I’ve got a special love for genre classics, particularly those in the realms of science fiction or horror because they’re so rarely mounted with genuine ambition. One example of a landmark title was recently released as a beautifully restored DVD last month, Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931). Mamoulian (City Streets, Love Me Tonight, Becky Sharp) was a consummate Hollywood craftsman who pushed the stylistic and technological envelopes in ways that intensified the themes of his films. “In his early films,” critic Tom Milne once wrote, “Mamoulian was a persistent iconoclast, insisting that none of the limitations imposed on the sound camera were really necessary, and many of his experiments have now become common film language.”
Mamoulian’s propensity for invention was aided immensely in Hyde by his collaboration with famed cinematographer Karl Struss (Ben Hur, Sunrise). The opening scenes of the movie, for example, are shot with a subjective camera, as Jekyll plays Bach on his organ, rises, walks through his house, passes a mirror (his visage is briefly reflected), walks outside his home, boards a carriage, travels to a university classroom, and begins to deliver a lecture on human nature. The camerawork intensifies viewer identification, uncomfortably suggesting Jekyll/Hyde is not simply a fiend to cooly judge, but a shadow of the viewer’s own persona. The doctor’s later transformations are astonishingly produced (I won’t give away any secrets) and Fredric March, who played the character, had to spend three weeks in the hospital recuperating from facial damage his elaborate makeup inflicted. March utterly loses himself in the role, creating a leering, lip-smacking humanoid bundle of rage that is one of filmdom’s best–and most terryifing–performances.
I’ve seen a good portion of the Universal horror films of that period (Dracula and Frankenstein were both released the same year as Hyde), but none of them come anywhere near the frightening emotional savagery of Mamoulian’s film, produced at Paramount. If Jekyll is the paragon of English gentility, Hyde is a loathsome creature, instantly primeval and cruel, and a genuine challenge to the new Production Code that was just getting underway. In fact, great portions of the film have been edited out of circulating prints over the years (including the extant VHS), but Warners’ new DVD carefully includes them all. While Jekyll impatiently waits for an opportunity to marry his distant fiancÈe, Hyde preys upon a desparate young woman (marvelously played by Miriam Hopkins), trapping her in a destructive relationship predicated on threats and abuse. The film firmly establishes sexual desires as the central cauldron of conflict, and as Hyde grows more physically revolting with each transformation, he becomes a physical embodiment of a sadistic id.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was nominated for several major Oscars (it won Best Actor) and received audience awards for Most Favorite Actor and Most Original Story at the first annual Venice Film Festival in 1932. The DVD includes an amiable commentary by horror movie scholar Greg Mank, and admirably, Victor Fleming’s 1941 film version starring Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman, which by all accounts is far inferior to Mamoulian’s version, though I haven’t watched it yet. As an added bonus, the DVD includes the witty Bugs Bunny cartoon, Hyde and Hare (1955), directed by Friz Freleng.