Thursday, 18 February 2016
DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE (1932)
(NY opening Dec 1931. General release 1932)
Regarded by many, myself included, as the greatest screen telling of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic gothic tale, this Paramount horror film of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde scripted by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath is a stylish and spirited pleasure – thanks mainly to its choice of director in Rouben Mamoulian, lead actor Frederic March (deserved winner of the Academy Award) and transformation special effects that are still impressive to this day.
Frederic March was an unexpected choice for the heavy, dual dramatic challenge of Jekyll and his bestial alter-ego. He was regarded as more of a lightweight comedic actor but Mamoulian fought for him. This was characteristic of the director’s uncompromising approach and confidence in his own taste. Mamoulian, nicknamed ‘Mamou’, started out directing lavish Broadway musicals such as Porgy and Bess and was the first in New York to stage Oklahoma and Carousel. He would continue in this genre in Hollywood, aside from notably helming Garbo’s Queen Christina - wherein his directing talent shrewdly guided her in the final close-up to be simply impassive, thus enabling the audience to imprint upon her face what they felt her inner feelings could be. His loyalty and commitment to union support for the Directors Guild of America made him powerful enemies. Eventually he was professionally ruined by the notorious 1950s communist witch-hunt blacklist, but had the satisfaction of living to the ripe old age of ninety even so, presumably outliving many of those who had plotted against him.
Frederic March had also come to Hollywood via Broadway after an emergency appendectomy caused him to re-examine his previously safe job in banking back home in Wisconsin and change direction to his dream life as an actor. Throughout his career, March balanced a love of theatre and screen roles, the varied disciplines richly rewarding him with ultimately two Academy Awards, two Broadway Tonys and a television Emmy. Despite early misconceptions about the range of his talent, which may have been partly due to his handsomeness (fears no doubt assuaged by his willingness to play rough in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), he went on to an illustrious career which included heavyweight parts in Eugene O’Neill and as Willy Loman in the film of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman - after regretting turning down the original stage run.
In 1926/7, Tom Cushing’s Broadway comedy The Devil in the Cheese would have been a hot ticket retrospectively for horror fans as it featured Frederic March, Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye, effectively forming their own ‘League of Extraordinary Gentleman’ spanning Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde before any of the films would shoot them to genre fame.
March was often compared to John Barrymore, ‘the great Profile’, due to his similar matinee- idol looks. Paramount in fact tried to tempt Barrymore to reprise his 1920 turn in the film, even offering him $25,000 a week but to no avail.
Like all businesses, Paramount had suffered catastrophically during the Great Depression. It needed big box-office hits and, in common with Universal, found success with a horror picture – in this case re-casting the lead in a hit that had already worked once before.
From its opening, with the hands of March’s Dr Henry Jekyll playing the lead-in theme of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, we’re already treated to an intriguing example of Mamoulian’s directorial imagination. With the aid of his great cinematographer Karl Struss, he positions us from Jekyll’s point-of-view; we immediately become intimately involved with our hero as he goes from displaying his piano skills at home to dressing for the outside in front of his mirror, then continuing via carriage into a lecture hall, his students and colleagues privately admiring his oratorical and intellectual brilliance before he speaks. The characters orbiting this stellar figure directly address us as well – and indeed once Jekyll is finally in front of the camera, the effect is compounded by the startlingly personal way Jekyll then delivers his talk straight at us himself. It’s a rivetingly modern start to a 1930s film; Mamoulian ensures that Jekyll will have our full attention and hopefully sustain our subjective sympathy as he embarks on his terrifying psychological journey. (Incidentally, the sequence leading up to his exit from the house was cut for many years until restoration for VHS and DVD. In his genial and informative DVD commentary, Greg Mank wondered if this was due to the accidental glimpse of a capped technician caught fleetingly in Jekyll’s reflection as he dresses to leave. A lot more scenes were cut for the film’s reissue in 1936.
In this film version, Henry’s surname is pronounced ‘Jee-cull’, supposedly the way Stevenson said it when asked by reporters.
The first performance we get to enjoy on screen is Edgar Norton as Poole the butler. He had actually been playing the role on stage since 1898 opposite the famed actor-manager Richard Mansfield. Buttling was clearly his forte as he went on to the same duties in Dracula’s Daughter and then for Basil Rathbone in Son of Frankenstein.
Mamoulian is careful to shape March’s performance through the film, beginning with showing his noble care of patients such as the little girl who he coaxes to walk without her crutches. His energy and charm though has an irreverent edge that prevents Jekyll from a bland white-wash of virtuousness.
One of Mamoulian’s other consistent style touches is a regular use of split-screen to wipe from one scene to another, often balancing the incoming scene briefly side by side with the former. This is done sometimes with a vertical divide and often with a diagonal – indicating duality long before Jekyll starts concocting his fatal potions. The first use of the technique introduces Rose Hobart as Muriel Carew, Henry’s fiancée. Like her director, she was tough, survived the same blacklist and lived to be 94. In her garden wooing scene with Jekyll, Mamoulian again uses the directness of having the lovers stare right into the camera as they profess their love for each other, placing us between them in their most private of shared stolen moments together.
The next major event in the film that highlights Jekyll’s chivalry is his fateful meeting with Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins), the good-time girl who ultimately appeals to his latent Hyde persona – and every other man’s of that persuasion. He comes to her rescue when she is attacked by one of her customers. Initriguingly, this scene is the reverse of the famous scene in the Stevenson story where Hyde is apprehended in public for the first time as he savagely attacks a little girl in the street. That plot point is notably missing in this remake.
Hopkins would have been a censor’s nightmare in her wonderfully lusty, suggestive portrayal reminiscent of Mae West. Fortunately for us, this version was released before the draconian Production Code came into effect – consequently Ivy displays a refreshingly brazen sexuality with Henry that he enjoys surprisingly conscience-free. We are treated to plentiful shots of her cleavage, she encourages his hand on her garter-belt racily close to her crotch, then tosses it like a lacy gauntlet at his feet which he penetrates in a possibly Freudian manner with his cane. Hopkins then removes her stocking to reveal a shapely leg before stripping, artfully covering herself with the bed-cover and then grabbing Jekyll in a hot kiss as his friend Dr Lanyon (Holmes Herbert) enters in the nick of time. The raunchy footage in this sequence had only been restored more or less intact for the DVD release from various cuts imposed after its 1936 re-release under the Code. Mamoulian gets the most from Hopkins’ smouldering performance by an artful dissolve that lingers on her gartered leg, swinging like a hypnotist’s watch, for some seconds as Jekyll and Lanyon walk home through the streets, her parting whisper of “Come back” is a siren-call that will entice him to return to whole-heartedly in another guise. The scene is also valuable in that it hints at Henry’s existing flirtatious side, offering a chink of devilish light in the doorway that Hyde’s primitivism will permit to be thrown open. His wilder side will not be safely dismissed later as a monster disconnected from him; on the contrary, it reveals him.
Pipe in mouth, Henry then sets to work concocting in his laboratory amidst an authentic set of tubes, flasks and bubbling paraphernalia, one of many commissioned by Mamoulian for the utmost historical accuracy. This leads to one of the most astounding and seamless transformations ever filmed for a horror movie as Jekyll becomes Hyde for the first time before the mirror. Karl Struss ingeniously arranged a red filter in front of the lens filming March wearing a strong make-up of the same colour. This had the effect of temporarily returning his face to a basic white. By then gradually switching to a green filter, the transition revealed the heavier make-up underneath, all in a single ‘live’ take in-camera as March grimaces and clutches his throat in agony before our eyes. The result is astonishing and must have blown away audiences in an era long before digital CGI.
Mamoulian sustains the earlier all-important POV of making us sharing Henry’s experiences even at this moment of extreme supernatural horror. He has Struss move us away from his reflection into a whirling subjective maelstrom of montage images depicting Henry’s loved ones appealing forcefully to us. Simultaneously the director added a ground-breaking sound-track, capturing musical instruments played backwards such as a gong and various drums, augmented by his own recorded heart-beat. Fleetingly we see a boiling cauldron, a recurring symbol of seething emotion and then the camera returns us to the mirror to see the fully-formed Hyde…
The initial 25 seconds of Hyde’s excited frolicking - “Free! Free at last!” – were cut after audiences laughed at the shock of his ape-like appearance, yet the look of Jekyll’s alter-ego quickly grows upon the viewer and befits the flavour of Stevenson’s bestial description. Wally Westmore (of the famous Westmore make-up dynasty) had fashioned a face suggestive of a pre-evolved human - the wig’s contours smoothed to the head, mono-brow and hirsute limbs, coupled with March’s hunched posture and physicality are all evocative of our neanderthal ancestor. The grotesque teeth are an unsightly asset (a porcelain set designed by Westmore’s dentist Dr Charles Pinkus), seving almost as a prosthetic prop in how they allow Hyde to lick and grin through them lasciviously.
Likewise March’s tremendous athleticism hurtling around the sets and from railings totally embody the author’s guilty thrill at being “Younger, lighter, happier in body”. Stevenson wrote feverishly as Jekyll of ”the light step, leaping pulses”, now that after “my devil had long been caged- he came out roaring”. Here, March has the time of his life giving vent to Hyde’s unfettered wicked glee, especially in his early outings where he is something of a mischievous teen hooligan, before later immersing himself into terrible adult evil.
The second transformation, shortly after, is an even more intricate effect whereby after the filter dissolve on Jekyll’s face and his hand, there is a series of invisible match-cuts allowing the teeth to be applied before we return to his face again, then another on his left hand so that when we next see his face he is fully Hyde. On exiting, March shows us the heightened sensory hedonism of the creature as he enjoys the anointing of the rain upon his visage.
An extra jolt of vigour to Hyde is given when he picks up Ivy at the music hall. They strike sparks off each other, which by all accounts was an unwelcome facet of Miriam Hopkins’ real-life diva behaviour. She would relentlessly upstage March and her co-stars and not just in this film. Even the strong-willed Bette Davis was brought to boiling point each day that they worked together, inflaming an old professional rivalry during the making of The Old Maid (1939). Davis said in her autobiography: ““Miriam used and, I must give her credit, knew every trick in the book. I became fascinated watching them appear one by one…”
This scene is important as we see a flash of the volatile homicidal impulses never far from the surface with Hyde when a customer of Ivy is seen off by him with a jagged bottle to hand. He also terrifies Ivy with a verbal hint of his sadistic sexual domination to come: “You see I hurt you because I love you. I WANT you…Under this exterior you’ll find the very flower of man”. The odd choice of the word ‘flower’ is noteworthy - it suggests sickeningly that Hyde believes his cruelty is an evolved, not devolved, version of the civilised Jekyll. He overpowers her and the viewer with a Hannibal Lecter saliva-drenched hiss into the camera of “You’ll come with me”. Their relationship shortly develops into a perverse domestic abuse mini-drama all of its own, with Hyde the suited tyrant at home, demonically ordering her to declare her hatred for him and preening himself in the mirror before leaving to somewhere undisclosed. Hopkins is superb in her abject terror of his volcanic temper.
As if to remind us how close Jekyll is to his alter-ego, Ivy visits him, pleading for his help against the ogre she does not know is secretly him. She kneels before him, begging him to help in a skewed echo of her previous enticement to him. He struggles internally with the baser desire she is rekindling in him, his hand trembling as he caresses her head before vowing to help.
Jekyll’s next transformation is a turning point in the film, occurring as it does in a moment of tranquility while he recites Keats’ ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ in the park. This time, his primitive half triumphantly crows that in turning to the dark side without the drug catalyst, he is taking over control: “But it IS death!” Hyde goes on a mission of violent revenge to the squealing Ivy; despite the urbane top-hat and tails, he has the tone of a gangster James Cagney murdering an unfaithful moll: “Thought I wouldn’t come back…Jekyll’s word against Hyde eh?” March is thrillingly macabre as he reveals he is Jekyll, launching himself across the bannister rail dynamically to stop Ivy from leaving, his cloak billowing out Dracula-style. Before he throttles Ivy obscured by the bed, Hyde utters the horrific tease: “Isn’t Hyde a lover after your own heart?” exposing the very darkest depths of her private desires as he extinguishes her life.
Mamoulian’s film builds to a crucial scene faithful to the Stevenson book where, held at gun-point by Jekyll’s friend Dr Lanyon, Hyde forces him to watch as he concocts a draught and changes once more back to his gentleman other self by virtue of dissolve photography. The worst is yet to come when Jekyll repeatedly becomes Hyde under stress. After struggling with his inability to unburden his torment to Muriel, he tries to protect her by severing their engagement - this inadvertently triggers a change which results in Hyde killing his father in-law Sir Danvers Carew. Hyde returns to Jekyll but under stress from the police pursuit led by Lanyon, he undergoes a final dreadful transformation into a baggy-eyed disfigured Hyde before being shot by Lanyon and mercifully becoming Jekyll in death.
The final Hyde change almost ruined March’s professional career as Westmore made use of a mask attached to his face with liquid rubber directly applied to his skin. In removing the mask, Rose Hobart recalled it “took most of Freddie’s face off, too.” Though the make-up effect resulted in hospitalisation for the actor for three weeks, he was lucky to avoid any permanent disfigurement. In fact, in his acceptance speech when he won the Oscar in 1932, March paid tribute to Wally Westmore for his share of the startling portrayal March gave. On the night, his award was actually shared with Wallace Beery for The Champ. Beery received one vote less than March which under Academy rules qualified as a tie.
It is a shame that for his stunning directorial flair, Mamoulian wasn’t even nominated for Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Nevertheless, March’s award is even more impressive when one considers the paucity of historical award recognition for work in horror films even to the present day. He was the first lead actor to garner such an achievement, and even allowing for the newness of the award system back then, in the decades since only two others have been similarly recognised (Kathy Bates for 1990’s Misery and Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs in 1991). It seems that the genre is still unfairly regarded as lower-class when judging the merits of distinction in acting.