Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931): Man as Monster

Written by literary agent and editor: Sharon Ring

I must have seen the 1931 film version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde half a dozen times over the past week. I also watched the 2007 BBC adaptation and continuation of the original story starring James Nesbitt. I even tried to watch the 2008 made-for-television version starring Dougray Scott (it was so bad I had to stop watching). In all, there have been over one-hundred and twenty film versions of the story which was originally written by Robert Louis Stevenson. I haven’t seen them all, yet.

Like the majority of film adaptations, the 1931 film (directed by Rouben Mamoulian) loosely followed Thomas Sullivan’s stage play which opened in Boston in 1887. Sullivan’s play had added a ‘love interest’ to the story, a role which had not been present in the original novella. With love comes sex, and Mamoulian’s film, initially released as the Motion Picture Production Code (Hay’s Code) was coming into effect, is teeming with scenes focused on love and lust. So much so, that when the film was re-released a few years later, eight minutes footage was removed to spare the sensibilities of the cinema-going audience.

Passion is paramount in this movie. Dr Jekyll, played by Fredric March, is a passionate man. He is a dedicated scientist and surgeon, willing to miss a dinner engagement with his fiancée, Muriel (played by Rose Hobart), in order to perform emergency surgery on a patient in the ‘free’ wards (oh yes, those class issues are still very much to the fore). He’s devoted to Muriel, madly in love, and is determined to beseech her father for a bringing forward of the wedding date. Thwarted, he leaves for home with his friend, Lanyon (played by Holmes Herbert), complaining bitterly at being forced to wait to be married to Muriel and declaring he wants to be ‘drunk on love’.

It’s here he meets Ivy, a prostitute he rescues from an assault in the street; and it is here Jekyll‘s fidelity to Muriel is first tested. Ivy, played by Miriam Hopkins, teases him, stripping and climbing into bed with a deliberate flash of both leg and breast, before drawing him in for a kiss. Lanyon berates him, calling his conduct ‘disgusting’; Jekyll’s response is to call into question the difference between our actions and our instincts. Our actions, he says, may be controlled but not our impulses and, for a good man to be truly good, he must rid himself of these impulses by separating his good side from his bad side. This is, of course, a repetition of the speech given by Jekyll at the beginning of the film but, coming hot on the heels of his encounter with Ivy and the indignation of Lanyon, it’s given fresh impetus, reminding the audience of Jekyll’s plans just before launching into the first appearance of his alter ego, Mr Hyde.

Most people, regardless of whether they have read the novella or seen a film adaptation of the story, know what comes next. The dashing doctor drinks the potion and begins his transformation: out goes Jekyll, in comes Hyde. So well known is this image that it is now part of our popular culture: we talk of people who suffer from mood swings as having a Jekyll and Hyde personality, or of people who start bouncing off the walls after one too many glasses of white wine of having unleashed their Hyde side.

From here in on, each film adaptation plays out more or less the same. Hyde drinks the potion to return to his Jekyll form, Jekyll must drink the potion to transform into Hyde. After a while the potion is no longer needed, the transformations cannot be controlled, and Jekyll’s world falls apart.

As someone reminded me a few days ago, this version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was released just four years after the ‘talkies’ made their way into the cinemas. For me it is an astonishing movie, in many ways. It was filmed and released in one of my favourite time periods of cinematic history: special effects and make-up were being experimented with in exciting new ways. The make-up for Hyde was, in part, based upon images of Neanderthal man, an idea which had been suggested by Mamoulian. Wally Westmore (not Perc Westmore, as the ever-useless Wikipedia would have you think) was the chief make-up artist for the film. He worked closely with Fredric March who was concerned about the make-up making him look ‘silly’ and the amount of time he’d have to spend in the chair being made up for each scene.  Unlike Jack Pierce and Boris Karloff in Frankenstein who perfected the make-up by practicing directly on Karloff, Wally chose to have a plaster cast mould of March’s head made on which he could experiment. The teeth, of importance here as Hyde had a good deal of dialogue to work with, were worked on by Wally’s own dentist, Dr Pincus. The resulting look for Hyde was exactly what Mamoulian had hoped for and March’s fear of looking ‘silly’ remained unfounded. One of my favourite trivia tales about the film is of Wally driving March (in full Hyde regalia) to the day’s shoot location. Calling in at a gas station, they waited on the attendant, who is said to have taken one look in the car, screamed then fled the scene.

The transformation scenes were shot using a series of coloured filters, each filter matching a slight change in the make-up. All the Hollywood studios worked hard to maintain their special effects secrets, Paramount included, and the trick of the filters was not revealed for some years until Mamoulian himself decided to reveal his methods to the world. Another, less secret, method employed by the director in the first transformation scene was to allow it to be shown directly through the ‘eyes’ of Jekyll. He stares into a mirror as he drinks the potion and we see the early physical changes before being whirled off with Jekyll into a dizzying blast of faces from his life as the good doctor, friends vying for his attention with warnings of losing control and a barely-covered Ivy imploring him to visit her again.

Each telling of this tale, whether in cinema or on the stage, has a wealth of themes on which to draw. The period in which any adaptation is produced will always play a part in deciding which of those themes come to the fore most prominently. In Mamoulian’s 1931 production, it’s all about sexual repression. Good and proper behaviour is all-important in Jekyll’s world and, as he tells his valet, Poole, when he suggests his master venture out to sample the delights of London, a gentleman such as himself has to be ‘careful of what they do, and say’. Not so for Hyde.

It is perhaps very telling that in March’s portrayal of Hyde, two scenes in particular stand out in my mind. Immediately after the initial transformation, Hyde stretches out his arms, moves back to the mirror, and speaks his first words as a monster, ‘Free! Free at last!’ After the second transformation Hyde takes his first steps into Jekyll’s London and his first act outdoors is to stand in the rain, delighting in the feel of the water on his skin. Hardly the actions of a monster.

Which brings me to my conclusion. We love our monsters. We especially love our human monsters; those film and television characters who have a good and decent alter-ego, or whose ‘evil’ side is capable of great humanity. From comic-book superheroes right through to characters such as Dexter, the influence of Jekyll and Hyde is ever-present. The 1931 adaptation, though one of many, takes pride of place in my mind as the best retelling of the original tale.

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Filed under Film, Monster Awareness Month, Review

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