Quick Hit: Terrific acting, coupled with special effects that were revolutionary for the time, leads a movie that is a must see for any horror/film fan.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a tale by Robert Louis Stevenson, and is one of my favorite (non-Stephen King) books. It’s so engrained into our culture now that we practically use it as a given, but Stevenson was the first to really take the idea of one’s darker half and turn them into a person all their own. That Dr. Jekyll is a tragic figure is almost nearly forgotten by most interpretations on the screen, whether television or movie. However, it’s this film – probably more so than the 1920s John Barrymore version – that truly defines the image of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for me.
I don’t need to describe the plot here besides a few things. One, Dr. Jekyll (oddly pronounced “J-ee-kl”) (played by Fredric March) is engaged to be married to Muriel Carew (played by Rose Hobart). Two, there is a sexy singer in a bar named Ivy Pierson (Miriam Hopkins) that Jekyll treats briefly after a domestic abuse type injury – she predictably swoons at him. These two characters create the love interests for our two main characters, Jekyll and Hyde. That’s because each woman perfectly represents all that each character wants.
What’s really incredible for me about this film is just how sexual the characters are allowed to be. It’s slightly before the Hollywood Code came into action, which essentially neutered all the horror films for the following years. This mainly falls on the shoulders of actress Miriam Hopkins, who perfectly encapsulates the bar fly image of a woman desired by all the drunkards. But, what’s miraculous is that she also somehow mirrors the tragic figure that Jekyll is. Whereas he is rich and respected in his community, and that keeps him from doing some less respectable things (hence the creation of Hyde), she is poor and seemingly trapped in her world of men that treat her like trash. You can tell she wishes for more but doesn’t necessarily think that she deserves it. Hopkins acting is terrific and is truly the source of all this.
Speaking of incredible acting, March won horror’s first Academy award for this movie. And he is terrific. The experience almost killed him (he ended up hospitalized shortly after this movie), but he is a wonder in both roles. As Jekyll, he portrays a man who is on top of the world. His intelligence and spirit is infectious to those around him, and he genuinely cares about his fellow man. But his Hyde is arguably better – with lines spoken through prosthetic dentures, it’s a wonder he could speak at all. Hyde is full of movement, rarely allowing his face to even rest a moment.
The makeup effects were done by having several layers of makeup already on March, and then different lens were used to bring the image forward. That’s remarkably impressive for 1931, and the effects are awesome. The effects were based off of artists renderings of what a Neanderthal looked like, and created an image that is unlike many of the Hydes we see now, who are really just the same guy in different clothes.
There are also some transition effects that are really strange but heighten the movie viewing experience. The first that comes to mind is the most jarring. It’s a superimposition of Ivy’s leg over the image of Jekyll and another doctor having a debate on the duality of man. The image lingers for a really, really long time. It’s different, but it makes sense. The image obviously has consumed Jekyll, and so the fact that the images “follows” him makes sense. There are also quite a few slides of the screen that lead to split screens that last for a few seconds as well. To go along with all these different transitions, we are also randomly treated to some terrific and adventurous POV shots – in particular featuring the butler.
I can honestly say this is my favorite portrayal of the story of Jekyll and Hyde onscreen. A close second for those that want to check it out is the BBC show Jekyll starring James Nesbitt. It’s a really good show, if obviously lacking a bit in the effects budget. But this interpretation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gets an “A-“.
For more on this movie check out IMDB.
"All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy"