer Tracy features better acting overall, an unusually faithful thematic reading of the story, and probably the most frightening portrayal of Mr. Hyde ever committed to film. The 1931 version, on the other hand, offers much more dynamic camera work, excellent monster makeup, a fascinating and distinctive take on the relationship between the two title characters, and an impressive illustration of how much filmmakers could get away with in the early 30ís, before the elimination of the studio heads as an appellate board outranking the Production Code Administration put some real-world power into the Hays Officeís hands in 1934.
Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March) is a young scientist renowned throughout Londonís academic community for his often sensationally unorthodox ideas. Our introduction to him comes as he regales an auditorium full of his students and colleagues with a lecture on a subject that has absorbed the lionís share of his attention as a researcher of late. Jekyllís contention is that the nature of the human psyche is dual, rather than unitary, and that, more radically, it ought to be possible to find a pharmacological means of dividing that dual nature completely, allowing manís animal and spiritual aspects the freedom to fulfill themselves without the mutual interference that all human beings currently experience. Like many ideas on the outer fringe of theoretical physics today, Jekyllís hypothesis causes quite a stir among those who hear his lecture, but no oneó not even Jekyllís friend and colleague, Dr. John Lanyon (Holmes Herbert, from The Thirteenth Chair and The Mummyís Curse)ó takes it terribly seriously. Jekyll himself does, though. You may rest assured of that.
It becomes rather easier to understand why this particular idea would so transfix Dr. Jekyll once weíve had a chance to witness his life outside of the laboratory and the lecture hall. If ever there were a man whose better angels and base impulses were at loggerheads, itís Henry Jekyll. On the one hand, Jekyll is a dreamer and an idealist. Despite the disapproval of the other Victorian gentlemen who supposedly comprise his peer group, the doctor devotes a tremendous amount of his time and effort to the free clinic he operates in one of Londonís poorer neighborhoods, even if it does mean he occasionally misses dinner when stuffy old General Carew (Halliwell Hobbes, of The Undying Monster and The Invisible Manís Revenge) throws a party. On the other hand, impulse control is not one of Jekyllís strong suits, which is all the more unfortunate, because stuffy old General Carew happens to be the father of his fiancee, Muriel (Rose Hobart, from Soul of a Monster and the 1939 version of Tower of London). Jekyll and Muriel love each other very much, and the young doctor has become so itchy to marry his sweetheart that he almost canít contain himself. Naturally, this is a source of friction between Henry and the general, who has set the date for the coupleís marriage an agonizing eight months in the futureó for no better reason than that it will give them the same anniversary date as the general had with his apparently deceased wife. His response to Jekyllís insistent pleas to push the wedding forward is a less-than-satisfying ďIt isnít done!Ē So Iím sure you can see why Jekyll would find it such an attractive prospect to be able to separate the impatient animal id that wants Muriel and wants her now from the rest of his personality.
An especially striking illustration of the trouble that Jekyllís impulsiveness can get him into comes while he and Lanyon are walking home from the Carew place after one of the generalís trademark soirees. While passing by the rough neighborhood in which Jekyllís free clinic is located, the two doctors overhear an altercation between a prostitute and one of her johns. Jekyll rushes to the girlís rescue, and then carries her up to her second-story flat to tend to her injuries. The hookerís name is Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins, who would show up later in Savage Intruder and Fanny Hill), and sheís quite taken with her gallant young savioró one assumes she sees relatively little of that side of manhood in her line of work. Ivy would very much like to repay the doctor with, shall we say, some free samples of her wares, and Jekyll seems like he might even be about to go for it, but the moment is broken by Lanyon, who barges in to see whatís keeping his friend just in time to catch Ivy as she grabs Jekyll around the shoulders and plants a particularly fervent kiss on his lips. While enduring Lanyonís chiding on the way home thereafter, Jekyll cites the eveningís awkward encounter as a perfect example of the sort of human behavior that motivates his seemingly quixotic research into the divisibility of the psyche.
In fact, the experience underlines his motivations so starkly that Jekyll immediately vanishes into his laboratory after arriving at home to get back to work. He has believed himself for some time to be close to achieving the breakthrough he seeks, and spurred on by the nagging of his conscience, he at last puts all the pieces together in the proper order and proportions. The result is a potion far less fiendish-looking than the current industry standard for such things, but it proves no less effective for its transparency and lack of slow-rising bubbles. After quaffing his concoction, Jekyll is seized with convulsions, which gradually transform him into a hirsute, pointy-headed, snaggle-toothed man of distinctly ape-like countenance, whose first words upon his appearance in the lab are a rather ominous ďFree! Free at last!Ē But before the evolutionary throwback that Jekyll has become can act upon that freedom, Poole the butler (Edgar Norton, who spent damn near his entire career playing servants of one sort or anotheró look for him in similar roles in Son of Frankenstein and The House of the Seven Gables) comes rapping at the laboratory door, and becomes alarmed when he hears a voice other than his masterís answer his knock. Jekyll has just enough time to down another flask of his formula and return himself to normal before Poole completely panics and calls the police. Jekyll passes off the strange voice Poole heard as belonging to a friend of his, a certain Mr. Hyde, who departed just a moment ago through the labís back door.
The development that finally pushes Jekyllís somewhat impaired patience past the breaking point, with the result that Hyde is unleashed upon an unsuspecting London, is General Carewís decision to take Muriel with him on what will ultimately stretch out into a six-week holiday in Bath. Jekyll spends the first two weeks of his separation from his beloved climbing the walls in bored frustration. Pooleís suggestion that his master go out on the town to partake of the ďamusementsĒ the city holds for ďa gentleman such as [him]selfĒ initially seem to offer no respite. After all, a gentleman such as Dr. Jekyll could scarcely afford the risk of being seen in the kinds of places where the amusements of which Poole speaks may be had. Thatís when Jekyll remembers what happened in the lab on the night when he met Ivy. Sure, a gentleman such as Jekyll canít afford that risk, but Hyde is as far from a gentleman as one can get while still remaining biologically human. If Hyde were to go out looking for amusement, what could possibly happen to Jekyll as a consequence?
A lot, as it turns out. Hydeís first stop is Ivyís flat, which he finds unoccupied, but where he learns from the girlís landlady (Tempe Pigott, who played even smaller roles in Murders in the Rue Morgue and Werewolf of London) that Ivy could probably be found at the Variety Music Hall not far away. And indeed she can. Hyde takes a seat with a good view of the stage, orders a bottle of champagne, and commands the waiter to fetch Ivy for him. The waiterís pronouncement that Hyde ďisnít the sort to be trifled withĒ intrigues Ivy, and she ditches the man who was already trying to pick her up to make her way through the crowd to Hydeís table. It doesnít take her long to regret her actions, but by the time she and Hyde have made eye contact, itís already too late. Hyde wonít take no for an answer, and he hauls the girl off after laying the smackdown on the john with whom sheíd been negotiating a moment before, whose foolish pride will not permit him to accept being cock-blocked by a man who looks like a baboon.
It only gets worse for Ivy from there. Hyde is rough and coarse and brutish in the best of moods, but when he gets mad, heís positively vicious. And over the course of the next month, which Jekyll apparently spends entirely as Hyde, the doctorís unchained id is pissed off more often than not. Itís quite simple, really: Hyde, after his Australopithecine manner, really does love Ivy, but he evokes no emotion in her more charitable than disgust, and he knows it. Hyde spends extravagantly on her, refurnishing her flat to a standard that must make Ivy the envy of every streetwalker in Soho, but he realizes early on that the only way heíll ever be able to keep his hands on the object of his affections is through fear, and that realization makes him more than angry enough to inspire that fear. In fact, were it not for one thing, Hyde would surely have ended up killing Ivy in one of his atavistic rages.
That one thing is an advertisement Hyde reads in the newspaper one day, announcing the return of General and Muriel Carew from an extended sojourn in Bath. At some deep-seated level, Hyde is still Jekyll, and he realizes that dire consequences will result if he does not cut short his Soho adventure, and return to his old life. No sooner does the transformation back take place, though, than Jekyll is overcome with remorse at the way he treated Ivy while he was living with her as Hyde, and the doctor orders Poole to take an envelope bearing £50 to her apartment. When Ivy learns the name of her benefactor from Poole, it occurs to her that this stranger might be able to protect her somehow from Hyde, who, for all Ivy knows, could return from wherever heís gone at any time. Naturally, sheís even more pleased to discover that the mysterious Dr. Jekyll is none other than the man who came to her aid against a rather less formidable abuser some months before. Jekyll sends Ivy away with a promise that he will see to it that this bastard Hyde never troubles her again, and then sets about the daunting task of mending his fences with Muriel and her father, both of whom are more than a little peeved that the doctor never answered a single one of his fianceeís letters after the second week of her trip. The only trouble here is that Hyde, having been freed twice, no longer needs the assistance of Jekyllís sinister drug to pry himself looseó all it takes is an instant of intense negative emotion coinciding with a momentary lapse of will on the doctorís part. And just when Jekyll had finally wrangled an earlier date for the wedding out of General Carew, too. Damn...
The worst thing about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is that it is too long by close to half an hour. The scene in which Hyde goes to take his revenge on Ivy for her attempt to enlist Jekyllís aid ought to have been the beginning of the filmís climax. But instead, the filmmakers allow the tension which they have thus far masterfully wound into the story to dissipate through a series of feeble mini-climaxes that tie up the individual plot threads one at a time. Sure, doing it that way probably makes the movieís resolution truer to life, but it leaves much to be desired from a dramatic point of view. Seeing the film combust in an explosive finale would have been far more satisfying than seeing it succumb to a slow leak.
On the other hand, that fault is more than counterbalanced by the filmís many strengths. When looked at in the context of its time, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a startlingly bold and sophisticated picture. Rouben Mamoulianís direction is remarkably forward-looking; he puts the makers of even the best of Universalís contemporary horror films to shame with his often brazenly experimental use of the cameraís possibilities. Especially impressive is the opening sequence, in which Dr. Jekyllís preparations for and carriage ride to his lecture at the university are presented in a single long take, shot entirely from first-person perspective. The acting is also top-notch, again outshining anything that Universal was doing at the time. Fredric March puts in an excellent performance, especially as Hydeó to so great an extent, in fact, that even the uniformly miserable quality of the dialogue he and all the other actors are required to utter canít spoil the effect. Itís true that March has an advantage denied to most other actors who have taken on the famous dual role over the years, in that he plays Hyde with his face transformed by extremely heavy makeup. Still, the changes March affects to his voice, gait, and body language are such that even without a false nose and a mouth full of monkey dentures, it would almost seem that two different actors were at work. That makeup, too, is a major point in the movieís favor. Itís an amazingly convincing piece of work, especially by early-30ís standards, and whatís more, Hydeís increasingly simian appearance serves to underscore the main theme of the film.
What makes this version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde so distinctive is its unique take on the character of Hyde. Whereas other film versions (and Robert Louis Stevensonís original novella, for that matter) treat Hyde as Jekyllís evil side, this movie takes the more sophisticated position that Hyde represents not the evil in Jekyllís soul per se, but rather his primitive impulses and emotions set free from the constraints of civilization, propriety, and socialization in general. Naturally, modern humans are heavily invested in the idea that emotional atavism and evil are somehow synonymous, and Jekyll even makes that point specifically in his lecture at the filmís beginning. But it seems to me that there is a difference between the sort of childishó in the worst, ugliest sense of the wordó lack of emotional control that this interpretation of Mr. Hyde displays and evil the way most of us use the term. Every wrong action that Hyde commits here stems from his constitutional inability to second-guess himself. Hyde does and says every single thing that pops into his head, in accordance with no law beyond the dictates of his own feelings. A close look at the interaction between Hyde and Ivy in this version as compared to the 1941 remake is particularly instructive in this regard. Hyde as written for this film by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath is, by his own admission, no gentleman. Right from the beginning, he is rough with Ivy, but he quite literally does not know any better. His desire for the girl is of a purely animal nature; sheís sexually alluring and seemingly available, so he goes for her. It isnít until Ivy reacts to his advances with horror that Hydeís treatment of her turns really ugly. Hyde takes no particular pleasure in hurting her, but Ivyís undisguised revulsion at him fills him with an understandable wish to lash out and punish her for it. The difference between Hyde and a civilized man is that the latter understands that to act on this wish would be wrong, that it is unacceptable to respond to any and every affront against him with violence. But it is Hydeís very nature that such self-control is beyond his capabilities.
But neither, I think, can it be said that Jekyll himself is evil in the strict sense. Jekyll wants only to rid himself of the animal impulses with which the polite society of upper-class Victorian England is so thoroughly at odds. There is every indication that it isnít until Hyde reads in the newspaper of Murielís return that he permits himself to be bottled up once more within his civilized alter-ego. This is another point of contrast with the 1941 version, in which it appears that Jekyll and Hyde at least occasionally trade places so that the doctor can carry on his regular life. If the whole of Ivyís month of living Hell stems, as it seems to, from Jekyllís second experiment with his drug, then it is difficult to fault him too much; he had, at the time, no direct evidence of how Hyde would behave among other people, and could thus have had no more than a hunch that anyone could get hurt as a result of him turning his animal self loose. Jekyll is guilty of hubris probably and of recklessness beyond a shadow of a doubt, but he never sought to harm anyone, and he tries to make amends the moment he realizes that he has. But unfortunately for Jekylló and for virtually everyone else involved, I might addó that realization comes too late; as Lanyon puts it, he is beyond the pale, and he is just going to have to accept that heís completely screwed. You know what they say about good intentions, after all.