Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella had already been filmed a number of times before Rouben Mamoulian directed this version for Paramount in the midst of the early ’30s horror craze that took off after the Universal released Dracula. The other studios were caught flatfooted, not having anticipated that the old stage play, starring the old star Lugosi, would capture the public’s imagination the way it did. The studios rushed in, with Paramount, Warners, and even MGM getting into the macabre act. MGM, to its own horror, produced Freaks, a movie that was far too intense for its time. Warner Bros. had its own flavor of campy creepy-crawly with movies like The Mystery of the Wax Museum and Doctor X, while Paramount produced the extraordinary movie we’re going to see today.
Why isn’t the ’32 Dr. Jekyll as well known as Frankenstein and The Invisible Man or Island of Lost Souls? The film did excellent business when it was released and won a Best Actor Oscar for Fredric March. It is stylistically sophisticated both visually and in its use of sound. It is, for my money, more frightening than any of its better-known competitors. But the movie business doomed it to spend many decades in obscurity. This was exactly what MGM had in mind when it produced its own Jekyll in 1941 starring Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner, and Ingrid Bergman. In a practice hewed to even now when a remake is unveiled, the studio bought up all prints of the Paramount version and promptly “buried them alive” in its vault for 25 years before rereleasing it with an MGM logo. It has since been restored, under its proper Paramount logo, including a number of cuts that were demanded by the Hays Office.
This movie is strong stuff. While Stevenson’s novella deals with the conflict between the good and evil in man, Mamoulian was interested in the conflict between our higher and baser natures. His Hyde does not start out evil exactly but primitive, “close to the earth,” as Mamoulian said. But as the film goes on Hyde’s nature becomes more violent, more sadistic, more destructive. This is reflected in his face, which becomes in the end the face of the devil himself.
Stevenson’s story doesn’t have any major female characters, but this adaptation has two: Jekyll’s fiancée, the virtuous TK, and Ivy, the prostitute who becomes Hyde’s victim. The scenes between Hyde and Ivy are painful to watch because, in the midst of the operatic imaginative world of horror, what we see unfold is domestic abuse that escalates until it ends in murder. It’s the ordinariness, the mundaness that is so hard to watch. The good Dr. Jekyll becomes a monster who tortures and murders his girl-on-the-side. The violence is in the way Hyde speaks to Ivy, his mocking tone, the way he controls her and terrorizes her.
Rouben Mamoulian worked mostly in theater and opera. He directed the original production of Porgy and Bess. Mamoulian was an extraordinary innovator during the early sound period. He freed the camera from its soundproof prison in his first film, Applause, in 1929, restoring some of the fluid motion and kinetic excitement that had been lost in the coming of sound. Mamoulian brought a keen intelligence and wit to his films but was not committed to Hollywood. He made films occasionally but was happy to live in New York and mostly work on staged productions.
For Dr. Jekyll (in this movie pronounced Jee-kull, as Stevenson did), Mamoulian built 35 sets on the Paramount lot and created a beautifully evocative London of fog and shadow. At the time Fredric March was considered a lightweight, a pretty-boy, and studio executives were baffled at Mamoulian’s insistence that March was his Jekyll. But Mamoulian prevailed and March more than lived up to the opportunity.
Miriam Hopkins, who we saw in Trouble in Paradise last week, had a long career on stage and screen, but she did some of her most powerful work during the Pre-Code era. In addition to Trouble in Paradise she starred in another film for Lubitsch, Design for Living, in 1933, and also in The Story of Temple Drake (adapted from William Faulkner’s Sanctuary), one of the movies that really pushed the Hays Office to find a way to enforce Code compliance. Other notable Hopkins films: These Three (1936), the first adaptation of Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour; Old Acquaintance and The Old Maid, both with Bette Davis, with whom Hopkins carried on a decades-long hatefest; The Heiress (1949); and The Children’s Hour (1963).
Fredric March’s career was also long and illustrious. He segued from playing handsome young men in movies like Nothing Sacred (1937) to middle-aged fellas in The Best Years of Our Lives, for which he received his second Oscar, into the ’50s playing the roles of late middle age like Willy Loman and the garment exec who falls for a woman half his age in the excellent Middle of the Night (with Kim Novak). March was friends with MGM’s Jekyll (Spencer Tracy), and the two appeared together in the 1959 film version of Inherit the Wind (with Tracy playing the role originated by Paul Muni on Broadway).
To get a feeling for how different studios deal with the same material and how the Code changed stories, we’re going to compare scenes in the ’32 version with the ’41 version of Dr. Jekyll. And if we have time we’ll screen a cartoon that parodies Fredric March’s transformation from Jekyll to Hyde (Mickey Mouse and Betty Boop cartoons did).