Welcome to a new Film Friday and the continuation of our spotlight series on the Pre-Code work of the naughty Miriam Hopkins (1902-1972). We’ll be covering some of her most delightfully Pre-Code films (all released by Paramount) over these next five weeks, and you don’t want to miss a single one! We kicked things off last week with The Smiling Lieutenant (1931). Today…
Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1932)
Dr. Jekyll faces horrible consequences when he lets his dark side run wild with a potion that changes him into the animalistic Mr. Hyde. Starring Frederic March, Miriam Hopkins, and Rose Hobart. Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath. Based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Directed by Rouben Mamoulian.
Most of us are familiar with the story of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (or at least have seen the Gilligan’s Island spoof), about the mad scientist with a beastly (get it?) alter ego. Admittedly, while the premise and the book (which I have read — though over a decade ago) are fascinating, I’ve refused to partake in the story’s phenomenon (as I have also refused to do with vampires, and ghosts, and pretty much all of the supernatural/horror stuff). Largely this is due to that awful musical theatre adaptation: a self-indulgent spectacle that begs its audience to find it brilliant. So, I have avoided many incarnations of this story over the years, until I finally decided to take Stevens’ classic head on again with the 1931/32 screen adaptation that starred Miriam Hopkins as a Pre-Code slut, earned Frederic March an Academy Award for Best Actor, and garnered almost unanimous praise for the work of its auteur, the iconic Rouben Mamoulian. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. First, the plot (for those who are unaware)…
“In the late eighteenth century, London physician Dr. Henry Jekyll addresses a group of scientists on the duality of the human psyche, convinced that man lives with an eternal struggle between his noble and impulsive sides. In his laboratory, Jekyll develops a potion meant to separate the two selves, so that the evil persona can be brought forth and annihilated. Meanwhile, Jekyll asks Brigadier-General Carew for permission to marry his daughter Muriel earlier than they originally had planned, but Carew refuses. Later, Jekyll returns to his laboratory and takes the potion, and his now-freed evil persona turns him into a beast. Jekyll then visits Ivy Pierson, a music hall singer from Soho whom he had rescued earlier from the advances of a brutish man. As the evil and ugly “Mr. Hyde,” Jekyll now tries to seduce Ivy. She is repulsed by Hyde, but when he promises her wealth, she gives herself to him. Jealous of the affection Ivy has for the kind Dr. Jekyll, Hyde beats and rapes her until she believes that he is the Devil.
“Later, when a composed Jekyll realizes he has terrorized Ivy, he anonymously sends her £50. When she visits her benefactor to thank him, she realizes he is Jekyll, and begs him to save her from Hyde, and he gives his word that she will never see him again. Later, however, on his way to the Carews’, Jekyll turns into Hyde again without the impetus of the potion and goes to Soho and strangles Ivy. Jekyll, trying desperately to emerge from inside Hyde, sends word to his colleague, Dr. Lanyon, ordering him to rush more of the needed drugs to him. At midnight, Lanyon watches Hyde turn back into Jekyll, who swears him to secrecy. Jekyll then promises never to mix the potion again. Believing that giving up Muriel is his penance, Jekyll goes to the Carews’ to break his engagement. As he arrives, however, he again turns into Hyde and attacks Muriel, who is saved by Carew. The police arrive and chase Hyde back to Jekyll’s lab. There Lanyon accuses his friend of murder, and when Jekyll again becomes Hyde, he is shot. The dead beast then reverts back to the kindly Jekyll.” (This summary is brought to you courtesy of TCM.)
The story is great; it speaks to the fascination human beings have with the duality of good and evil, and the inner conflict between both forces lurking within all of us. Thus, its a tale to which everybody can relate, even if we aren’t magically growing fangs and raping prostitutes every other evening. (At least, I hope we aren’t.) It made a great 19th century novel. The screenplay gives the story fair play, and the pace is exciting and well-kept throughout the film. Obviously, we’re all waiting for the moment that Jekyll first turns into Hyde, and much of the beginning of the picture is rendered insignificant except for that build-up. Fortunately, it doesn’t disappoint. This can all be attributed to the utterly brilliant direction of Mr. Mamoulian, who, as we’ve seen in prior posts, imbues his films with a cinematic fluidity and a distinct style that separates his work from many of his contemporaries, whose pictures of the era are often chided as stagy and unimaginative. It’s shocking how many unique and unexpected things our director does with the camera here. He works alongside the actor and the story to keep the viewer engaged. And since this is a visual medium, the film is blessed by his guiding hand.
Of course, given the story’s savage and primal core, it isn’t surprising that the Pre-Code treatment would be a satisfying one. Hopkins’ character works in a dance hall. (We all know what that means.) And just as I teased last week, our spotlighted star has finally captured and focused her inner heat. She’s absolutely scintillating on the screen — she likes and wants sex (with the doc, not the monster — though that can still be argued). It’s undoubtedly Pre-Code, excellent for the narrative, and exciting to watch. (I haven’t seen the 1941 film adaptation made under the code, but one can imagine it suffering in comparison due to a lack of this lasciviousness — which I think is paramount [get it?] to the film and its themes.) Unlike last week, Hopkins definitely has the best female role here, and she makes the most of it. But the film’s star is obviously Frederic March, who does double duty as both doc and beast, and manages to pull both off quite superbly. He’s simultaneously likable and unlikable — someone we hope will succeed and someone we hope to fail. More importantly, he’s consistently believable: no small feat for stars of the early ’30s, who were often prone to hamminess (one of the reasons we love them though, right?). March’s performance is very nuanced and quite memorable.
Though, as I mentioned above, I tend to avoid the horror/supernatural stories, this adaptation is entertaining enough — thanks to the Pre-Code grit, the inspired performances, and the masterful cinematography — to capture my imagination and captivate me for its entirety. It’s a strong rendition of a classic story, and one that all film buffs (young and old) should plan to seek out.
Come back next Friday for another Pre-Code Hopkins film! And tune in on Monday for the start of a whole new week on That’s Entertainment!