This film is nothing like Universal's classic black-and-white horrors. Put any such thought out of your mind. This is one of very few films I'd class as genuinely unsuitable for children, thanks to its sexual content. It's not that it would warp their tiny minds or anything like that. They simply wouldn't understand it. The story doesn't make sense if you haven't twigged that Horny Henry Jekyll is pretty much walking around three-legged throughout the entire film. The man has everything. He has money, position, fame, a beautiful fiancee who adores him and high-born people pestering him to come to their parties. He's a brilliant doctor and a revolutionary thinker. Unfortunately his prospective father-in-law is a stiff-necked son of a bitch who's enforcing a wait of nearly a year before the marriage, basically because he can.
Thus Dr Jekyll drinks a potion to turn into Hyde and go out to paint the town red. Will it end in tears? You betcha. This is an uncomfortable film to watch, partly because you're watching the self-destruction of the man who has everything and partly because you really have no idea what Hyde might do next. He's completely out of control and terrorises one girl, who's afraid for her life pretty much every moment that they're on screen together. Their scenes in particular are extreme. Not just "extreme for an old black-and-white film". They're extreme. Implied rape is only the start of it. This film could never in a million years have been made under the Hayes Code. I was thinking that to myself during the scene with Dr Jekyll and the friendly prostitute even before she took all her clothes off and gave us a flash of side boob. When the film was rereleased in 1936, the censors made eight minutes of cuts.
I'll say that again. EIGHT MINUTES. That's like an entire subplot. In 1979, the BBFC only took two minutes out of Lucio Fulci's Zombie Flesh Eaters. Of course I'm not calling this a video nasty or anything. The Hayes Code was an absurdity, but this is a film with a story whose main character is defined by sex and violence. Hyde hates everything good, noble and decent. He rapes and kills. Obviously a film about him can only be strengthened by being allowed to explore those avenues properly. When MGM remade this in 1941 with Spencer Tracy in the lead, for obvious reasons they hunted down and destroyed every print they could find of the Mamoulian version and as a result for decades most of it was thought to be lost.
I don't think I've even mentioned yet that this movie won Fredric March the first of his two Best Actor Oscars. Until then he'd been seen as more of a lightweight actor, but this was a turning point in his career. Needless to say, he's excellent. He gives it plenty of energy and he's impressive both as Jekyll and Hyde, which is the key factor which won him the part over other actors who'd have been stronger in one role than the other. Incidentally the role had also been offered to John Barrymore, who'd been a big hit in the 1920 silent version. The only oddity is that in a few shots he's dead-eyed. You could have knocked me down with a feather. It's mostly at the beginning, but you don't expect to find such things in an Oscar-winning performance. Well, that's 1931 for you. Hollywood still had one foot in the silent era.
The supporting cast are strong too, though. There's not a weak link in the cast and the two lead women in particular give it everything they've got.
Frivolous observation time. Almost everyone's name begins with H. Either it's the character names, Henry Jekyll, Hyde and Mrs Hawkins, or the names of the actors themselves: Hopkins, Hobart, Holmes Herbert and Halliwell Hobbes. Oh, and Jekyll is pronounced "Jeekyll".
Stylistically it's interesting. Mamoulian uses some visual tricks that even now look startling. There's some Jekyll-o-vision, with the other characters reacting to the camera as if it's Henry Jekyll himself. If we need to see him, he passes a mirror. Then there's a slow clockwise wipe which pauses to cut the screen in two and show us both worlds in Jekyll's life. These are not subtle tricks, but they're being used for a strong storytelling reason. I liked them. There are also striking individual shots, such as Hyde glaring through his steaming potion or the film's final image. Instead of closing on Jekyll himself, we end on the bubbling pot in which he brewed his poisons.
Then there are the special effects, by which I mean the transformation. I love impossible effects in old black-and-white movies. You just sit there in awe, wondering how the hell they did that. Special make-up under an ultraviolet lamp? Did they even have ultraviolet lamps back then? It's impressive stuff and the secret of how they did it was kept for decades, only revealed in the end by Mamoulian himself. Apparently it involved coloured filters that didn't show up in black-and-white. My only gripe with it is that they've chosen to create a simian Hyde with enormous fake teeth, which initially make him look like a comedian. March was a handsome young man and not naturally scary. Put him in Red Dwarf and you'd think that was Duane Dibbley. However he soon makes himself frightening through the force of his performance and the things he's prepared to do.
Oh, and while I'm talking about visuals, I must mention this film's London. Its back alleys contain staircases. No, not fire escapes. If you want to visit a first floor dwelling, that's what you climb to knock on the front door. Admittedly for all I know this may be historically accurate and once upon a time there may have been such architectural quirks, but that lent the film something of a fairy-tale air. There are one or two dodgy accents, but only momentarily and who's to say people didn't talk like that in the 19th century anyway?
The plot isn't strictly Robert Louis Stevenson's, by the way. It's actually a descendant of the Thomas Russell Sullivan stage play which opened in 1887 and ran for twenty years. That's the origin of characters here like Muriel Carew and her father.
This film surprised me. It's not always easy to watch, but you've got to respect the extremes to which it goes in adapting its chosen story. It feels more dangerous and unpredictable than a Universal horror film, not to mention having more sex than all of them put together. Even leaving aside the carnality of Hyde himself, Miriam Hopkins openly propositions Jekyll and wears an outfit or two that's almost a breach of the peace. You believe her when she says Hyde's done things "I can't tell you." However despite the impact and menace of March's Hyde, it's still his Jekyll who's the leading character. He's certainly not the dull one in between the good stuff. That's always a danger in these films, but not here. I was impressed by the way he did the right thing at the end, which is more than I'd say for Muriel's stiff-necked father. Everything was that man's fault, if you ask me. Well, I suppose Jekyll's too.
The best horror film of its era? I wouldn't go that far. That's a tricky word, "best". The most adult, unsettling and dangerous? Of those I've seen, hell yes.