Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Mamoulian, 1931)

From what I’ve seen Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the best of the early sound horrors, in part due to Fredric March’s rich performance in the title role, but it’s really Mamoulian’s direction that raises it above the pack. He has a natural talent for sound, and visuals. He took risks that paid off, and was one of the first early sound directors who dared to move the camera. He is even credited for inventing the boom mike, an invention used to free the actors and the camera from being still. His use of sound extends to using them quite effectively to create sound bridges between scenes, adding to an already rich visual palette.

This is the first adaptation of the classic story by Robert Louis Stevenson to incorporate the second woman, and the element of sexual repression. Dr. Jekyll is an exemplatory young doctor, devoting as much time to the free wards as he does with his students and rich patrons. His curiosity, ambition and liberal attitude are seen as being “eccentric”, and even he tries to conform to the confines society has set up, largely conservative and traditional. It’s this idea that drives him to create the potion that will split the psyche between good and evil. It’s his sexual desires that he personally associates with evil. He cannot marry his fiancee for eight months and he cannot seem to quell his lust. In a revealing statement, after he has been given a sensuous kiss from a barmaid, he says to his friend “Can a man dying of thirst forget water?”, when questioned about his engagement. This ties his sexual desire with something so essential, that without it, he may die. It’s this desperation that drives him to experiment with science, so he can remove this weight from his soul. He truly loves his fiancee, but he simply cannot wait. As he understands it, if he releases the “evil” within, it will find fulfillment and finally disappear forever.

The mischief and evil committed by Mr. Hyde are largely centered on sex, as he returns to that first barmaid who tempted him and turns her into his sexual slave. Though constricted by the censorship of the time, having been made in the early 1930s it was lucky enough to be made before the production code was instated. It gets away with far more blatant violence, and sex than most Hollywood films you’ll ever see. Hell, the plot as-is would never have passed in 1935. Hyde’s sexual violence is especially frightening, partially due to March’s incredibly transformative performance. It’s more than just make-up, it’s an entirely different man, body and soul. The first time I saw the film, I wasn’t even sure it was played by the same actor… it’s truly one of the better performances of the 1930s. Hyde’s actions and movements are unpredictable, and one feels just as trapped as his victims. He moves, talks and behaves as an animal would, and is an extreme perversion of male sexuality. There is no tenderness in his love or lust, it’s brutal and violent. He pleasures in torturing his lover in every imaginable way, and she is so afraid of his brutishness that she cannot help humouring his games and requests.

All this is highlighted by the strong sense of visuals that the film creates. It’s dark, twisted and magical. It’s a heightened view of the world, though never artificial enough to draw the viewer out of the story. Clearly inspired by late German cinema, it’s not quite expressionistic… fitting more with the late German masters of silents, like Lang and Pabst. The world is somewhat twisted, the variations slight, the symbols subtle… everything FEELS real, but is never quite right. The outdoor scenes especially are clearly sets. They aspire to realism, but are painted with blurs, water and reflection. The indoors are larger than life, filled with trinkets and glass. More-so than most early talkies, they’re forever crowded with objects and relics. Only Josef Von Sternberg bests Mamoulian in creating effective and beautiful sets. I don’t think Mamoulian is quite the stylist that Sternberg is made out to be, but nonetheless, he is one of the greatest of his era.

Though taken to horrific extremes, the film shows the danger of supressing human nature. How conservatism often breeds hypocracy, supressing intellectual pursuits as well as breeding contempt and violence among those who cannot conform. All the initial desires expressed by Dr. Jekyll are only natural, they are nothing to be scorned or condemned… but they are irrepressible. The guilt he feels drives him, essentially to madness, expression energy and desire through violence. I feel like going on a huge tangent at this moment, but I’m not particularly interested in political debate… but yea, if you can read my mind, you may just be able to see exactly what I’m hinting at. Hopefully you can’t if you disagree with me. Whaazazaoop.

Also, on a sidenote. The film does fall on some conservative values, essentially putting limits on science. The film cryptically seems to side with the idea that most of scientific thought and theory falls in the domain of God. I will argue though, this takes a back seat to he more allegorical take on repression and emotion. Science is simply an easy backdrop to facilitate the film’s exploration of sexuality and conservative values. Though Jekyll never seems entirely convinced his attempts are wrong, he also feels enormous guilt and pain over the consequences.

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