Tonight’s film class involved me watching a movie I’d never seen (rather rare in my academic career). Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a fascinating work layered with complex imagery and themes. This post might not necessarily be a review of the film, but more of an essay because there’s so much that can be analyzed and interpreted in director Rouben Mamoulian‘s work. I’ll probably be discussing my new-found adoration for Miriam Hopkins as well. With that, let’s discuss the imagery and repression that runs rampant in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Acclaimed doctor Henry Jekyll (Fredric March) crafts a potion that splits the human personality into good and bad entities. By day, he’s the respectable Jekyll, but by night he’s the nefarious Mr. Hyde. As Dr. Jekyll finds it increasingly difficult to control when Mr. Hyde will appear, it puts his fiancée (Rose Hobart) and Hyde’s mistress (Hopkins) in danger.
Is this movie risqué, or what? Horror films, as a genre, all discuss the concept of sexuality in one form or another. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a film that doesn’t shy away from discussing sex for an instant. Dr. Jekyll’s desire for transformation comes about due to his soon-to-be father-in-law refusing to let Jekyll marry fiancée Muriel early. Jekyll is so emasculated by this interaction, despite Muriel’s father being significantly older. The desire to remain respectful to one’s elders works well with the Victorian setting that this movie employs. It’s interesting that I watched this while reading The Age of Innocence for another class as both take place in the same time period, and came out around the same time. Once Jekyll takes the potion and transforms into Hyde, not only is he able to express himself, back to a natural way of living, but he’s able to find his once strangled masculinity. I have to wonder if the film’s focus on masculinity is derived from WWI and the Depression. Men not only returning home, obviously disturbed by the events they’ve witnessed, but feeling helpless due to lack of jobs and the inability to provide for their families. Jekyll is a wealthy man, almost saintly in his desire to help the downtrodden. He goes so far as to spend time in the charity ward helping little girls to walk to heighten his saintly status. It’s after he stumbles upon the seedier side of London, almost by accident, that the audience is allowed to see the other side of the time period.
This London is one based around manners and formality. At times, Jekyll and Hyde as a movie is very formal and cold, especially during the lengthy sermons Jekyll invokes early in the movie. When Jekyll stumbles on Ivy’s world, a world of prostitutes and poverty, he’s seeing it for the first time. There is a whole other side to London that is actually never spoken of; simply one of many things that’s never spoken of in polite society. When Jekyll’s butler Poole (Edgar Norton) tells Jekyll to “amuse” himself while Muriel is away, the connotation is to take a mistress. There’s a lot that is left unsaid in this film, but it’s evident in how many men of supposed polite society find themselves in the saloon on the wrong part of town.
Which brings us to the ladies of the film. I hate when movies employ the “Betty and Veronica” trope of one blonde and one brunette; this isn’t any different. Mamoulian also utilizes the Madonna/whore element with Muriel being the former and Ivy the latter (if you need it broken down further, Muriel is brunette and Ivy blonde). Rose Hobart is beautiful, but ultimately she comes off as cold and unemotional as Muriel. She gets one scene of poignancy when Hyde attacks her at the climax, but really she’s the boring girl who Jekyll is supposed to end up with. The role doesn’t have any meat to it, so Hobart is left to sigh in drawing-room chairs and declare her love for Jekyll. I found it hard to understand Jekyll’s intense desire to move up the wedding short of him wanting to get laid. This brings us to Ivy, the lovable prostitute. Where has Miriam Hopkins been all my life? She’s exquisite for starters, and the role of Ivy is shocking for 1931. You should have heard the audience gasps when Ivy very noticeably gets undressed and into bed, with the hopes of seducing Dr. Jekyll. The camera doesn’t move away and actually shows the side of Hopkins’s breast! The movie may focus on how polite society doesn’t acknowledge sex, but it’s obvious that the Production Code Association took notice because the code would be implemented three years later with the hopes of protecting children’s eyes from such things. Ivy goes through the litany of domestic violence both physical and verbal. She gives the role all she has as she pretends to smile in order to please the sadistic Mr. Hyde. I actually wanted more of Hopkins character because she possesses vitality and charisma. It’s obvious why a red-blooded America man would go crazy for her.
The final climax swirls around Jekyll/Hyde’s sexuality reaching full boil (as evidenced by two scenes, that bookend the movie, of a bubbling pot over Jekyll’s fire-place). At the end, Hyde goes on a rampage and starts to assault people with his cane. The phallic imagery comes to the forefront, and when the cane breaks it signifies that Hyde’s masculinity is short-lived, and ultimately easily splintered; possibly due to Jekyll still possessing a hold on the body, as well? When Jekyll/Hyde is finally brought down, it’s by a small gun. Masculinity led by physical prowess is unnecessary. A man does not have to be physically intimidating to kill, simply possess the right weapon…hint, hint. You also see the duality function in the choice of weapons. The old-fashioned, Victorian walking stick that serves two purposes, contrasted with the newer, efficient handgun; furthermore, there’s another connection to the war as WWI was the first to implement weapons geared specifically to carnage.
The focus on duality does become tiring at times. Mamoulian has a desire to make every shot emphasize that there’s two sides and sometimes the style gets in the way, and actually lessens the impact of the message. He transitions through the use of wipes but actually stops the cut halfway, usually to emphasize the two women in Jekyll’s life, or the place where is contrasted with where he should be. It’s effective the first few times it’s employed, but after a while it becomes repetitive. The audience knows what it means, there’s no use beating a dead horse. He also seems to enjoy fading into another scene, with the preceding scene still on-screen. For example, after Jekyll saves Ivy (Hopkins), her flashing leg remains on the screen whilst he’s talking in a later scene. It’s apparent the audience is supposed to see it as her wanton sexuality running through Jekyll’s mind; tantalizing him. It becomes cumbersome though because you’re focused on the movement of her leg, instead of the dialogue that Jekyll is saying. I enjoyed Mamoulian’s desire to delve into the psychology behind Jekyll’s actions, but it seems that the director becomes too involved in stylizing every frame.
The stylization is exacerbated further with Fredric March’s makeup. I understand that the intent was to make Hyde a Neanderthal man, emphasizing man’s primitive nature but it’s comical to today’s audiences. Fredric March, the actor, is good. He plays the same character as he did in I Married a Witch; the repressed Puritan. He doesn’t do much to go outside that, and he really lets loose under the heavy make-up as Hyde (probably why he won an Oscar for the role). The problem is the camera likes to focus on Hyde’s face, and having March make weird monkey expressions. My class found this to be pretty funny. As the movie gears towards its climax, March starts jumping and climbing on things like King Kong. I’m sure to 1931 audiences this was terrifying, but in 2013 it’s one element that hasn’t aged well.
If you can’t tell, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde makes for a great conversation piece. It’s multi-layered and filled with evocative imagery that’s ripe for dissection. As a movie, it’s strong in dialogue and acting. The style of the shots composed and March’s makeup can become overused, but March and Hopkins make up for a lot of the movie’s flaws. It’s slowly growing on me the more I discuss it.
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.