Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). 98 minutes. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Starring Fredric March (as Dr. Henry Jekyll/Mr. Edward Hyde), Miriam Hopkins (as Ivy Pierson), Rose Hobart (as Muriel Carew), Holmes Herbert (as Dr. Hastie Lanyon), Halliwell Hobbes (as Brigadier General Sir Danvers Carew), Edgar Norton (as Poole), and Tempe Pigott (as Mrs. Hawkins).
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a terrifically creepy movie about a man who splits himself through chemical means into two distinct personalities with horrific results. Actor Frederic March plays both the tepid scientist Dr. Jekyll and his demonic alter ego, Mr. Hyde, who leers, threatens, assaults, and murders his way through the back alleys and palatial drawing rooms of nineteenth-century London. March’s Jekyll transforms into the malicious Hyde through elaborate makeup and camera techniques, but the film offers a great deal more than special effects-related thrills. As a pre-Code film, its content is daring, particularly its dark sexual undertones, which are largely absent from the 1886 Robert Louis Stevenson novella on which it is based. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is thus a great example of a film that takes liberties with its source material but that through those liberties becomes its own creation, revealing remarkable subtexts that in the Victorian novella could only be hinted at obliquely. As a result, it is intellectually fascinating as well as genuinely frightening—a rare combination.
Dr. Henry Jekyll is a surgeon who has been engaged to Muriel Carew for two months; they are to be married in eight months, but Jekyll cannot wait. He pleads with Muriel’s father Sir Danvers Carew to allow them to marry sooner, but Sir Danvers rebuffs him. Jekyll is tempted sexually by a bar singer, Ivy Pierson, and afterwards he determines that he will separate his virtuous self from his baser self with the help of an elixir that he creates. He successfully transforms physically into the evil Mr. Hyde—a hairy, brutish man who assaults Ivy and tortures her sexually.
Jekyll is horrified by what he has done, and when Ivy comes to him as an admirer to ask him for help (not knowing that he is also Hyde), he vows to protect her. En route to a party, however, he turns into Hyde again (this time without the elixir), accosts Ivy in her apartment, and kills her. He confesses all to a friend and promises that he will never transform into Hyde again and that he will call off his engagement to Muriel, but he subsequently becomes Hyde without the help of chemicals. As Hyde, he attempts to rape Muriel but is chased off and finally killed by his friend and the police, who observe that when he dies he transforms back into Jekyll.
Surely part of the success of the film lies in Frederic March’s skill at bifurcating the character of Jekyll into two distinct selves: a kind of Freudian superego and id. But the language of duality runs throughout Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, even outside of the Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy. The movie reinforces the split nature of its central character by generating echoes of his dilemma in other characters, activities, and props. For example, the movie offers us two female love interests, the sexually available bar singer Ivy and the prudish Muriel. Additionally, we see Jekyll’s pastime at the organ reflected in Muriel’s time at the piano later in the movie. But the movie also offers us parallel pairs through technological means. In particular, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde uses a provocative split-screen presentation that shows action in two scenes simultaneously, underscoring the importance to the movie of division and multiplicity.
Through its technology, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde asks a fundamental question about our relationship to our darker sides. The movie employs a range of special effects and presentation techniques to accomplish this, such as makeup effects for Jekyll’s transformation (which was assisted by the use of color filters) and dissolves. The dissolves, which feature one scene slowly merging into another, or Jekyll’s face fading into Hyde’s (or vice versa), complement the idea of two personalities messily blending rather than cleanly splitting in two, but because the virtuous Jekyll is blending with the malevolent Hyde, the fades are tainted with an ominous quality whose significance the movie leaves us to process uneasily. Increasingly, as Hyde manifests himself without the aid of Jekyll’s potion, as the Jekyll/Hyde transformation comes to rely on elaborate fades to show the hairy Hyde face growing out of or dissolving into a clean-shaven Jekyll, and as scenes merge with each other, it becomes difficult to determine which is the more legitimate identity—Jekyll or Hyde. Because Jekyll fails to neatly compartmentalize himself, his story suggests that we are more intertwined with our basest impulses than we might comfortably observe.
The movie invites us to study human impulses much in the way that Dr. Jekyll does, specifically sexual impulses. To a modern audience, one of the most notable aspects of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will be its near-constant emphasis on sexual desire, both of a noble and ignoble variety. The movie establishes that physical intimacy is a major theme from its opening sequence, where the first shots are from a subjective point of view—the camera assumes the perspective of Henry Jekyll as he prepares to give a lecture on his scientific research. Through his eyes, we see him leaving home, boarding a carriage, and entering the lecture hall. This invites us to assume, for a little while, Jekyll’s point of view and experience his perspective firsthand from the intimate corners of his eyes and face.
But even when the camera is not in a subjective position, it attempts to bring us physically closer to the film’s characters, specifically the lovers Jekyll and Muriel. And yet the forwardness of the camera in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde only underscores the lack of emotional and sexual intimacy between these characters. In an early scene at Muriel’s house, Jekyll sits alone in a garden with her, and during their exchange we see the camera trying to move as close to the two as possible. As Jekyll stresses to Muriel that they need to be married sooner than planned, indicating his sexual impatience, the camera takes us closer and closer to the two characters’ bodies: the movie cuts from a close-up of his face to a close-up of her face, then to a shot focused solely on his eyes and a shot of her eyes to match. But the reality of Jekyll and Muriel’s relationship is that they are not sexually close, and the camera work thus becomes ironic, its promises unfulfilled.
The close-up shots are an elegant way of conveying desire, whereas the shots of a bubbling cauldron in Jekyll’s lab tell us what is going on in cruder, more primal terms. The cauldron boils constantly in the background of the lab scenes amidst a network of tubes and flames, suggesting smoldering, suppressed energy—passion that constantly simmers underneath our composed, socially acceptable surfaces. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is largely about what happens to that passion when it comes to the surface and is granted free reign to be expressed without traditional societal restraints.
Jekyll’s decision to experiment with the transformative potion is brought on by his struggle with those restraints and his experience of amorous temptation. His encounter with Ivy reveals the movie’s more scandalous pre-Code elements at their finest and a fair amount of explicit content. Consider the scene that takes place in her apartment, where Jekyll brings her to bed after she has been attacked in the streets. She shows her gartered stockings to him, grabs his hand, and places it between her knees. As if that were not graphic enough, she then undresses and, covered only with a blanket, grabs at him, revealing the side of her breast.
Other shots are infused with a fair amount sexual bluntness but are more suggestive. For example, after Jekyll leaves Ivy’s apartment, the film replays a shot of her knee swaying back and forth repeatedly, accompanied by the sound of Ivy’s enticing voice. The image of the swaying knee is grafted over other activity in a kind of double exposure, which reduces the knee to a sexual echo that eventually blurs into another shot. Compared to Ivy’s otherwise graphic behavior, the isolated body part is less direct and more abstract, but it serves as a haunting reverberation of Ivy’s erotic avarice. Reverberations such as the knee image contribute to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s dense psychological collection of suggestive images that appear, dissolve, and take root much like thoughts, drives, and impulses in the human mind.
Ivy’s carnality at least expresses playfulness and warmth—Hyde’s sexual practices are in contrast horrifying. Unlike the novella’s Mr. Hyde, the movie’s Hyde is more than a criminal monster who is up to no good—he is specifically a cruel sexual alter ego. Hyde reminds me a great deal of Bob, the lethal evil spirit from the television series Twin Peaks. Like Bob, Hyde appears suddenly and ghoulishly in his victim Ivy’s apartment. He tortures her off camera with a whip and strangles her in cold blood. His appearance and physical movements are terrifying much as Bob’s are; he leaps over banisters, over fences, and off of trees to evade capture and chase his prey, breaking through windows and violently assaulting people.
Hyde is one of the ultimate monsters of Great Depression cinema—a lone revolutionary agent akin to The Mummy’s (1932) Ardath Bey or Frankenstein’s (1931) creature, who threaten to dismantle society. Yet Hyde lacks the peeling skin and bolted neck of those other monsters, and he does not pose the other-worldly threat to society that they do. As a part of Jekyll, he exists as a kind of monstrous non-monster, an embodiment of our drives and moods that cannot be controlled, contained, or figured out like a supernatural horror that exists outside of us. He operates by no special rules and cannot be relegated into a pile of dust via an ancient statue or tamed with elemental fire. Perhaps that makes him less of a threat to a struggling society—he can be brought down by bullets after all. But the danger he poses to Jekyll himself is extraordinary, and Jekyll must die with Hyde in the end. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde thus transforms the emerging society-versus-monster theme of the 1930s into an internal struggle, pitting us at war with ourselves and suggesting that our greatest battle during this period of economic turmoil was not with a creature external to us but rather with a psychological and fundamentally human problem.
I have always admired Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (1992), which also saw what was simmering beneath a Victorian story—in that case, the story of a vampire biting and fondling ladies in the dark recesses of night. The novella on which the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is based is less obvious fodder for the story of one man’s sexual grief and subsequent erotic explosion. The film version turns the literary classic into something sexually frightening, lurid, and exciting. Above all, it does what all great interpretations of earlier literature do: it makes its source material seem urgent, pressing, and immediately significant. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde boasts many accomplishments, but by far its greatest is that it stands alone as a complicated work of art on its own terms, and in the end, the fact that I actually found myself preferring it to its wonderful source material is a testament to its brilliance.