Monday, October 5, 2009

Doctor Jekykll and Mister Hyde (1931)

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.


SteveQ said...

An interesting parallel: during the great depression, people were less likely to marry and this week "Modern Bride" stopped publication.

I saw this film at about 2AM about 30 years ago; couldn't remember any details until you mentioned them and then it all came back.
Ever see the Mexican version of "Dracula" done in 1931?

Jennythenipper said...

Oh wow, I hadn't heard that about Modern Bride.

I haven't seen Dracula '31 but I'll add it to the list. October is going to be 1930s horror movies!

kda0121 said...

I never could understand why Ivy would be attracted to an apelike creature. Or, why would Jekyll want to turn himself into an ape. I know there are underlying subtexts, but on the surface I never found the story attractive.

Tom said...

Great post. Love your blog; just discovered it.

Sarah said...

The Gee-kyll threw me for a loop too! Were you not amazed, for it's time, the way that Mamoulian shot this movie? The first tranformation scene is AMAZING. The use of subjective camera, though tedious, was really ahead of it's time as well.
If you want to see a great pairing between March and Hopkins, check out Design for Living (if you haven't already). Another pre-coder with the Lubitsch touch dealing with a ménage à trois. I fell in love with March when I saw this film.

Jennythenipper said...

Hey Sarah, the effects are great. So good that I didn't think about them too much which is a huge compliment when think about it. The best effects are those that don't take you out of the story.
I did a post on Design for Living. It's pretty much non-stop gushing:

Hi Karl! well I don't think Ivy is attracted to Hyde, but girl's gotta eat ya know. Jekyll would rather be an ape-like creature than admit than be seen indulging his sexual desires with a prostitute. It is an ugly story to be sure.

SteveQ said...

Jenny, I'll send you a wishlist for 1930s horror (kinda my specialty). The Mexican "Dracula" was shot on the same sets as the Bela Lugosi "Dracula," just done at night in Spanish with different actors. It's a shot-for-shot exact copy, but I think it's better than the famous one.

SteveQ said...

Just realized I should've said Spanish, not Mexican, as at least one actor (and the director) was not Mexican.

Mea culpa.

Jennythenipper said...

Thanks Steve!

On my list so far is

Dracula (now Spanish version as well)
The Bride of Frankenstein
The Mummy
The Black Cat
The Island of Lost Souls
The Ghoul
The Invisible Man

SteveQ said...

Will have a post up on my blog of 30's horror in an hour - too long for here.

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SteveQ said...

If you're really looking for pre-Code, you have to check out Murders in the Zoo (man has his mouth sewn shut) and Maniac (cat's eye popped out and eaten). Your list has The Ghoul, which has all the makings of a great film (cast, director, etc.) but is an average timewaster.

Jennythenipper said...

Hi Steve: Well I put the Ghoul on the list because TCM is showing it and it's pre-code. I will look for Murder in the Zoo and/or Maniac. Thanx for the tip! I loved your guide.

SteveQ said...

WAY too many comments from me here, but one more...

When you see Freaks, I'll try to hold back a little. I met Johnny Eck, Lady Olga and Angelo Rossitto (check out Angelo's IMDB entry sometime - it's amazing), so I know what became of them after the film; one happy story, one middling, one awful.

SteveQ said...


Okay, one more. "Maniac" technically isn't pre-code, it was anti-code. Esper used the "educational" exception to the code, just as the nudist colony films decades later did.

Kittenbiscuits said...

This is one of my all time favorites. FANTASTIC.

Alina said...

I like your post.Keep posting .A horror movie from 19th century will be a new kind of entertainment for me.Watching classic movies is my hobby and another thing i like to see are tv shows like House and another is South Park

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