Robert Louis Stevenson’s compelling study of man’s conflicting natures found its definitive screen interpretation with Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
The Production: 4.5/5
Robert Louis Stevenson’s compelling study of man’s conflicting natures found its definitive screen interpretation with Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Produced in the pre-Code era when matters sexual and psychological could be more adroitly addressed on-screen, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is alternately grand and grotesque under the artistic hand of an underrated master director who paints so expressively with shadows and light and an Oscar-winning performance from its leading man that displays his versatility and sensitivity in equal measure.
Frustrated by an unreasonably long engagement to his fiancé Muriel (Rose Hobart) by her demanding father (Halliwell Hobbes), Dr. Henry Jekyll (Fredric March) decides he’ll use the eight months before his wedding to proceed with his experiments into man’s dually conflicting natures of physical restraint and violently unbridled lust. With Muriel away, his dark side’s carnal impulses are met by barmaid Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins) whom his bestial alter ego Hyde beats, whips, and abuses most unmercifully. Jekyll revels in his discoveries until it becomes clear that after repeated doses of his concoction, his transformations into Hyde now occur without his consent, and this violent intruder into his life seemingly has become his dominant personality, not his more reasonable and sensitive side.
Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath’s Oscar-nominated screen adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s celebrated novella has incorporated ideas also from the previous stage adaptation of the work by Thomas Russell Sullivan. They’ve fashioned a seamless blending of the two and because it was produced in the pre-Code era, Jekyll’s sexual frustrations and lustful attractions can be overtly explored and provide the definite motivations for him to proceed with his experiments into man’s dual natures. Choosing Rouben Mamoulian as the director was an inspired masterstroke as Mamoulian turned what could have been a stagy melodrama into a cinematic feast. The film’s opening five minutes all displayed in point of view shots of Jekyll as he prepares to deliver a lecture to a university audience crammed to the gills with students who worship him and elders who are suspicious of his unorthodox ideas. Throughout, the director continually fascinates us with unusual set-ups featuring Jekyll’s transformations into Hyde (using altered lights and time lapse photography and cleverly shortening the time lapses in an ominous way with each new conversion), double exposures to punch across Ivy’s lingering allure in Jekyll’s mind, diagonal wipes across the frame to compare and contrast Jekyll and Hyde’s dual worlds, and then stages a dazzlingly climactic chase through London with looming shadows which almost appear to leap from the screen. Hyde’s two murders may ultimately end out of the camera’s eye, but their violent underpinnings leave little to the imagination.
Fredric March’s matinee idol looks are ideal for divergences once Hyde’s grotesque features are on full display. And Hyde’s unrestrained brutality and crass behavior at all times allow the actor to display his resourcefulness making his Academy Award almost a foregone conclusion. Miriam Hopkins delivers a coy and later desperate, full blown performance as Ivy even though her Cockney accent occasionally slips into her natural Georgia twang. In a role that’s usually simpering and thrown away, Rose Hobart makes a lovely, earnest, and faithful Muriel. As Jekyll’s best friend Dr. Lanyon, Holmes Herbert does some of his best screen work. Halliwell Hobbes makes General Carew’s obstinacy about his daughter’s marriage genuinely frustrating. Edgar Norton brings dignity and affection to his role as Jekyll’s butler Poole.
3D Rating: NA
The film here has been framed at 1.19:1 and is delivered in a 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Video quality is oftentimes astonishing as the clarity and detail come through beautifully on this new transfer (Cinematographer Karl Struss’ Oscar nomination for his work is obviously deserved. Notice how in later scenes what facial effects the potion is having on Jekyll as he attempts to withstand further transformations). The grayscale offers marvelously rich and deep black levels while whites are clean and crisp. The movie has been divided into 25 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix is pretty miraculous for such primitively early sound elements. While the dialogue is always clear (though sometimes lower in volume due to irregular microphone placement), the modern sound engineer’s attempts to eliminate background hiss are only reasonably successful. As the film reaches its final reels, hiss becomes a bit more pronounced but is never intrusive. No other anomalies such as crackle, pops, or flutter are present.
Special Features: 3/5
Audio Commentaries: two are offered. The vintage track of film historian Greg Mank has been carried over from the DVD and is a superlative overview of the movie. Filmmakers Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr provide a video analysis of the movie in an engaging give-and-take.
Hyde and Hare (7:05, HD): Bugs Bunny animated short
Theater Guild on the Air (52:06): 1950 radio adaptation featuring Fredric March recreating his title role.
Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde certainly remains the most effective and memorable of the many adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s work. This new Warner Archive release offers astonishing video quality and well above average audio quality for a film of this age and comes with a firm recommendation.
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