Directed by Rouben Mamoulian.
“Can a man dying of thirst forget water?”
Why Did I Get This?
As my good friend and Late Reviewer contributor John Featherstone rightly pointed out, this is a film we saw in our first year of university, when we also read the book and discussed both at length.
However, I have genuinely no recollection of watching this version in full – I do remember seeing the brilliant transformation on numerous occasions (and a parody by The Actor Kevin Eldon in a brief skit on Big Train that has lived rent-free in my brain since it was first broadcast), but that’s about it. Genuinely keen to see this again, especially after revisiting the book in the last couple of years, and recently watching the Amicus adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson book, I, Monster.
Oh, and I picked this up on DVD for 99p while dropping off some stuff at a charity shop during half term, in a single-disc double bill with the 1941 version (which you can read about here). For some reason, the cover bills it as a 1932 release, despite everything else I’ve read about it referring to it as a 1931 release, but there we are and here we go…
The Late Review
As always, the Late Review will go into detail about the film from start to finish, so if you’re looking to avoid potential spoilers, scroll down to the next heading.
Dr Henry Jekyll (Frederic March), is convinced man’s base desires can be completely eliminated by separating the good and evil elements of the soul. When he experiments on himself, the demonic Mr Hyde is unleashed on London.
The Jekyll and Hyde story is one of those brilliant tales that can withstand adaptation after adaptation, and more often than not, every version has something new or interesting to offer. With the 1931 film, it showcased great visual effects, ghoulish monster makeup and a level of pre-Code naughtiness that I found genuinely surprising. We’ll get to that.
My first surprise of the film was the fairly extensive use of the POV shot, beginning with Jekyll’s hands playing the enormous pipe organ in his library, welcoming his butler, then walking through the magnificent set before donning a cape and top hat in a ‘mirror’. There are a couple of these mirror gags dotted throughout the film, with the actors appearing before the camera through a false mirror to create the POV shot, and while it’s perhaps nothing too notable for the 21st Century audience, it’s exciting to see in a 90+ year old movie, especially when coupled with the walking shots.
That’s another thing, the camera is moving a lot more than you’d expect throughout this film. Whether aping the gait of the good doctor, panning or tilting into scene transitions, or following a waltzing couple through a busy ballroom, there are many occasions where I found myself startled by how nimble the camerawork was, especially considering how massive the equipment must have been at the time. I don’t know that I’m aware of Karl Struss’ other work, but I suspect it’s easily identifiable going by how good this is.
Mamoulian plays a nice trick with the pacing too, with scenes often lasting longer than you might expect, rising to a crescendo, dropping down to a murmur (where you think there’d be a cut), before ramping up again even higher. It’s notable when the tragic Ivy appeals to Jekyll to help her escape his evil alter-ego, but brilliantly done with the first transformation.
He teases out Jekyll’s creation and drinking of the potion for a couple of minutes, with a pair of false starts as he pauses to lock the door, then again to write a farewell note in case it kills him. It makes it all the more satisfying when he finally necks the juice in front of a mirror and we’re treated to the amazing visual effect of his transformation (done, if I recall rightly, with makeup and lighting filters assisting March’s performance, rather than the time lapse used so well in The Wolf Man a decade or so later, though there is an obvious cut at one point, presumably to allow the application of a wig and dentures).
… good, innit?
The Wally Westmore-designed Hyde makeup itself is visually striking – a ghastly collection of canine teeth and unruly hair – and was clearly influential throughout some of Universal’s later monster work. As Hyde got stronger throughout the movie, his apelike behaviour increased, with March leaping around and climbing up the sets, but I’d argue that the simian look, coupled with the darkened skin tone, widened nostrils and fuzzy hair gives it certain undertones and makes it a more difficult design to process in 2023.
March gives two great performances here – his Jekyll is charming, passionate and thoughtful, while his Hyde starts as a fizzing ball of twitchy excitement before moving into a vile, menacing, animalistic domestic abuser. Obviously, the whole point of the story is about the duality of man, but you’d barely know it was the same performer under Hyde’s ghastly makeup.
Also excellent is Miriam Hopkins as the tragic Ivy – a music hall performer who first encounters Jekyll when he helps her home after she’s attacked in the street. She’s instantly attracted to the dashing doctor, unabashedly displaying her stockings and garters, bare legs and eventually slipping nude into her bed in front of him, snatching a kiss before he leaves with a distinguished friend (not a euphemism).
From this bold, confident woman, she becomes Hyde’s plaything – forced to drink with him at the theatre, then sharing lodgings with him under constant threat of physical abuse. Hopkins plays Ivy in an ultra-realistic way compared to some performances in 1930s horrors. She is completely despairing of her situation, yet feeling utterly powerless to escape it.
Her distress is heartbreaking to watch when Hyde effectively promises to spend the night abusing her, while her joy at Jekyll’s promise she’ll never see the monster again is equally upsetting, knowing as we do that it’s a promise he can’t keep and before the end of the film, she’ll have suffered a horrific death.
I’ve written about one or two Pre-Code horror movies here at Late Reviewer, but if I’m being completely honest, I don’t think any of them have shocked me quite as much as this one. Ivy’s first scene features implied nudity, sexual desire and flirtation, and ends with her bare leg swinging like a pendulum over the scene transition while her breathy voice repeats “come back soon”.
Jekyll’s horniness is clearly the entire reason for Hyde’s antics – it’s not a subtle subtext, but spelled out in full caps, underlined and in red. When his fiancee leaves town for a while with her father who’s refused to let them get married sooner, March is a collection of nervously tapping fingers and feet, anxiously looking at bubbling pots which start to erupt and spill over as if encouraging him to unleash his inner desires.
Hyde is, of course, personification of Jekyll’s base desires, so you don’t really want or need him or the film to be discreet or subtle, but Mamoulian never misses an opportunity to bring background props to the foreground if they’ll act as a metaphor for what we’re seeing (or what’s going on just off-screen). Yes, it’s occasionally funny (and I suspect you could argue intent until the cows come home), but it’s ambitious and hits the mark more often than it misses.
By the time the story wraps up, we’ve experienced comedy, horror, domestic drama, thrills, action and scares, all in just over 90 minutes – not bad, eh?
Honestly, this is the first Late Review in a long time where I’ve finished watching the film and immediately considered hitting play again.
In terms of the story, it’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect, even if the content is stronger than you might think would be allowed in the early 1930s, and that’s in no way a criticism. Even with the occasionally odd pacing, it really zips by and feels hugely satisfying.
Shocking, sexy, scary and visually thrilling, I couldn’t recommend this more.