This column on the 1932 version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE first appeared in the HWA NEWSLETTER in October 2006, and so there’s a reference to Halloween, but this is okay, since it’s never too early to start thinking about that special night, when pumpkins, black cats, and monsters rule.
—Michael Arruda 9/10/10
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT: DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1932)
by Michael Arruda
Before Anthony Hopkins won the Best Actor Oscar in 1991 for his portrayal of everybody’s favorite cannibal in SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, the only other actor to win an Academy Award for Best Actor in a horror film was—Fredric March for his brilliant work in 1932’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE.
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1932) was the first sound version of the famous Robert Louis Stevenson tale, but it was by no means the first film version. There were a bunch of silent versions dating back to 1908, the most famous starring John Barrymore in 1920.
The 1932 version with Fredric March is widely considered to be the best, and I would agree, though the elaborate Spencer Tracy version from 1941 is nearly its equal.
Fredric March shines in the lead role. His Dr. Jekyll is heroic, strong, and self-assured, likeable rather than arrogant. His performance as Jekyll is natural, not stagy, unlike many of the other male leads from the 1930s horror films.
As Hyde, March really stands out. Wearing make-up by Wally Westmore, that gave him a Neanderthal appearance, March is the most hideous Hyde of them all.
The initial transformation scene is amazing. Director Rouben Mamoulian pulled it off by using a special light sensitive make-up that could be manipulated by the use of colored filters. The result is we see March change before our eyes without the use of any cuts or dissolves. It’s remarkable to watch. And Hyde grows more hideous as the film goes on, as he becomes more decadent and evil.
The screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath, based upon the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson, is just as responsible for creating the horrific Hyde as both March and Westmore. Hyde has some truly menacing and maniacal dialogue.
Besides Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins also delivers a top-notch performance as Hyde’s love interest, Ivy. Their scenes together, Hopkins as Ivy and March as Hyde, are chilling and tense, nightmarish. The scene when an angry Hyde returns to Ivy after she thought she was rid of him will give you chills for a long time afterward.
Director Rouben Mamoulian adds a lot of creative touches that raise this film to a very high artistic level. There’s the use of the subjective camera, for instance, supposedly the first time this effect was used. When we first meet Jekyll, we don’t see his face, as he’s behind the camera. The first time we see him is in a mirror. Interesting.
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE was released upon the heels of Universal’s DRACULA (1931) with Bela Lugosi, and FRANKENSTEIN (1931) with Boris Karloff, and at the time, was just as popular as these two films. But over the years, as the Lugosi and Karloff films became more and more famous to the point of icons, March’s Jekyll and Hyde all but disappeared. Part of the reason for this is that it did disappear. When MGM released its 1941 version with Spencer Tracy, it bought the rights to the Paramount Fredric March version and removed it from distribution. It wasn’t discovered again until the 1970s.
One can make the argument that taken as a whole, counting performances, direction, and writing, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1932) is actually a better movie than either DRACULA (1931) or FRANKENSTEIN (1931).
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a disturbing piece of storytelling that more than holds its own today, more than 70 years later. What better way to celebrate October and Halloween by watching a classic of horror movie cinema, Fredric March as DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE.
© Copyright 2006 by Michael Arruda