Saturday, October 2, 2021

Halloween Watch: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1932)

Watched:  10/01/2021
Format:  TCM
Viewing:  Unknown.  Third?
Decade:  1930's
Director:  Rouben Mamoulian

Because this movie was released via Paramount versus Universal, it hasn't quite got the same visibility as the Universal Horror films over the past 90 years.  You don't see Hyde cavorting with Creatch or Drac.  He's a bad fit if Frankenstein or the Wolfman are looking for a scrap.  But he's still crucial to the movement of horror films, pushing special effects and getting top performances out of the cast (and it looks AMAZING.  The sets in this thing...).  

Based upon a novella by Robert Louis Stevenson, Paramount took the production seriously, and it wound up nominated for Academy Awards, and March took home the statue for Best Actor.  And - I'll argue - he deserves it.  And he film deserves accolades for design and effects alongside the Universal films, even if nothing about this movie goes in for gigantic gothic sets.  Plus, there's some fascinating POV work in the film, putting us in Jekyll's place seemingly to make a point.  

same dude!

The make-up for Hyde is as good as anything else of the era (minus the Pierce Frankenstein work), and is a complete transformation - maybe more convincing in its way than the Wolfman as it's a different idea - but the primitive, neanderthal-like look is March, but a distortion of his handsome face.  

Back in the 1970's classic monster craze, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) was included - for good reason - alongside the horror movies of the early sound era in those "kids: monsters!" books I was fond of thumbing through.  I very much recall the ape-ish face of a transformed Frederic March, and the horror described in the story.  But it's something I didn't fully grasp til much later.

While an adult's view of the Universal Monsters quickly pivots to realize that the monsters in their films aren't mindless scare machines, but - with the exception of Dracula - mostly victims themselves (and, no, I don't care about some retro stuff inserted later in other movies to make Dracula sympathetic.), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a more complex story, and not about a monster so much as the dual nature of mankind made manifest.  Acknowledging our inner fiend, there's a reason it's become cultural shorthand for how seemingly decent people can perform heinous acts.  

Jekyll in this film (March) is a terrific guy!  He helps the needy, he forgoes society events to tend to his destitute patients, and he's an all-around gentleman.  Yes, his potential father-in-law is a straight-up dick, and it makes him kind of angry, but that's not indecent.  But even he has a dark side.

As Hyde - and it's clear Hyde is not an entirely different being, the two share memories - he's a boor at best, and quickly reveals himself as a self-interested sociopath with only his own interests at heart.  And when those interests are challenged?  He can become murderous.  He's not a "monster" - he's a lecherous, cruel bastard.  

Jekyll comes across a young woman of few means (and a coded prostitute) whom he assists - and once again we get the POV shot - a lingering shapely leg swinging from the side of a bed.  Something Jekyll, engaged to the saintly Muriel (Rose Hobart), he wouldn't act upon to begin with though Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) all but throws herself at a catch of a gentleman.  But Hyde has no such scruples, and captures Miriam with Jekyll's wealth, and begins to chip away at her spirit and soul, abusing her mentally and physically.  For a monster film, it's a very human cruelty.

It's easy to say Hyde is a separate character altogether, but that... isn't right.  Hyde is inside all of us.  He's a different version outwardly showing us at our worst, which you kind of know, right?  But it's also... There's a reason people say some people are different after a few drinks.  And that we remain utterly shocked over and over that "such a nice guy" can be someone else when not in front of a camera or if the PR filter isn't on.

The novella is able to do things the film can't... Hyde begins as small and weak and as he is able to act, he gains strength.*  But the transformation to Hyde is one of classic film's best effects and grotesques.  I very much recall a series of photos in one of my monster books showing the different stages and saying "we have no idea how they did this", which was kind of wacky, because the monster fan book was written only 45 years or so after the movie was released.  

Anyway - I think this is a terrific film.  I've seen it at least twice before, and in bits here and there.  A great Halloween film, even if not about the weird or uncanny, exactly.  

*maybe one of the few clever bits in Van Helsing (lifted from the comics of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) is that Hyde has survived the details of the book and has grown massive as his heinous acts have grown

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