By 1931, eleven years had passed since an adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” had been brought to life on the silver screen. This was the era known as pre-code, that nebulous time period after the introduction of sound movies in 1928 and before the Motion Picture Production Code. The Code was established in 1930 but not actively enforced until 1934. During this time, there really was no consistent governance of motion pictures except for local laws and the occasional agreement between the studio and the Studio Relations Committee (SRC). The end result were movies that frequently featured sexual content, nudity and topics that would be greatly taboo by 1934 such as drug use and homosexuality. So, 1931 was a perfect time to bring to the life the story of man giving in to his evil side.
Fredric March headlines our cast in the roles of Jekyll (still pronounced “Jeekul”) and Hyde. His performance as Dr. Henry Jekyll would be similar in comparison to others as that of a proper English doctor in Victorian London. He is madly in love with his fiancée Muriel Carew, played by Rose Hobart (Tower of London ’39 and The Mad Ghoul ’43). Her father is Brigadier General Sir Danvers Carew (Halliwell Hobbes, Charlie Chan in Shanghai), who refuses to allow Jekyll to marry his daughter until an appropriate amount of time has passed. He takes his daughter away for months, leaving Jekyll to his experiments to help man get rid of the evil and let goodness reign. Where we really see the evidence of the pre-code influences occurs when Jekyll saves the young singer Ivy (played seductively by the lovely Miriam Hopkins, Becky Sharp). When Jekyll takes her back to her apartment, she seduces him while faking illness, disrobing and baring her naked legs in a manner that would be impossible just a few years later. Of course, we know that Ivy becomes the object of his affection and, eventual abuse, when Jekyll drinks his potion and releases the monster Hyde. And monster is quite the accurate word to describe Mr. Hyde.
Unlike previous silent versions, this Hyde is incredibly hideous, more closely resembling an ape. He is sporting a full head of hair protruding into his forehead. His teeth are fanglike but much more pronounced that we had seen in previous incarnations. The transition from Jekyll to Hyde was done with heavy make-up and the use of filters and still looks great visually today. Rick Baker gives an excellent description of this process on YouTube and well-worth watching. Wally Westmore would do a fabulous job on the make-up but I’ve often wondered how Hyde could really walk around in London without people screaming in fear. He looked like he walked off the set of Planet of the Apes. His movements, especially as he confronts Ivy and his final battle with the police, display his ape-like maneuvers. With a lesser actor in the role, this might be the film’s undoing. But, in the hands of Fredric March, it would result in an Academy Award for Best Actor. It would also create a more monstrous image that many versions and cartoons would adapt in the decades to follow. From Hyde’s first words exclaiming his freedom, we begin to see his evolution, becoming the more dominant persona while Jekyll slowly devolves into a man out of control and desperate to turn back the wheels of time on his mistake. His vanity in doing what no man should do costs him his true love, and ultimately his own life. His friend Dr. John Lanyon (Holmes Herbert) sees no hope for Jekyll once he discovers the truth and plays a key role in his eventual death.
Director Rouben Mamoulian crafted an excellent film, one that is universally recognized today as one of the best. Sadly, with the stricter enforcement of cinematic content a few years later, his vision of Jekyll and Hyde would lose some 8 minutes to the censor upon its’ re-release in 1936. When MGM would remake the film in 1941, they purchased the rights to Mamoulian’s film and recalled all prints so as to allow their new version to be the almost exclusive film version. At one point, the film was even believed lost. It wasn’t until the arrival of home video that it began to see the light of day again and, rightfully so, regained the recognition it deserved. The 2004 DVD release is sadly out-of-print but worth tracking down as it also includes the 1941 version. I highly recommend this version, which as of this writing, is my personal favorite. And, of course, you must listen to the B-Movie Cast and their recent discussion!
This movie allowed Fredric March the powerful performance he needed to have Hollywood take him as a more serious actor. He would reprise the role of Jekyll and Hyde on radio in a 1950 presentation of “Theater Guild on the Air”. He was initially rejected by studio heads as they wanted to go with other actors, including John Barrymore, who had played the role in 1920. However, as Barrymore was under contract to MGM, March would get the role and prove to his detractors just how good he was. In fact, it stands as the first and, sadly, one of the few times a horror movie would be recognized by the Academy Awards.
By late 1933 and throughout 1934, Roman Catholics launched a campaign against the immorality being seen in American cinema. Studios succumbed to pressure and agreed to greater oversight. Movies would become much tamer and by 1941, the next time Jekyll and Hyde hit the silver screen, MGM was ready to do its’ best job of taming the beast down a little.