Most people think of Jekyll and Hyde as man and monster. I’m sure that many contributions to the story have been based on this assumption. Dr. Jekyll is the polite and respected man, while Mr. Hyde is an all out deviant, causing murder and mayhem wherever he goes.
This isn’t exactly the case for the 1931 version. Mr. Hyde is certainly an animal, but his lust isn’t so much for blood as it is for flesh. The film seems less concerned with the idea of good and evil, and more with the repressed sexual desires of humans.
Talk of classic black and white horror always results in names like Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Creature From The Black Lagoon, and The Wolf Man. You can’t ignore the great impact on the genre that these films have had, but Dr. Jekyll is head and shoulders above them. This is a technical masterpiece. I can’t even think of another horror film from that era that contained this kind of content or creativity. It’s dazzling to witness, and Fredric March delivers an incredible performance as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Right from the first moments of the film, you can see that you’re in for a very special treat. The opening scene is an extended take shot from the POV of Dr. Jekyll. He begins by playing the organ before getting ready to go out to a lecture. He stops to look in the mirror and we see him putting the final touches on his outfit. It took me a moment to realize that Fredric March is on one side of the mirror while the camera is on the other. As he turns, we are again in Dr. Jekyll’s POV, and we follow him as he heads to his lecture.
I’m sure that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde didn’t pioneer this technique, but I can’t really remember it being used in such an extended way. It’s also become such a large part of the horror genre now, so it was interesting to see it being used in a film from 1931. There’s also a lot of camera movement in the film. Where the Universal horror films seemed almost like stage plays brought to the screen, Dr. Jekyll is full of different angles, lighting, and swinging camera motions. It’s as if the film was created in an entirely different time than it’s competition.
By far, the most impressive moments in the film involve the transformation of Jekyll to Hyde. The Wolf Man has always been praised for showing Lon Chaney Jr. turn from Lawrence Talbot into the Wolf Man, but Dr. Jekyll manages to take that one step further. Fredric March would wear different colours of makeup that reacted to the camera when shot through a different coloured filter. This would only be used for the early stages of his transformation, but the effect is unbelievable. Dr. Jekyll’s skin colour would change, bags would suddenly appear under his eyes, and his cheeks would look sunken, all right before your eyes.
Not to be outdone by the technical work, Fredric March plays Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde perfectly. The makeup has already made him unrecognizable, but his ability to play the roles so differently will cause you to think that it’s two different actors. Mr. Hyde is the more interesting of the two characters, as he acts out on all his sexual desires, unafraid of the outcome. While Dr. Jekyll is currently engaged to Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart), Mr. Hyde spends his time being an abusive boyfriend to Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins). It’s the kind of content that I wouldn’t expect to see in a film from this time, and they certainly don’t shy away from it.
At the time the film was released, many of the scenes were cut, taking the film from a running time of 97 minutes to 82 minutes. This included a brief nude scene with Miriam Hopkins. Apparently, so many scenes involving Hopkins were cut that she wasn’t eligible for an Oscar. Even with what they had cut, there’s still plenty of sexuality oozing from Hopkins performance. Recent releases of the DVD include all the deleted scenes, including the nude scene. This is a must see for fans of classic horror. Dr. Jekyll may not be one of the first names that comes to mind when you think of horror, but this will instantly rank among the best of the classics.
Under the marquee – Will