Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) by matthew c. hoffman

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[NOTE: The following is the complete transcript of my introduction and lecture on April 8, 2010 at the Park Ridge Public Library.]

Good evening and welcome to week 3 of our “Forbidden Cinema” program. Tonight our series takes a nightmarish turn as we peer into the unknown and explore the darker nature of man. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde shows us what horror means.

[lights dim]

It’s a film I discovered for the first time as a kid, paging through a copy of William K. Everson’s Classics of the Horror Film— and a film I would play years later at my theatre. Though I was fortunate enough to be working with actual film prints back then, my distributor sent me a butchered, 82 minute print. Tonight, you will see the most complete version available on dvd.

Before I elaborate on the making of this production, I thought I’d play for you a short video I made on the star of the film. For those unfamiliar with the name Fredric March, here are some photos from a few of his films…

“You know, we have to realize that art is a magic wand that touches stone and turns it into gold, metaphorically speaking,” director Rouben Mamoulian said in his later years, in words as relevant today as they were then. “It turns everything into gold. Today, we touch everything and it turns to lead. It’s ugly. We portray man wallowing in a gutter, full of foibles and sickness, falling short. They say life is like that, but it isn’t true… We still have great people, spiritual people. We have great aspirations and ideals. You take Shakespeare. He always had balls, he knew there was such a thing as conscience, such a thing as good. You’ve got to have both sides. I don’t care how debased or how sordid your subject is, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you must portray the whole truth of life, not partial truth, because partial truth is worse than a lie.”

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the definitive pre-Code film to show the whole truth. Before the public outcry that created the Code, filmmakers could depict a greater reality– what life really is– not the Code-approved truths of later Hollywood films. But Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is more than a morality play about good versus evil. The true conflict is between the spiritual– and it is a remarkably spiritual film– and the bestial in man. In its telling, the film embraces life: the call of the higher self where the soul can be stirred by the strains of Bach… to the dark impulses unleashed in an uninhibited ape form– free at last– and baptized under rain.

This is a horror film for adults told with literary openness and visual sophistication. Mamoulian’s forceful statement on the dichotomy of human nature becomes one of the most visually-arresting films of the sound era. It is a florid, theatrical presentation where characters don’t just love each other, they love each other for all eternity. The film is crafted with intelligence unique in comparison to other genre films whose horrors were often tempered with comedy relief. It is even further removed from today’s standards of horror. It’s a reminder of how literate films once were when characters could quote Keats or play the classics on the organ long before later generations were educated by TV and pop culture.

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By today’s standards, Mamoulian’s stylistics may seem too self-conscious, but in 1931, there were  few visual stylists of his rank. He knew how essential the camera was to filmmaking– that stories shouldn’t be told as though you were merely recording a stage play. The Russian-born Mamoulian knew how to make interesting use of image and sound, as was evident in his debut sound feature, 1929’s Applause. And, as you will see tonight, his technical expertise elevates his films from the static, stage-bound movies of his peers. His frames are filled with visual motifs, and you’ll observe how objects carry a symbolic weight in this film. Some have criticized this, calling it self-conscious or heavy-handed, but as film historian William K. Everson has written, “If some of the symbolisms seem a little too obvious– that is, the through-the-fireplace shot of a bubbling cauldron and flames that he returns to occasionally as a kind of Hell motif– it should be remembered that such symbolism is entirely consistent with a story that deals with the absolute separation of good and evil.” But the technical merits are only part of what makes this a landmark film. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde offers two of the finest acting performances in all of 1930s cinema.

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To classic horror enthusiasts, no Best Actor Oscar shines brighter than the one Fredric March won as Dr. Jekyll– correctly pronounded “Gee-kul” in this film. But he was not the first choice. John Barrymore was originally offered $25,000 to reprise his role from the 1920 silent movie, but when he went to MGM instead, a door was opened for a new star to emerge– and it wasn’t contract player Irving Pichel either, whose name was also mentioned as a possibility. Mamoulian campaigned for Fredric March even though the Paramount front office thought he was just a light comedian. Prior to this, March had appeared in several bad films in a row. But Mamoulian got his way, and March gave a performance that deserved two Oscars, one for each of the characters he played. His Hyde almost scarred him for life. Wally Westmore’s make-up during the final transformation nearly disfigured March. Studio artists knew how to get the make-up on, but getting if off was another matter. March would spend several weeks in the hospital after the completion of the film.

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March was born Frederick Bickel in 1897. One of this country’s finest actors grew up practically in Chicago’s own backyard. His hometown was Racine, Wisconsin, about 60 miles north of here. I visited the old Victorian home on College Avenue, the street still lined with red brick, and for those who are interested in seeing memories past, I posted pictures of his neighborhood on my facebook movie group: “The Fredric March Film Society.” March was blessed with a Barrymore-like profile and an acting style– in the words of author Greg Mank– “worthy of the great stage spellbinders.” In fact, March’s first breakthrough role was portraying a variation of John Barrymore in the 1930 film The Royal Family of Broadway— a role he originally had played on stage.

In a 1932 Screen Book interview, March reflected on his human-monster role. “I conceived Mr. Hyde as more than just Dr. Jekyll’s inhibited evil nature, I saw the beast as a separate entity– one who could, and almost did, little by little, overpower and annihilate Dr. Jekyll. And I tried to show the devastating results in Dr. Jekyll as well. To me, those repeated appearances of the beast within him were more than just a mental strain on Jekyll– they crushed him physically as well… Hyde was killing Jekyll physically as well as mentally.”

In the film, Mamoulian helps us identify with March’s Jekyll using the subjective camera which opens the film. In the excellent audio commentary for the dvd provided by Greg Mank, he relates the story of the pre-production meetings where Mamoulian kept talking about the subjective camera. This was all new to March. Out of earshot of his director he asked Paramount big wig Jesse Lasky, “What is subjective photography?” Lasky threw up his hands and said, “My God, if you don’t know what subjective photography is what are you doing in this business?” March again asked Lasky, “Well, what is it?” And Lasky said, “How the hell do I know?”

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Mamoulian’s idea of Hyde was that he represents something primitive in us, something Neanderthal, and thus, the simian makeup which goes through several transformations. The most famous metamorphosis is the first one we see. For years this trick had been a mystery to fans. The camera effect was in fact achieved by manipulating red and green filters over the camera lens which gave the illusion of the make-up changing color– the white face becoming darker. The great cameraman Karl Struss had actually used this effect during the curing of the lepers scene in the 1925 silent version of Ben Hur. The effect was light years ahead of the old theatre tricks in which turn-of-the-century actors like Richard Mansfield required an offstage green light to shine on their face to convey the transformation. The effects in tonight’s film would also set a precedent for the monster transformations that would follow in films like 1941’s The Wolf Man. It’s interesting to note that Karl Struss did not agree with Mamoulian’s vision of Hyde, believing the change should’ve been more psychological. Struss didn’t want to make a monkey out of Hyde.

Miriam Hopkins is seductive and erotic as the saloon girl/prostitute Ivy Pierson, as when she strips for Dr. Jekyll in a scene startling for its time. She doesn’t just push the envelope of sexuality, she throws her garter belt at it. Champagne Ivy is heartbreaking as the tragic victim of Hyde’s mental and physical abuse. Her suffering is palpable. It’s interesting to note that, being a pre-Code, the film does not judge Ivy nor does it imply that she gets what is coming to her. She isn’t bad because she desires what men want. Sadly, so many of her scenes were cut in later years to such a degree that she was hardly in it in some prints. It wasn’t until the film was restored that audiences saw the full scope of her performance, and she is a revelation.

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Hopkins would star in some of the best pre-Codes such as Trouble in Paradise and The Story of Temple Drake. She would work again with Rouben Mamoulian in 1935 for the first Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp, for which she was nominated as Best Actress. As mentioned a couple weeks ago, the Georgia-born Hopkins had campaigned for the role of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind and actually had the support of the Women’s Club of Atlanta. And as she had done in Trouble in Paradise, Hopkins was guilty here of trying to upstage a co-star, in this case, Fredric March. But director Mamoulian outsmarted her. In a scene at the music hall, Miriam believed March had his back to the camera during a shot when in fact she was playing to the wrong camera. Hopkins never lost her diva status or her reputation of being difficult on set. The 1940 Harvard Lampoon voted her the least desirable companion on a desert island.

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Others in the cast include Broadway actress Rose Hobart as Muriel Carew, who would go on to star in some Universal horrors such as The Tower of London and The Mad Ghoul. She would live to the age of 94 before passing in 2000. Character actor Edgar Norton is the butler Poole, a role he had first played on stage in 1898. He would make a career out of playing butlers. Some of us will remember him as Benson in Son of Frankenstein.

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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a film that deals openly with sexual repression under Victorian restraints and social conventions. The script was written by Percy Heath– not to be confused with the jazz musician of the same name– and Samuel Hoffenstein. The latter would also write Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight. “Sam” Hoffenstein would receive acclaim years later for his poetry. Both writers would be nominated for an Oscar by the Motion Picture Academy. Though it was adapted from Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella, the movie was, like the 1931 Dracula, heavily influenced by an earlier stage production. In fact, Jekyll’s fiancee in this film, played by Rose Hobart, was actually created by playwright T.R. Sullivan in 1887. Heath and Hoffenstein were able to tap into the Freudian theories of the time, and whether this was consciously done on their part or not, Jekyll’s ego and unleashed id are there on the screen, providing a deeper subtext.

The film’s original script had Hyde performing cruel acts while in search of Ivy. He was to rescue a kitten trapped on a bridge– only to drop it into the river. Later, he was to help a blind man cross the street– well, only halfway before taking the man’s cane and leaving him stranded there. Mamoulian filmed neither of these acts of evil. There is, however, a movie still of Hyde trampling a child, but this also was not filmed.

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There are many things that will remain in the memory after seeing this film… the extent of violence within a man who, to our eyes, is the perfect English gentleman and humanitarian… and the heartbreak of the abused prostitute, too gripped by terror to go to the police. The performances of March and Hopkins are two of the best found in any horror film. It’s a shame Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was buried in the vault when MGM purchased the rights to the film from Paramount. At the time, the only version MGM wanted circulating for the public was their 1941 remake with Spencer Tracy– a film that was more lavish drama than horror. And yet, it is the 1931 version that is best remembered today. It remains a masterpiece of art and imagination. Tonight’s film is a supreme achievement from the golden age of horror.

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One Response to “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) by matthew c. hoffman”

  1. Love the article…I chose the book for my book club and purchased the dvd set with both Frederic March and Spencer Tracy. Although the Tracy version has some merit, March’s interpretation of both characters is closer to the book and the film conveys the dark tone of the book as well. I am going to have a movie night and share the film with the book club. I hope they enjoy it as much as I do.

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