1931 is the foundational year for the horror film. It is the year in which all the strands and experiments of the silent era crystalized into the genre we now know. Even the term “horror movie” was not in wide use before 1931. Four films in particular have had a lasting impact on the genre that is still felt to this day. Dracula and Frankenstein are the two most often mentioned in conversations of that year’s horror films, but also important are Fritz Lang’s M for essentially inventing the serial killer subgenre, and Rouben Mamoulian’s Oscar-winning horror movie Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
By 1931 the effects of the Great Depression had reached Hollywood. Studios across the board needed hits but few were having much success. Notable exceptions to this generality were Warner Brothers with their low-budget gangster pictures Little Caesar and The Public Enemy and Universal with the massive success of Dracula. Universal itself immediately began seeking a follow-up to capitalize on Dracula’s success, eventually deciding on two more literary adaptations, Frankenstein released in late November, and Murders in the Rue Morgue which eventually went to theaters in early 1932. The prestigious Paramount studio also took notice of the success of Dracula and decided to remake a property they already owned, originally planning to cast the star of that earlier version.
John Barrymore was already a legendary stage actor when he starred in the 1920 silent version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. He was offered a handsome sum to reprise the role just over a decade later, but by this time he had signed a contract with MGM, and it proved impossible for him to participate. Paramount moved on to their next choice, Irving Pichel, but the director the studio had hired, respected stage director Rouben Mamoulian, objected, citing that Jekyll should be played by a younger man. According to a 1971 interview, Mamoulian felt, “rebellion and transformation is more interesting when it is the result of the ferment of youthful aspirations.” He then suggested an actor that the studio initially balked at, the handsome stage presence with only secondary roles in lighter films to his name, Frederic March. Despite their objections, Paramount relented due to Mamoulian’s reputation and force of personality.
As with most Jekyll and Hyde films, the script called for a “good girl” and a “bad girl” to serve as love interest and conflict for the two faces of Jekyll and to underscore the themes of duality in the story. For Jekyll’s fiancée, Muriel, rising Paramount leading lady Rose Hobart was cast. Though she never reached the heights of stardom, she would become a familiar face both in and out of the genre with roles in Tower of London (1939) and Isle of the Dead (1945)—both of which feature Boris Karloff, The Mad Ghoul (1943) and The Cat Creeps (1946). She is the heart and compassion of the film but the role itself pales when placed next to the “bad girl” of the story.
Miriam Hopkins already had a reputation by 1931 of being quite a diva. She would often make life difficult for her costars and few who worked with her had very nice things to say about the experience, including Frederic March on this film. Hopkins also had a long-running feud with legendary actress Bette Davis who accused her of using “every trick in the book” for upstaging her fellow performers. Rouben Mamoulian even used some trickery to work around these habits on Jekyll and Hyde. The director also hand picked her for the role of Ivy Pearson because he knew that Hopkins was absolutely electrifying on screen. In the film, she gives a performance just as worthy of an Oscar as March, particularly in the scene in which she goes to Jekyll’s home pleading for protection from Hyde. She would go on to work with some of Hollywood’s great filmmakers, most notably Ernst Lubitsch, William Wyler, and Arthur Penn, but her reputation of being difficult to work with also followed her, forcing her into smaller and smaller roles over time.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a perfect example of the “pre-code” era of Hollywood. Though The Motion Picture Production Code, a list of dos and don’ts for industry self regulation and censorship, was officially adopted in 1930, it was not rigidly enforced until 1934. Films made between the time of adoption and enforcement tend to try to push the limits of the Code, particularly when dealing with sexuality and violence. Jekyll and Hyde is especially frank in its sexuality both in the text and subtext. The reason why Jekyll takes the potion before an evening out is because his marriage continues to be postponed and he turns himself into Hyde to satisfy his sexual frustrations. The role of Ivy is a sympathetic portrayal of a sex worker with Miriam Hopkins’ dynamic portrayal drawing further empathy and compassion for her plight from the audience. Early in the film, the Freudian symbolism of Jekyll placing his cane in the garter Ivy has removed and tossed to the floor is clear. In the same scene, when Jekyll orders her to rest, she provocatively strips her clothes in an attempt to entice the good doctor. The suggestive sequence ends with a long dissolve of Ivy’s bare leg with a garter around her thigh swinging back and forth like a hypnotist’s pendulum.
In the character of Hyde, the film comments on toxic masculinity a good eighty plus years before the term came into common usage. Hyde is a manipulator and an abuser. He berates, whips, rapes, and eventually murders Ivy, never feeling a bit of remorse. Hyde’s outward appearance grows more hideous the darker his soul becomes. Both his inner and outer disfigurements become all-the-more revolting when contrasted against the handsome, generous, compassionate, and almost saintly Dr. Jekyll.
The film spends a great deal of time at the beginning establishing Jekyll’s goodness. At times, he is given practically messianic qualities such as when he takes a young girl’s crutches and urges her to walk, which she is miraculously able to do at his urging. Unlike most werewolf movies (essentially the folk-tale version of the story), Hyde remembers what he does as Jekyll and Jekyll remembers what he does as Hyde. This adds greatly to the guilt and pathos of Jekyll and makes it even more devastating when he is unable to control the beast within him and begins turning into Hyde without the aid of the drug. It is without a doubt the range of the performance that ultimately earned March his Best Actor Oscar for the film.
Another distinctive aspect of this version of Jekyll and Hyde is the unique take on Hyde’s look. He is the most simian looking interpretation of the character, reflective of the increasing acceptance of Darwin’s theory of evolution at the time. The makeup, created and applied by Wally Westmore, was based on artist concepts of Neanderthals, and made March practically unrecognizable while playing Hyde. It also proved to be a torturous experience for the actor. Much of the makeup consisted of liquid latex applied directly to his face and removing it peeled away layers of skin. The final version of the makeup seen toward the end of the film nearly caused permanent disfigurement and required March to undergo a three-week hospital stay. The role that won him the Oscar very nearly ended his career.
One of the greatest impacts on the horror genre for decades to come is Mamoulian’s use of the subjective camera. In the opening shots, we see through Jekyll’s eyes, a moment that is believed to be a cinematic first. The technique was rarely used (1947’s Dark Passage starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall is a notable exception) until its innovative use in Bob Clark’s Black Christmas in 1973 and John Carpenter’s Halloween in 1978. Now, the “killer POV” is a staple of horror films, particularly within the slasher subgenre. Another key directorial touch is Mamoulian’s use of wipes that split the screen, again underscoring the film’s themes of duality.
The fact that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was based on a literary classic saved it from being heavily censored in 1931. Before the film was sent for approval, Paramount removed two scenes, one in which Hyde throws a kitten into a river and another where he stomps on a child, though stills remain from the latter scene. The main sequence to be cut down by the censors was Ivy’s strip in her bedroom and Chicago regional censors asked for a few further cuts. Despite these minor changes, the film remained relatively untouched when it premiered in New York on New Year’s Eve 1931 and opened to record audiences in early January of 1932.
As was the fate of many films of the pre-code era, Jekyll and Hyde was heavily censored and seventeen minutes were cut from it for its re-release in the late ’30s. Some of the cuts were for content, but many more were simply for time, making it about the same length as the Universal horror films of the period, and allowing exhibitors to fit in another showing per day. The film was sold to MGM in the early ’40s to make way for their new version starring Spencer Tracy and languished in a vault for decades before finally being rediscovered. It was released in its truncated form on VHS before finally being restored to its original length in the late 1990s for its DVD release. Unfortunately, the film has never gotten the kind of restorative attention that Dracula and Frankenstein have received over the years and has not yet had any further home video releases in high-definition formats, though it is available for streaming on some platforms.
In spite of this, the film remains incredibly important to the horror genre for the reasons already discussed and more. Frederic March’s performance is groundbreaking and quite astounding even to this day. The film itself explores the deepest darkness of the human heart and, with the exception of Hyde, represents its characters with deep humanity and sympathy. It is a powerful portrait of how our most base impulses can destroy us and those around us. It is a story of addiction, self-destruction, desire, and ultimate redemption. These themes and ideas remain compelling because it examines the core of the human heart of darkness, a darkness that still endures after ninety years and, unfortunately, will surely remain far longer than ninety years to come. Because of its frank explorations of our higher and lower natures, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde continues to be a deeply effective and affecting work of art.
In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius, played by the inimitable Ernest Thesiger, raises his glass and proposes a toast to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein—“to a new world of Gods and Monsters.” I invite you to join me in exploring this world, focusing on horror films from the dawn of the Universal Monster movies in 1931 to the collapse of the studio system and the rise of the new Hollywood rebels in the late 1960’s. With this period as our focus, and occasional ventures beyond, we will explore this magnificent world of classic horror. So, I raise my glass to you and invite you to join me in the toast.