Ahead of a special screening of the film this weekend, a few thoughts on what makes 1931’s Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde such a timeless piece of work.
Picture this. The sun wanes on the 19th of September 2021. The evening starts to steadily turn into dark. There is a cold chill in the air as Autumn creeps softly down your spine. Through the thick fog of London, the mist turning through the East End streets of Whitechapel, a crowd of cinephiles pour into London’s best cinema to see a timeless classic.
Yes, this coming Sunday I will be hosting a Pre-Code masterpiece at Genesis Cinema – Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 horror Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. And I am here to tell you why you should come watch this film with me.
Most people know the general plot to Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde. It’s the first talking film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s immortal novella. It tells the story of Dr. Henry Jekyll, who becomes obsessed with the duality of men’s souls. Believing he has the antidote to get rid of evil, Jekyll takes a concoction and turns into the amoral and beastly Mr Hyde. As the latter goes on a murderous rampage through London, Jekyll finds himself embroiled in a battle for his soul.
I’ve talked before about how much I adore this film, and indeed Fredric March. As he is one of my favourite actors, I do talk about him a lot, especially when discussing older movies on this site. Of Fredric March’s performance in Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, I have previously said that “his performance as the over-zealous Jekyll turned into the monstrous Hyde is immense. March strides across the screen and possesses every emotion of the two men with apparent ease. You can immediately understand why Jekyll is drawn to his poisonous elixir as he grapples with demons inside unbecoming of the Victorian era, he is in. And as Hyde, he is depraved and amoral. With help from make-up, March is truly the master of the dual roles.”
This still stands. I have seen the film nearly a dozen times and I am always taken with his Academy Award-winning performance. His sheer ability to emote the deteriorating mental health of a man wrapped in guilt and horror. Jekyll starts off sprightly and almost whimsical, much to the chagrin of those around him. As he dabbles and experiments, birthing the unabashed Hyde into the world, Jekyll falls apart. The memory of Hyde’s deeds plague him, and the once-striding Jekyll becomes a facsimile of himself, pawing at his fiancés dress as he collapses in her lap asking for forgiveness.
March’s Jekyll (and, of course, Hyde) is flanked by two women who appeal to his two sides. The steely sweetheart of Muriel (Rose Hobart) and the flirtatious but fierce music hall singer Ivy (Miriam Hopkins.) The women are both torn apart by Jekyll’s dangerous games but are so much more than victims. Muriel proudly stands up for her beliefs and the inherent goodness of her love Jekyll, whilst Ivy, caught in the vicious grips of Hyde, tries desperately to save herself. The two women are great, even if they are sidelined in Jekyll’s story.
Yet this Pre-Code horror film does traipse beyond the sensibilities of the Victorian time, and indeed that of the era (though not cinematically, that’s for sure.) Mamoulian’s direction is impeccable. Not only does the director show the cold, violence of Hyde in a stunning way, but he also cleverly plays with Jekyll’s capricious nature at the beginning. A simple overlay of Ivy’s naked leg dangles over Jekyll long after he first meets her. It hangs there, swinging like a pendulum, ticking in his mind until he releases the beast. Here the film showcases the sexuality of the time and how someone can be sexually repressed due to their class, leading to terrible results in the end.
Though filmed in Paramount studios, the thick London fog and dusty streets are brilliantly recreated. The inventive use of lights casts tall shadows on the sides of walls and sometimes bring a dreamlike state to the story. Through costuming and writing, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde is an incredible look into the time and city, filled with hopeful invention but clinging to its monstrous ways. The novella and the period setting separates into two beasts, champing at the big for control.
The movie boasts outstanding special effects, which I will dive in deep to soon, that make you marvel at how they were completed without computer technology. As Jekyll takes his potion, the movie moves back into POV, and he turns inexplicably into the ghoulish monster that is Mr Hyde. It happens several times throughout the movie and still it is an astonishing thing to watch.
Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde (1931) is a movie that still feels groundbreaking and most adaptations of the novella fail to acknowledge the emotional trauma and the capricious nature of Jekyll. From the make-up to the chilling assaults, Mamoulian’s does wonders with the text, bringing the horror of human nature to the big screen with unsettling results.
So, dust of your top hats, bring your two natures, and start off your spooky season early. Join me for a special screening of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde at Genesis Cinema: you can buy tickets right here…
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