Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) is the definitive film version of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It’s also a stunning piece of cinema featuring innovative cinematography by Karl Struss and groundbreaking make-up by Wally Westmore, who worked with Mamoulian to create Jekyll’s terrifying transition to Hyde; a process that Mamoulian and Westmore kept secret for decades.
In this scene, we see the well-respected, philanthropic medical doctor and gentleman Dr. Henry Jekyll, played by Fredric March, transform into his evil alter-ego Mr. Hyde. Dr. Jekyll has earned a bit of a bad reputation in both the medical field and London’s high society circles. For starters, Jekyll has introduced to his colleagues a very controversial hypothesis: that every man has two sides to his nature; one that is good and strives to live to the high standards and moral codes of Victorian society; and one that is evil, acting upon impulse by giving in to the animalistic nature of humanity. While Dr. Jekyll’s hypothesis is at odds with the stringent social mores of the time, it’s not a terribly far-fetched concept. After all, everyone is capable of both good and evil and no one is perfect, despite what Victorian-era propriety would have one believe. But Dr. Jekyll takes his concept further, believing that that these two sides of the human soul can be separated from one other, with the goal of making man stronger and in complete control of his actions– and even his subconscious mind. And it’s the very thought of confronting that inherent evil that his colleagues find so offensive. To them, Jekyll’s experiments are blasphemous. It’s playing god, pure and simple.
While Dr. Jekyll is shocking his colleagues in the medical community, he’s also earned the scorn of his social peers, including the family of his fiancée Muriel Carew, played by Rose Hobart, for spending countless hours treating patients in the charity wards at the hospital. This side of Jekyll’s persona is a giving and selfless hero, and he relishes in the good deeds he’s able to perform. But he’s also arrogant and basks in flaunting the rule of social law. So, while he’s treating people who otherwise might die because of their extreme poverty, there’s a part of him that’s doing it for the wrong reasons. He thrives off hushed gossip and pearl clutching because it feeds his ego. But Dr. Jekyll is also quite eager to marry Muriel, who is a woman of particularly high station. Of course Jekyll’s talk of marriage is code for his desire to have sex with her. But Muriel’s father insists on a long, proper engagement, and consummating their relationship outside the confines of marriage cannot possibly happen for people of their social standing. Jekyll is sexually frustrated, and despite his desperate pleas to Muriel and their passionate embraces in the moonlight, he’s left high and dry.
Enter Mr. Hyde.
In this moment, we only see the start of Dr. Jekyll’s transformation into Mr. Hyde, with the majority of the transformation happening through Jekyll’s view: a dizzying, fevered and nightmarish tailspin with echoes and images of all the people who have both stood in Jekyll’s way to freeing the soul and those who have encouraged it—including the doomed barmaid Ivy, played by Miriam Hopkins, who boldly propositions Dr. Jekyll earlier in the film. Later, once Jekyll decides to takes his potion again so he can visit Ivy, we see the full transformation with Westmore’s groundbreaking makeup and Mamoulian’s special effects. The special filters, contrasting makeup, use of time-lapse—and of course excellent physical acting by Fredric March (something that he could do very well, given his experience as a stage actor) were all employed to make the transformation believable.
And with that dizzying transformation from Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, he is now free to act on his impulses without regard for society’s stifling restrictions.
Director Rouben Mamoulian and cinematographer Kark Struss used various unique camera techniques in this film; lots of first-person shots in a sort of “tunnel vision” where we are looking through Jekyll’s eyes (or is it really Hyde?); in addition to fadeouts, wipes, blended images, slow dissolves, split screens and the use of mirrors. The first time Mr. Hyde is revealed to the audience is when he looks in the mirror. We’re experiencing this haunting moment with him as if we are viewing through his eyes and are potentially complicit in his actions. All of the techniques Mamoulian used were innovative for the era and add to the gothic tone of the film.
Unlike other filmed versions of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story, Fredric March portrays Mr. Hyde a bit differently. His Mr. Hyde is one that has a far more animalistic, Neanderthal look. Furry, sort of a pointed head, with physical movements that are reminiscent of a primate, reverting to the early stages of the evolution of man. There is really very little human in him, despite a very good-looking man trapped within– and that is what’s so truly terrifying.
At this point in his career, March was a rising matinee idol at his home studio of Paramount. When Mamoulian cast him as the lead in this film, there were many skeptics who thought he didn’t have the chops to take on a role that John Barrymore had so successfully portrayed eleven years earlier in 1920. (Paramount was originally interested in Barrymore reprising his role, but he was under contract to MGM.) Interestingly, March played a Barrymore-type character in The Royal Family of Broadway in 1930, which earned him his first Academy Award nomination, and for years he was considered the preeminent Barrymore impersonator in Hollywood.
While modern audiences might view this film as camp, it was terrifying for audiences at the time as they had never seen special effects like this before. This film was also a real gamble for March, as it could have typecast him in ‘B’ films for the remainder of his acting career. But Mamoulian saw potential in March; and March knew how to convey the complexities of the character, balancing the proper behaviors of a gentleman living in the stifling fog of Victorian-era London; and the primal need to act on one’s sexual urges—two things that can never coexist, despite Jekyll’s solid and impressive scientific research. You can’t scientifically change the basic instincts of the human condition– both bad and good– without consequence. And unfortunately, Dr. Jekyll learns this lesson the hard way.