Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Writers: Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath
Cast: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Holmes Herbert, Halliwell Hobbes, Edgar Norton, and Tempe Pigott
Composer: Herman Hand (Uncredited)
Release Date: 12/31/1931
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March), a kind and benevolent man of science, submits that the human condition is composed of two distinct sides: one good and the other evil. Unable to marry his fiancée Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart) due to a silly custom honored by her father, Brigadier-General Carew (Halliwell Hobbes), Dr. Jekyll performs an experiment that separates his malevolent, uncultured half—known as Mr. Edward Hyde—from his upright self. Complications arise when Mr. Hyde, having entered an abusive and one-sided relationship with bar singer Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins), continues to exist without the consent of Dr. Jekyll.
The quintessential mad scientist offering, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde earns its reputation as the greatest, most influential horror movie of all time. Specifically, the performance of Fredric March exemplifies the requisite combination of menace, charisma, and tragic pathos to effectively portray both sides of the Jekyll/Hyde character—a balance achieved by few actors either since or before the production of this feature.
To convey the carnal urges that compel Dr. Jekyll—now obsessed with exploring the so-called duality of human nature—to trespass upon the domain of the Almighty, director Rouben Mamoulian employs a variety of then unique, experimental camera angles and techniques during the initial act of this film. In one instance, for example, a shot of Ivy Pearson’s leg is superimposed over the late-night stroll of Dr. Jekyll and Dr. Lanyon (Homes Herbert), suggesting the desires that would no doubt linger in the mind of any red-blooded male following solicitation from a youthful, attractive prostitute—a pivotal factor in Dr. Jekyll’s decision to “play god” with his own life and soul.
Additionally worth praising on a technical level, the early transformation sequences avoid copious make-up and progression effects in favor of emphasizing the contortions of March, who, by demonstrating raw, physical torment during the transitory states of his character, succeeds in capturing the unspeakable agony of a man at war with his very nature. (The final scenes, in contrast, unfortunately forgo such a method as outlined above, instead showcasing visual tricks that appear obsolete by today’s standards—similar to those featured in Universal Studios’ The Wolf Man.)
As opposed to many interpretations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s gothic novella, the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde indicates that vile impulses should be cast aside altogether—albeit with assistance from a higher power if necessary—and never released even in moderation lest they erode the capacity to resist temptation. Note also that Mr. Hyde becomes increasingly grotesque and barbaric with each manifestation, almost as if to embody the corrosive effect that repeated indulgence in evil, harmful, or addictive behavior can have upon the mental and physical wellbeing of an individual.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde contains a profound and terrifying lesson on the dangers of flirting with immorality. Classic horror fans young and old should thus appreciate this film, the iconic imagery of which would forever establish Hyde as a primitive, simian-like creature devoid of the conscience and ethical reasoning that distinguish man from beast.
Overall Quality: 10/10
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