“You’ve got to write about the Mamoulian JEKYLL AND HYDE — and you’ve got to say it’s my favourite film — one of them,” argued Fiona, cogently. I had started talking about either a series of posts on pre-code Hollywood films (but too many excellent bloggers have been there ahead of me) or maybe a series of posts on versions of Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 adaptation, scripted by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath (check the IMDb for Hoffenstein’s REMARKABLE list of credits — it includes several of my very favourite films, from CLUNY BROWN to THE WIZARD OF OZ, LAURA to LOVE ME TONIGHT) is widely thought of as the best version ever, and came out in what is indisputably the key year for horror movies: Universal brought out both DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN the same year. All three films could be considered the definitive versions of the three best-known Gothic creepers, but Mamoulian’s is certainly the most sophisticated film.
Every time we watch it, and we must have done so ten or more times, we spot more details and ideas. Mamoulian was many things, including: an intellectual who was unafraid of exploring ideas onscreen (his version of Hyde is both a neanderthal man and an embodiment of Freud’s Id); a man of the theatre with a fascination for performance and performers; a cinematic innovator who seems willing to try any device, however bizarre. The cliché was always “the innovator who ran out of innovations,” which is unfair, since Mamoulian both following the fashion of cinema, which ran amok with experimentation in the early ’30s, then settled to a more consistent style and grammar during his later career, and he seems to have chosen a classical approach for his later work: he doesn’t fall back on repeating his old tricks, he abandons most of them altogether. I must admit I do prefer the first four films, with their joy of discovery, but R.M. remained a considerable talent.
Reel for reel, JEKYLL must contain more startling new cinematic ideas than CITIZEN KANE. It suffers a bit from over-reliance on symbolism, and some of the gimmicks just don’t work too well, but such zest and creativity carry you over any number of awkward moments.
Maybe the opening subjective camera sequence has been written about too much? As a kid I was thrown by the abrupt cuts from Jekyll’s hand playing the organ to his butler Poole, but the cuts simulate the effect of rapidly moving your eyes from one subject to another — nobody sees a swish-pan when they do that — so they’re fine, really. Tracking through Jekyll’s opulent townhouse (“Beautiful roses, Poole,”) we come to a mirror: Fredric March is reflected in it, preternaturally porcelain-handsome, yet already with rather disturbing bags under his eyes. Poole slips through a side door and emerges in the reflection (it’s actually a window, through which the camera can stare directly at the actors — does this make sense?), handing March/Jekyll his hat and coat, then a fast pan takes us towards the front door, and the camera movement somehow detaches from the dolly in order to wobble up into an open carriage. A little jump cut allows the carriage to ride off, carrying us with it, then a dissolve elides the journey to the lecture hall where Jekyll hands his things to a porter and steps in front of the audience. Quick shots of the anticipating professors take us out of the P.O.V. and then we get March expounding his Startling Theories about the divided soul.
There’s no precedent for all this in any other adaptation of the story. It’s a very direct way of stating the nature of Jekyll’s research, and most versions are the poorer for not having an equivalent. Stevenson’s story, of course, is a mystery, and something like this could spoil the surprise, but most adaptations take Jekyll’s point of view, rather than those of the various eyewitnesses whose stories make up the book, so the story explains itself as it goes. Mamoulian seizes that idea, already used in the John Barrymore version, and takes it literally. The subjective camera opening will be echoed later in the first transformation…
There then follow some slightly duller scenes, closely derived from the Barrymore version and probably the play, where we see Jekyll as a philanthropic doctor treating the poor, and his fiancee Muriel awaiting his arrival at a ball. Muriel, a boring character, is played by Rose Hobart, an avant garde legend due to the 1936 experimental movie ROSE HOBART, culled from various shots of R.H. walking about and looking around, all taken from the ludicrous jungle romp EAST OF BORNEO (see it!), made the same year as DR. J. Rose is a bit of a bore in this film, but it’s really the script’s fault: she’s a plot function without a personality, and bound to look flat and lifeless next to Miriam Hopkins.
Fortunately, Miriam is along shortly, to provide pre-code spice and hysteria, with a commendable stab at a stage cockney accent. Another famous Mamoulian subjective camera sequence: Hopkins undressing in front of Jekyll. She’s asked him to turn away, but the staring camera suggests he hasn’t taken her request too seriously (or “sirius-ly” as March and Hobart insist on pronouncing it), and an insert of her discarded garter landing at his feet, which pointing straight at her, confirms our suspicion with wilful salaciousness.
Miriam enjoins Jekyll to “Come back soon,” and swings her bare leg metronomically from the bed: a lap dissolve keeps this leg superimposed over Jekyll’s thoughtful face for close to a minute as he walks off with his boring friend Lannion (apparently the moral voice of the film, but one whom it’s impossible to sympathise with). Ah, that leg!
Jekyll is anxious to marry the tedious Muriel, and a glimpse of Miriam Hopkins makes him even more so: the man has lusts he can barely contain. He urges Muriel to elope to Paris with him: “And we’ll be so happy even the French will envy us,” but she respects her stern dad too much. Dad is Brig. General Danvers Carew, played by overstuffed hambone Halliwell Hobbes. Carew appears in most adaptations, but is a radically different character each time. In Stevenson he’s just a victim, bludgeoned to death with a cane which breaks: the two pieces of cane connect Jekyll to Hyde at the story’s climax. Here he’s the Forces of Repression personified, enforcing the social codes Lannion blethers about.
Jekyll’s transformation is explicitly motivated by the desire to fulfill his natural lustiness — he’s desperate to marry so he can do this legitimately. When his butler recommends he distract himself with the London nightlife, he despairingly objects that a gentleman of his social standing can’t be seen to do so. His transformation is important more as a disguise to allow him to do what’s unacceptable, than as a disinhibiting drug to loosen him up.
Ah, that transformation. The zippy pan to the skeleton Jekyll toasts, the accelerated motion that allows Jekyll to write his last testament with amazing speed — goofy but somehow admirable. The subjecting camera approach to the mirror, and the extreme pull-focus from the smouldering beaker before Jekyll’s face, to the reflected figure drinking. Then the much-lauded effect where layers of coloured makeup are revealed by the removal of coloured filters, which cameraman Karl Struss had pioneered in the silent BEN-HUR.
Sounds! As Jekyll staggers from the mirror and sees only a spinning blur, we get a weird tintinnabulation, a pounding heartbeat (Mamoulian’s own, recorded after he raced up and down a flight of stairs*) and a series of pronouncements from lap-dissolved characters of memory: “Positively indecent!” “It isn’t done!” etc.
And then, still in subjective camera, Hyde sees his reflection… now Mamoulian’s character leaves Hyde’s head in order to observe from the outside. “Free at last!”
Wally Westmore’s make-up design, a sort of cro-magnon Fred West look, aims for Stephenson’s description of the character — a sort of generalised sense of deformity — but takes everything too far. Of course, it’s one of the difficulties of the character: a makeup artist must create a character who’s memorable and striking yet credible (the public expects a monster and must have one, but Hyde needs to be able to walk the streets without immediately causing panic), and who erases the actor underneath. When they try to go subtle in MARY REILLY, we end up with the Superman/Clark Kent effect: how come nobody notices that it’s the same guy? Here every feature of Frederick March’s appearance has been altered out of recognition, but a bit too much. The teeth are amusing. The slightly pointy head, a borrowing from John Barrymore’s late-stage make-up, is disturbing.
The physical movement aspect of the character is March’s triumph. As Jekyll he seems to exaggerate his own worst traits as an actor: he’s rather stiff and faux-English. As Hyde he lets rip. You get a great insight into how much fun it would be to rampage around in a cape. And it’s intelligent and witty too — Hyde streeeeeetches when he first appears, as if he’s been curled up for too long in a foetal position inside Jekyll’s cramped subconscious. And when, after his second transformation, he runs out into the rain, he turns his face up to enjoy the droplets on his skin. The world is new.
Mamoulian’s conception, suggested by Stephenson but elaborated, is of Hyde as the animal spirit, the neanderthal ancestor or the primitive id. He’s actually innocent at first, aggressive and brutish, but not yet corrupt. As he takes pleasure from the world, his appearance becomes more putrid and dissipated, like Dorian Gray’s portrait. Jekyll is like Gray, protected from the ill-effects of his nocturnal vices by this substitute creation.
Hyde, who shares Jekyll’s memories, immediately goes looking for Miriam Hopkins, and finds her at a convincingly seedy music hall, where hefty chorus girls strut their overstuffed stuff in an echo of Mamoulian’s first film, APPLAUSE. Gliding through the crowd, Hyde pauses to paw a girl’s bare back — a shuddersome moment. Then he finds Miriam, and the abusive relationship part of the film begins.
This is one of the aspects that fascinates Fiona — having made a video about abusive relationships, she was struck by the repeated use of the phrase “a real Jekyll and Hyde character” by women who had violent partners. Here, Hyde is persistently vicious and domineering, with Jekyll as the winning personality who smooths things over with money and kind words. The only difference is that, up until the very end, Hopkins has no idea that the two men in her life are really one. Hopkins’ final scene is moving, terrifying, and deeply disturbing in its fusion of love, sex, violence and death. Mamoulian would probably want me to say “Eros and Thanatos”, since he pans to a statuette of Eros embracing a maiden as Hyde takes Hopkins in his hands…
Another interesting aspect — the film abounds in them — is that Hyde is clearly pathologically jealous of Jekyll, who inspires love in both Hopkins and Hobart, where Hyde can evoke only revulsion (brilliantly played by Hopkins, who looks at times as if her lovely skin is going to crawl right off and hide up the chimney).
And another! The addiction angle — Stephenson has Jekyll liken himself to a drunkard, swearing off the stuff but then succumbing to temptation. Jekyll uses his formula as both a disinhibitor to allow himself to do things he couldn’t do when “sober” (things which would disgust him morally and physically — we’re told Hyde beats Hopkins with a whip), and as a disguise to avoid being caught. But, unlike most drugs which weaken in effect as the body builds up a tolerance, Jekyll’s experiment takes on greater strength, and he begins to transform spontaneously. Even after praying for forgiveness and safety, Jekyll is betrayed by the poison in his soul — the film seems bracingly cynical about the efficacy of appeals to the Almighty.
Realising he cannot control the raging beast that dwells within him, Jekyll visits Rose Hobart to break off their engagement. But as he leaves, he sees her through the French windows, weeping. The sight is enough to trigger a new and fatal transformation. “So does this mean that the sight of her crying turned him on?” asks Fiona. This implies that Hyde has now become a sort of Incredible Sexual Hulk, metamorphosing when aroused. Shades of Simone Simon in CAT PEOPLE. But I’m not sure this is correct, because Jekyll’s next change is random.
March excels here, effecting the transformation purely by posture, as Mamoulian shoots him from behind. He must have welcomed the opportunity to compete with Richard Mansfield and John Barrymore, who won great acclaim for transforming before the audience’s eyes without the use of makeup of special effects. The sequence is all the more effective for its simplicity, and it stands out in a film brimming with invention and sophisticated ideas.
Having crashed in on Hobart (livening her up — it really is a tedious role for anyone to play) and bludgeoned her dad to death with his cane (an incident elaborated greatly from the book) Hyde flees athletically through the fog fog fog of Paramount’s Victorian London (speeding from the wide, upscale streets around Hobart’s home, through dingy slums, and then into the divided area where Jekyll’s home stands, elegant mansion at the front, hissing laboratory at the back, connected only by a slender walkway…
Cornered in the lab by Lannion and the police, Hyde hides in plain view by forcing a transformation to Jekyll, who still intends to get away with it — for all his remorse and praying, he has no intention of being had up for murder. But the Jekyll facade crumbles before the cops’ eyes, and the most raddled version of Hyde yet, emerges. He’s still spry though, vaulting around like Errol Flynn, until an emissary of death sends him on his way with a conventional household bullet.
These last transformations are achieved through lap dissolves, as in the unsatisfactory Spencer Tracy remake, and they’re not half as brilliant as the others. Outside of Jack Pearce’s work with Lon Chaney as THE WOLFMAN, there haven’t been many lap dissolve changes that really impressed me.
As Jekyll lies dead on his lab table, Mamoulian glides the camera behind the fire, where a giant pot, used to symbolise Jekyll’s seething passions at various points of the narrative, still bubbles. In an era when all horror films had to end with the restoration of order, it’s somehow not a reassuring end.