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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

For my middle-school students' horror film class I turned this week to Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 version of Robert Louis Stevenson's timeless classic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Luckily I didn't have to do much talking about it, since I had never seen it before.

I chose it because the Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy is a central horror trope--is there good and evil in everyone? Are we, as Henry Jekyll (Fredric March) suggests, two people in one? He concocts a potion that when consumed allows all his evil yearnings out, turning him into a hideous creature he calls Edward Hyde. But when he starts to change without being able to control it, things go bad.

This is supposed to be the best film made of the book--there are at least eight (I've reviewed the John Barrymore silent version here). I think I saw the Spencer Tracy version when I was a kid, but I don't remember), and the Mamoulian version is said to be better. It certainly has a number of camera tricks--I was able to tell my students about p.o.v. shots, wipes, and double images. Mamoulian uses the wipe most interestingly, he starts a wipe in a right-to-left top-to-bottom diagonal, then stops and has a split screen for a few seconds, then continues the wipe.

March won an Oscar, which I believe is the only acting Oscar for a role in a horror film. He is most impressive as Hyde, which was probably more fun to play (though the makeup looks painful, especially the ghastly teeth). His Hyde looks almost respectable in top hat and cloak, but only when you get a good look at him do you realize he's repellent. There's a great scene in which a dance-hall girl (read: prostitute) played by Miriam Hopkins is asked to see him at his table. She thinks it's all routine until she gets a look at his face.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a very stylish and at times scary (although not for my students) film. Since it's pre-code there are some racy bits, such as when Hopkins seduces March (as Jekyll) by slipping off her stockings. It has also been a story, for 130 years, that has provoked thought. The last major film that featured this character prominently was Mary Reilly, in 1996. The character was also in the lamented projects Van Helsing and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, but they don't count. I therefore have to say this a book that is due for a remake by A-talent.

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