Review: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Set in Victorian Era England, Fredric March plays the practically saintly Dr. Jekyll (pronounced correctly here as Gee-kyl) who is working on a formula that allows for the ‘animal’ side of a human being to be freed from the rest of his personality. Not surprisingly this results in disaster, with this dual personality called Hyde (also played by March) running amok and terrorising a hooker (Miriam Hopkins) as he roams the seedy side of town. Meanwhile, Dr. Jekyll is frustrated in having to wait eight months to marry sweetheart Rose Hobart, at the request of her father (Halliwell Hobbes).
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian (“The Mark of Zorro”, “Silk Stockings”), this 1931 adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson (“Treasure Island”) classic has aged surprisingly well, with one exception. In fact, it’s really quite daring and mature for a film from the 1930s. There’s no way on Earth the material would’ve flown a decade later, you’d think. The Hays Code, for instance, did not come into effect until a couple of years later. Mamoulian and screenwriters Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein (“The Gay Divorcee”, “Laura”) get away with quite a lot here for the early 30s. I think a lot of the best films from the 30s I’ve seen (and the 20s too) are horror films, and this is a pretty enjoyable one.
Although not a film from Universal Pictures, it plays pretty well with the other horror titles in the Universal horror cycle, and features a genuinely terrific, Oscar-winning performance by Fredric March. I normally find him a hammy actor, and if ever there was a cause to ham it up you’d think it’d be here. However, March is mostly playing it pretty straight and it’s one of his better turns. His deep-sunken eyes lend themselves well to the role of an obsessed and tortured doctor. I like that he and the film went out of their way to present Jekyll as a good and well-meaning man, which makes it easier to care about his plight (even though he’s hopelessly naive). However, I must admit that the transition to animalistic lunatic fiend would work better if Jekyll already had undesirable qualities within him. It would seem more believable. Still, he’s quite fine in the role.
The problem is with the laughably bad Hyde makeup, which is truly shoddy, even for the early 1930s. Hyde looks like a shoddy prototype for Lon Chaney Jr’s “Wolf Man”, and that just didn’t sit right with me. For starters, Boris Karloff did it much more convincingly in the later “The Haunted Strangler” by simply removing his dentures and contorting his face. It worked surprisingly well with much less technical effort needed. March’s performance is good, the character/personality of Hyde is interesting and quite bold (he’s sexually deviant and an abuser of women, albeit a 1930s version of such behaviour), but the makeup alone puts this film on a lower tier than say the more prestige “Frankenstein”, “Bride of Frankenstein” or “The Wolf Man”. But it occupies the same space as the Spencer Tracy version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and Bela Lugosi’s (overrated) “Dracula”, which is hardly the worst place to be, is it?
Meanwhile, March’s transformation into Hyde is certainly amusing, reminding one of Bugs Bunny. Such a shame that he looks like Liberace with bad teeth. Or Cliff Gorman, maybe. No matter how bad the makeup is, March still manages to be genuinely unsettling in behaviour as Hyde at times. He definitely deserves credit for creating two very distinct personalities. Miriam Hopkins is also fine as the hooker, even if her accent borders on chimney sweep at times.
The other issue I take with the film is with the Oscar-nominated camerawork of Karl Struss (“Sunrise”), which is just a tad too intrusive and show-offy for my tastes, taking me out of scenes at times. There’s way too many close-ups of eyes, for instance, and far too many unnecessary POV shots. I know why the POV shots are there, but I don’t agree with the necessity. Even worse is a bizarre scene that suggests either Struss or Mamoulian is a leg man, with a seemingly never-ending dissolve involving a woman’s leg. It’s just weird. I was also tiring of all the page-turning screen transitions. I kept thinking Homer Simpson directed it, and we were gonna get a ‘star wipe’ any second. Still, visually the film is a lot less bland and perfunctory than many films of the period Mamoulian clearly isn’t interested in merely presenting a photographed play, I just wish he toned it down a bit. It’s certainly a wonderfully foggy film, and the Jack the Ripper-era locales and costumes have always appealed to me. You certainly wouldn’t know from looking at it that the film was made a a few years prior to “Bride of Frankenstein”, though Mamoulian isn’t exactly James Whale as a filmmaker overall.
This is a genuinely solid and entertaining version of a classic story, one which is quite daring and mature for its time. Poor makeup threatens to ruin the fun, but March’s strong performance and the interesting themes still win out in the end.