If this still doesn't get you to watch this movie, nothing will!
I was really looking forward to this version after reading about it in Mick LaSalle's books. I knew it was pre-code and that it dealt with the sexual part of the story in a frank way. The main villain here is sexual repression with Dr. Jekyll's repressed fiancee and her ultra-Victorian father trapping him into a long engagement. Unable to repress his natural impulses, he discovers while taking a potion that he can transmute into an ogreous version of himself, one unable and unwilling to control his darker instincts. After meeting a prostitute (Miriam Hopkins) in a medical emergency, he decides to drink his potion, become Hyde and take her as his lover.
Though March won the Oscar, Hopkins is really the reason to watch this movie. She is amazingly seductive in the beginning, and slowly fleshes out the character as she struggles to maintain her dignity and humanity. Frederic March is wonderful at portraying the Hyde side and even the gentle part of Jeckyll. The problem is that March's acting is really over-wrought (and not in a good way) when he realizes that he can't control the monster inside him. The scenes of him begging his fiancee to marry him as soon as possible are painful, not just because it's painful to watch a man who Miriam Hopkins in love with him begging another woman, but because March just really over-does it. It's obvious to a modern viewer, and probably was so in the thirties as well, that the good doctor's fiancee is all wrong for him. At least Hyde, for all his faults, has the good sense to be unabashedly smitten with Hopkins' character.
There was an article recently in the New Yorker about the Great Depression and its effect on art and popular culture. There was an off-handed comment in it, that said that marriages became less common because people couldn't afford to marry. This was a common problem in the 19th Century as well, so it's interesting that this early 30s horror movie is doing a modern take on an old problem: what to do, if you can't get married and you are a grown-up with normal needs? Apparently Dr Jekyll was too hung up on being a savior to mankind to just go out and hire a prostitute like every other male in the Victorian era, so we have the potion and the mess that involves. Of course that left me wondering about the ladies? I mean, poor March's fiancee. She might like to get laid too!
Another context for this is the end of prohibition. If you look at the potion as a metaphor for alcohol, this would seem a strangely anti-booze movie for the time. Usually in the pre-code era people are either drinking illegally or saying "wooohooo! At least booze is legal!"
I will just randomly end this by saying that one of the main things I learned from this film is that you supposedly pronounce Jekyll as GEE-kill, not JEK-il, as I'd done for most of my life. So bonus points for that I guess.
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