Directed By: Rouben Mamoulian
Starring: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart
Tag line: "Put yourself in her place! The dreaded night when her lover became a madman!"
Trivia: This is the only film version where Jekyll's name is pronounced correctly as "Jee-kall"
Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been adapted for the screen a number of times, including the well-respected 1941 film starring Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman, and 1996’s Mary Reilly, with John Malkovich taking on the role of the identity-challenged physician and Julia Roberts as his Irish maid. Yet for me, 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, crisply directed by Rouben Mamoulian and featuring a terrific performance by Fredric March, will always be the definitive cinematic version of this story.
Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March), respected surgeon and teacher as well as one of the most admired men in Victorian England, is engaged to be married to Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart), a woman with whom he is deeply in love. His happiness is threatened, however, when Jekyll undertakes an experiment to prove mankind’s nature consists of equal parts good and evil. Having perfected an elixir that will unleash his basest instincts, Jekyll is transformed into a monstrous creature which he names Mr. Hyde, who spends his nights roaming the seedier sections of London and cozying up to Ivy (Miriam Hopkins), a promiscuous dance hall girl. But it isn’t long before Jekyll can no longer control Hyde, leaving him to wonder if this alter ego represents his true personality.
Mamoulian gets his creative juices flowing early in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with an opening that plays out entirely from Jekyll’s point of view. There’s even a clever moment when the camera, standing in for Jekyll, stops briefly in front of a mirror, showing us the doctor’s “reflection” as he prepares to go outside (it’s easy enough to figure out how this effect was achieved, but that doesn’t mean it's any less impressive). Matching the visual prowess of his director is Fredric March, convincing as both the brilliant Jekyll and the animalistic Hyde. In his scenes with Rose Hobart, March’s Jekyll is very much the classic romantic, peering into his beloved’s eyes and promising they will be together forever. This is a sharp contrast to the later encounters with Miriam Hopkins’ sexy showgirl, who is continually terrorized by Hyde (repulsed by his looks and fearful of his violent temperament, she becomes his unwilling love slave). In fact, these separate “halves” of the same person are so incredibly different one can scarcely believe its March portraying both characters. As for the vital transformation scene, where we watch as Jekyll drinks the concoction that will let loose his primitive nature, Mamoulian and March work in unison to make it a truly memorable, not to mention quite disturbing, sequence, with March’s distorted features and guttural groans enhanced by Mamoulian’s spinning camera and quick-cut flashbacks, successfully conveying a mind, and a man, being torn in two.
Dealing directly with the separation of good and evil, while at the same time suggesting every living soul is capable of both, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a classic bit of literature, and thanks to the combined efforts of its director and star, 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a motion picture that does its source material justice.