Pre-Code Horror: ‘Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde’ Reviewed

by Rachel Bellwoar

Science is about testing boundaries. In Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, that’s exactly what Dr. Jekyll (Frederic March) does when he comes up with a way to split his personality in two; Dr. Jekyll, the doctor who puts his patients first before attending social events, and Mr. Hyde, the fiend who treats a prostitute, Ivy (Miriam Hopkins), abominably.

It’s a story most viewers will probably have some history with, as it’s been redone multiple times. What Mamoulian brings to the table is style. From getting the most out of wipe transitions (which are the furthest from tacky in his and editor, William Shea’s, hands) to kicking things off by having viewers take Jekyll’s point of view, there isn’t a detail he hasn’t accounted for, like when viewers are looking at the sheet music through Jekyll’s eyes and Mamoulian makes sure Jekyll’s shadow falls on the pages.

The problem with Jekyll isn’t that he’s curious. It’s that he’s impatient. The only reason he’s in a rush to drink the potion is because he’s in a rush to get married but his fiancée, Muriel (Rose Hobart), is trying  to ease her father (Halliwell Hobbes) into the idea of moving their wedding up slowly. While Hyde is physically and mentally abusive of Ivy, Jekyll is mentally abusive of Muriel, too, making her feel like if she doesn’t agree to his timetable, his health will suffer. It’s controlling but then Jekyll knows he’s in the wrong – he wouldn’t use the back door so much otherwise.

Warner Archive’s Blu-ray comes with two commentaries. The first is by author/film historian, Greg Mank, and is ported over from the DVD. Mank draws attention to which scenes were cut when the film was re-released in the 40’s. He also pulls back the curtain on some of Mamoulian’s filming tricks (like how he continued the subjective camera shots after Jekyll steps onto the carriage in the opening), Hopkins’ upstaging techniques (and how Mamoulian worked around them), and the film’s pronunciation of “Jekyll” (which apparently Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde author, Robert Louis Stevenson, agreed with). Mank also provides some background on the actors and makes note of any further connections they had to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Edgar Norton (who plays Jekyll’s butler, Poole) played the same role onstage in the late 1800s.

A second commentary by screenwriter/film historian, Dr. Steve Haberman, and filmmaker/film historian, Constantine Nasr, is new to this Blu-ray and gives a great breakdown of the various adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (specifically Thomas Russell Sullivan’s play, the 1920 silent film version starring John Barrymore, and the 1941 remake starring Spencer Tracey) and how they differ from each other and Stevenson’s novella. They bring up how Mamoulian’s film laid the template for other Jekyll and Hyde adaptations to come (even over the source material) and how (unlike the ’41 film) Mamoulian’s is unsympathetic to Victorian society.

There’s also the classic, 1955 WB cartoon, ‘Hyde and Hare’, featuring Bugs Bunny, where Bugs inadvertently ends up going home with Dr. Jekyll. Finally (but not to be overlooked) is a Theater Guild on the Air Radio broadcast of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that aired in November 1950. In it Frederic March reprises the role of Dr. Jekyll while Barbara Bel Geddes plays his fiancée, Elizabeth, and Hugh Williams voices John Utterson.

Utterson (Arnold Lucy) appears in Mamoulian’s movie, too. Haberman and Nasr point him out in their commentary and make reference to the fact that he plays a much bigger role in the novella, but that’s why this broadcast (which runs a little under an hour long) makes such a neat accompaniment to the movie. Sometimes radio adaptations (especially ones that involve the same cast from the film) don’t offer much in the way of new material. Why listen when you can see the movie? By nature of Mamoulian’s film being so visual, this broadcast can’t do that and shares more in common with the novella. The way it begins alone is completely different – Jekyll is already dead and there’s even a reference to his needing a closed casket.

Instead of Wally Westmore’s make-up transformations, which are so iconic in the movie (and aided by the use of red filters, as explained by both commentaries), March has to completely rely on his voice to portray the two characters and it’s very Gollum-Smeagol-esque. Also interesting: Jekyll begins talking to Hyde before drinking the potion, which emphasizes the fact that Hyde has been inside Jekyll all along and not someone he turned into because of his experiments. Elizabeth, as written, is a poor replacement for Ivy and Muriel. She doesn’t come close to Ivy’s swinging leg either, but March gets to approach the material in a different way and it’s A+ content.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is available on Blu-ray now from Warner Archive. Warner Archive provided me with a free copy of the Blu-ray I reviewed in this article. The opinions I share are my own.

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