Friday, 31 October 2014

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

"My analysis of this soul, the human psyche, leads me to believe that Man is not truly one, but truly two. One of him strives for the nobility of life, this we call his good self. The other, seeks an expression of impulses that bind him to the earth. This we may call the bad."

This seems ever such a pertinent film, in the light of recent events about revelations of celebrity child abuse or abuses of power in positions of influence. In the case of so many of these unmentionables, the phrase "Jekyll and Hyde personality" has invariably been coined.

In spite of the many fine actors who have taken on the challenge, it's a notoriously difficult achievement to pull off. Not the Hyde part - that's a gift for any imposing actor worth his salt. No, the difficult one to play is Jekyll, for he has to carry the all too underestimated banner of sincerity, and what this brilliantly literate and chilling 1931 version of the often told story had, with the wonderful Fredric March, was Jekyll's suppressed eroticism.

Robert Louis Stevenson based his story The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll (pronounced "Gee-kull") and Mr. Hyde on the activities of Dr. Robert Knox, a renowned Edinburgh surgeon by day who resorted by night to hiring the services of the infamous William Burke and William Hare to supply him with fresh corpses for his microscope (the history was later adapted in other films such as Flesh and the Fiends and The Body Snatcher). It was the aspect of a good man on the outside dabbling in evildoings on the inside that so intrigued Stevenson, and subsequent storytellers and dramatists since.

The first notable name to take on the challenging role(s) was Edward Mansfield, who shocked London
theatre audiences every night his seeming physical transformation right in front of their eyes, without any need of off-stage trickery. Mansfield's example was followed by John Barrymore, who became the first notable silent film Dr. Jekyll. Using a little rustling of the hair and an adjustment of the muscles and a contortion of the body, he was able to emulate Mansfield's feat, and set the pattern for seeing Jekyll's transformation into Hyde before our very eyes.

Rouben Mamoulian went one step further in 1931 by adding brilliantly subtle photographic effects and filters that gave March the appearance of his face changing colour and transforming - when actually, the process was reversed: the filters initially covered up the marks. Seeing, as they say, is believing.

Indeed, the whole film uses the camera in a very clever way, often placing the viewer directly into Jekyll's perspective, looking at his friends or adversaries, but rarely seeing him - at first, until the transformations begin - to give the character an undercurrent of mystery and something dark hidden underneath. To transform one character into his complete antithesis requires a pretty strong test either of the audience's disbelief or of the make-up department. In the latter case Paramount came up with a memorably bestial Hyde, so unrecognisable that at times it's hard to believe that it's still Fredric March.

March himself was also a distinguished name of the American stage and then the screen, a frequent leading man to some of the most glamorous leading ladies such as Garbo, Norma Shearer, and at the time, Miriam Hopkins. As such, he was the ideal eligible romantic lead in a standard drama or romatic comedy of the time - and therefore also the ideal Dr. Jekyll, because he seems to be the most unlikely Mr. Hyde. His scenes with Rose Hobart (right) as his betrothed have all the required passion and tenderness to make one see how and why Jekyll is tempted into doing what he does.

His catalyst is flighty but vulnerable Cockney singer Ivy (Miriam Hopkins), in a a story notionally switched by
Hollywood from obscure Edinburgh to foggy London - thus establishing the legend often linked between Jekyll and Hyde and Jack the Ripper. Soon it becomes apparent that Jekyll's transformation into Hyde does not need the use of medicine alone; in one desperately poignant little scene, Jekyll watches a bird in a tree, only to see it stalked and hunted down by a cat. The subsequent act of minor savagery stirs Jekyll's emotions and turns him automatically into Hyde (in a style that The Incredible Hulk would later find useful), for his final rampage.

For this, March deservedly won the Oscar for Best Actor in 1931. Few can touch his achievement, or Mamoulian's.

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100 Favourite Films

100 Favourite Films