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

Posted in Uncategorized on April 9, 2010 by mchoffman

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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.

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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.

The Pride of Racine by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized with tags on October 28, 2009 by mchoffman

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One of America’s finest and most famous actors grew up not more than 60 miles from where I live. Having recently created the Fredric March Film Society, it seemed a good time to visit Racine, Wisconsin. This city had been his home– over a hundred years ago.

The “Bickel House” was originally built in 1878 and is an example of the Italianate architectural style. The home is located within the Southside Historic District of Racine.
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The first stop was the actual childhood home of Fredric March, which is located at 1635 College Avenue. The original section of the home had been built by a blacksmith by the name of William Crawford. In 1890, the residence became the property of Thomas Marcher, whose daughter, Cora Bickel, moved in sometime in 1900. Cora’s husband, John, was the head of the Racine General Manufacturing Company.

It was here where Fredric grew up with his brothers, Harold and John, and their sister, Rosina Elizabeth. Of course, in that day, young Fredric March was known as Frederick Bickel, and the only starring roles he did were in the “Wild West Circus” performances the neighborhood kids put on in the backyard. His “College Avenue gang” of friends are long gone, as is the barn where the Bickels had kept a pony, but the red-brick lined street (dating back to 1897) is still there along with the many Victorian homes that border the avenue. And there remains the old tree in the front of the home. One can imagine a young Freddie playing near that tree on a fall day in 1902.
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In Fredric March: Craftsman First, Star Second, Deborah Peterson writes, “Racine pedestrians had to be careful when walking past the Bickel household or they would soon see a three-and-one-half-foot caricature of themselves. Luckily for some of the men and women, they never knew what went on behind their backs as they passed a certain group of children huddled in front of the massive Victorian on College Avenue. For among them was a young boy with a keen eye for oddities who would spot peculiar walks and nasal voices and tiny quirks of conduct. Once, Cora actually had to spank seven-year-old Frederick for imitating a tottering old man passing their residence.”

A walk around the block reveals a neighborhood lush with backyard vegetation with homes containing long-forgotten memories. Fredric’s home is two blocks west of Lake Michigan. His College Avenue friends must’ve spent many summer days at the lakefront. It was a brisk fall day when I toured the shoreline after first descending a hill.
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At 716 College Avenue, one can find the First Presbyterian Church built in the Greek revival style. The church dates back to 1851. It was here where Fred’s father, John, held a deaconship. Author Deborah Peterson writes that it was Florence Eldridge, whom March married in 1927, who managed to “swerve Fred away from his Presbyterian upbringing and membership in the Republican Party.” Though March never became a minister, he would play one so memorably in 1941’s One Foot in Heaven.

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Closer to home is Winslow School at 1825 Park Avenue where March attended grammar school. It was originally built in 1856 and is one of the oldest school buildings in the city. Fred started his education here at age four.

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Though many of the homes still remain, the city has changed a great deal. It’s a more mixed population in Racine today. Many of the old homes are now up for sale, but College Avenue remains a beautiful, well-maintained section. We hope that one day the “Bickel House” will be given the landmark status it deserves.

The Best Years of His Life by matthew c. hoffman

Posted in Uncategorized on September 12, 2009 by mchoffman

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[NOTE: The following article originally appeared in the Winter 2004 Nostalgia Digest. Chuck Schaden’s Those Were the Days radio show dedicated an entire afternoon to Fredric March, which included his performances on Theatre Guild On the Air, Suspense, and Academy Award.]

      There’s a scene in The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) where the Al Stephenson character has returned to the banking business he knew before the war. A customer comes to him with the expectation of receiving a G.I. loan. This somewhat naive soldier wants to buy a farm but has no collateral. Stephenson, himself a veteran, has to explain to the man what collateral is. The younger vet, unfortunately, has very little to put down. The problem weighs on Al’s conscience, but he reaches a decision. To his way of thinking, an ex-G.I. is a good risk. The loan will be processed, but Al will receive, in due course, a mild reprimand from his superior over the matter.

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      Fredric March portrayed Al Stephenson in this, his most famous film, for which he won his second Oscar. It’s a performance that continually amazes. His character in this scene is a regular Joe who, perhaps guilty over his own economic well-being in post-war America, just wanted to give a fellow G.I. a break. One never sensed any movie star egotism on the screen. Here was a down-to-earth, understanding human being. These qualities of decency and intelligence were exemplified by Fredric March throughout his long and diverse career on stage and on screen.

      Like Ronald Colman and Ray Milland, Fredric March’s name is rarely if at all mentioned these days. His omission from the American Film Institute’s “50 Greatest Actors” was particularly egregious since March was once considered the finest actor of his generation. Unlike some of the more popular (and less talented) actors who were contemporaries of his, March was first and foremost an actor, not a personality. His handsome looks were classical; his voice, distinct and resonating. His acting style often had him underplaying a role, making the performance stand the test of time. With his dramatic roots firmly entrenched in the stage, he could adapt to any film genre, any challenging role.

      He appeared in screwball comedies such as Nothing Sacred (1937) with Carole Lombard. He turned up in literary classics, playing the convict Jean Valjean who is hounded by policeman Charles Laughton in Les Miserables (1935), as well as Count Vronsky opposite Greta Garbo in Anna Karenina (1935). He was adept in contemporary roles as well as historical dramas such as The Sign of the Cross (1932) and The Buccaneer (1938)– both for Cecil B. DeMille. He worked with some of the greatest directors from Hollywood’s Golden Age: Lubitsch, Wyler, Cukor, Leisen, Mamoulian, Wellman, Hawks, and Ford. He played everything from Mark Twain to Christopher Columbus to the President of the United States.

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      In his later years he portrayed Willy Loman to great effect in Death of a Salesman (1951) and was the William Jennings Bryan-inspired character in Inherit the Wind (1960). Never an onscreen loner or rebel, March often played conservative, middle-class men, such as the husband whose family is held hostage by criminal Humphrey Bogart in The Desperate Hours (1955).

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      Perhaps because he was never associated with being an “anti-hero,” modern audiences might prefer to have his performances– and the ideals the films represented– remain in the film cans of movie vaults. Their loss, for pop culture predilections and passing tastes can never take away from the artistry March demonstrated in over 70 films and countless plays. The values of humanity are preserved in these performances.

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      Fredric March made his entrance into the world on August 31st, 1897. Born Frederick McIntyre Bickel, of English and German stock, he grew up in Racine, Wisconsin, in a relatively happy middle-class household. In his childhood he had a knack for dramatic readings and was a good student. In 1915 he attended the University of Wisconsin, where he majored in finance and economics. But his college years were interrupted by the First World War. Duty called him away. He enlisted and became a lieutenant in the Army.

      After the war he returned to school where he became class president, managed the football team, and even starred on the track team. When he graduated he took a banking job in New York, but the position didn’t have the lure or the promise he wanted out of life. He needed something that would appeal to his artistic sensibilities. It was during this time in his life when he was bitten by the Broadway bug.

      After an appendicitis surgery, Bickel gave up banking altogether and began to tread the boards in touring companies and in stock. In 1924, on the advice of friend and future Hollywood director John Cromwell, he changed his name to Fredric March– a shortened version of his mother’s maiden name “Marcher.” (Evidently, Cromwell thought “Bickel” sounded too much like the inelegant “pickle.”)

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      After a brief and unsuccessful first marriage, March found his perfect leading lady, the woman he would spend the rest of his life with. The year was 1926. Her name, Florence Eldridge. After a season of summer stock together in Colorado, they would be married. Florence, too, was a talented star on the stage, and she would in time appear in many of his movies as well as co-star with him in several radio dramas. Fredric’s professional turning point soon followed in 1928 when he played the role of Tony Cavendish in “The Royal Family”– later turned into a film in 1930. This parody of the famous Barrymore family caught the eye of the motion picture industry, since the play debuted in Los Angeles.

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      He was soon signed to a five-year contract by Paramount. Many of his early roles in this period were forgettable through no fault of his own. He needed better scripts, but he did not have long to wait. In 1931 he starred in the definitive version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which he played the tortured doctor torn between the bestial and the spiritual qualities of man. To classic horror enthusiasts, no Best Actor Oscar shines more brightly than the one he won for this film.

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      In the years that followed he appeared in some misses, but most were hits, such as his role of Death in Mitchell Leisen’s beautiful and elegant Death Takes a Holiday (1934). When his contract expired at Paramount, March turned to freelance work at other studios such as 20th Century Fox and MGM.

      Off the set, March contributed greatly to the community at large. During the war years he traveled with the USO and did a great deal of fundraising for the war effort. After a successful comeback to Broadway with Florence in the play “The American Way,” Fredric did radio work to support Democracy over the airwaves. Until his death is 1975, March remained an unquestionable patriot, representing the best in America. Even into the 1960s his country called on him to perform dramatic readings for patriotic events.

      During the decades after the war, March would win two Tony Awards– the second of which came in 1956 for what is considered his greatest success on the stage: Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.” This, coupled with the fact that he won a couple of Oscars, makes one wonder how the name Fredric March could be so obscure.

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      Though his stage performances are lost in eternity, seen only by those who were in attendance, his movies will live on through the centuries thanks to film revivals and home entertainment alternatives such as DVD. His film credits read like a registry of great performances. For those unfamiliar with him, one needs only to track down a title like 1937’s A Star Is Born, where he superbly played the washed-up, alcoholic actor Norman Maine. On the other side of the spectrum, there is the role of the Reverend William Spence in the inspirational One Foot In Heaven (1941), one of his finest films of the 1940s. It was fitting that he would play a minister because at one time his parents had the expectation that he would become a clergyman.

      When a viewer looks back on his career and discovers these performances, the things that will stand out are his versatility and the earnestness with which he undertook every role. Perhaps one day in the not too distant future he will again be recognized as one of America’s most gifted actors.

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