Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Film Review: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde"
**** (out of ****)

When we see him, he is playing the organ. To some people knowing how to play a musical instrument represents culture. He is playing a piece by  Bach. That means refinement. He has a butler, that's wealth. He is going to be late for his lecture. He must be important if people want to hear what he has to say.

We already know so much about him within the first few minutes of the movie without much being said. The man is Dr. Jekyll (Fredric March) and he is all the things we suspect; cultured. refine, wealthy, respected, kind, and noble. This sequence is done in a spectacular POV shot from Jekyll's perspective.

His lecture will be about the duality of man. He speaks of man's soul. Man is not one he states but two. One half "strives for the nobilities of life" the other "seeks an expression of impulses that bind him to some dim animal relation with the earth." This results in a struggle bringing about repression to one half and remorse to the other. But Jekyll believes these two could be separated from each other, freeing our noble half to achieve great things.

While the lecture is controversial, with the old guard laughing at the theory, the movie tries to re-enforce Dr. Jekyll's noble half we then see him care for patients in a hospital's charity ward. He does this even if it means missing a high society party given by his future father-in-law, General Carew (Halliwell Hobbes) and disappointing his fiancee Muriel (Rose Hobart).We can assume however we will see his more primitive half by the end of the movie.

And, as in most cases, the primitive half of man is brought out by a woman. Just as there is a duality in man, so shall we see two types of women, each inspiring men in different ways. When Dr. Jekyll is with Muriel, his nobler self is present. He loves her madly and wants to marry her immediately. Dr. Jekyll describes his love to Muriel by saying he loves her "gaily, happily, high heartedly".

This sequence is filmed by shooting close-ups of Jekyll's and Muriel's face. As Jekyll speaks of Muriel, we get a close-up of her face as it then switches to a close-up on Jekyll's face and back to a close-up of Muriel's eyes. There is a sensuality gleaming from her glance as we hear her say she loves Dr. Jekyll.

Contrasting this innocent love scene the movie introduces Dr. Jekyll to Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) a woman of lower social standing to Muriel, who brings out the animal impulses in men. Their meeting oozes sexuality (you instantly recognize why this is a pre-code movie) as Dr. Jekyll comes to Ivy's rescue after he has an altercation with a drunken man who hit her. Dr. Jekyll carried her to her apartment and places her on her bed. All the while she has not noticed Dr. Jekyll's face but when she does, she finds him to be quite handsome. She coyly shows him a bruise on her thigh, lifting her dress and revealing her high stockings. She evens tells him "you're the kind a woman would do something for". Gee, if we only knew what she meant to imply! After suggesting Ivy get some rest, the camera gets a long shot of her, as she sits up on her bed. She lifts up her dress, revealing her legs and removes her stockings, throwing her garter at the camera.

The scene serves for giving us our first glimpse into Dr. Jekyll's other half. Yes, there was a sexual connotation to his scene with Muriel, there was also restrictions due to their environment, stepping outside of Muriel's house in her garden. With Ivy, they are in the seclusion of her bedroom where anything can happen. Here there is no talk of love, there is only lust in the air. Interestingly, each scene ends with Dr. Jekyll interrupted by a third party. It is so easy to give in to temptation yet there is always someone around to stop us.

Of course, Dr. Jekyll does become able to create a potion that will free his other half and turn him into, who he calls, Mr. Hyde. The transformation scenes are still astounding to watch today, in our world of CGI. Initially the camera stays on Jekyll's face as we see his skin color and hair change. Then the camera breaks away and when it returns the transformation is complete. These scenes rival those in "The Wolf Man" (1941). Although I must admit I don't particularly care for the way they made Mr. Hyde look. To me it is a cross between Bela Lugosi in "The Ape Man" (1943) and Jerry Lewis as Professor Kelp from "The Nutty Professor" (1963).

When Mr. Hyde is released he finds Ivy, who works as a singer in a saloon. Hyde, essentially, represents the sexual repression of Dr. Jekyll. As Dr. Jekyll he found Ivy attractive and was aroused by her. As Mr. Hyde there will be no restrictions. But, Mr. Hyde doesn't look like Dr. Jekyll and Ivy doesn't find him attractive. The third time we get a close-up of a woman's face it is of Ivy staring at Mr. Hyde. There is nothing sensual in her look or flirtatious. It is fear.

If we were to look at the story of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" as a story of good versus evil, we are left with a message that in such a world if we allow evil an entrance it will overtake us. There is no way to balance them. Eventually evil becomes the stronger of the two. If we look at this story as one of a mad scientist, it is a story fitting for the period as there was a strong anti-science sentiment in movies of the 1930s. Dr. Jekyll is a scientist and like all scientist he wants to play God. For that he will suffer. I sincerely wish I knew what was going on in society in the 1930s to inspire such stories.Sadly, as with all things, we have come full circle and once again live in a time where science is suspect.

The movie, based on Robert Louis Stevenson's novella, "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde", was directed by Rouben Mamoulian and nominated for three Academy Awards, winning one for March's performance. The movie was remade 10 years later with Spencer Tracy in the lead and is generally dismissed as inferior to this version. I, however, very much like both versions. There is also a silent version starring John Barrymore released in 1920. That too is a masterpiece, emphasizing the religious aspects of the story.

"Dr. Jekyll and Mr.Hyde" is a beautifully stylized movie with great cinematography. The performances all around are effective and the make-up work very impressive. Sadly the movie has not been properly released on DVD and is very difficult to come by (at one time it was thought to be a lost movie after MGM bought the rights to it). If you can find it, it is well worth watching.