Saturday, June 9, 2018

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)

Visually inventive golden age of Hollywood filmmaker Rouben Mamoulian, director of one of my favorite musical comedies, the Maurice Chevalier-starring Love Me Tonight, made his only horror film, this pre-Code adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, in 1931, and he definitely should have made more. But could we have handled it? This is an astonishingly tough and dark film for '30s Hollywood, and no attempt is made to put a happy or uplifting spin on the tragic ending.
Almost all of us are familiar with the Jekyll and Hyde story, so I'll spare you a plot synopsis. The film stars Fredric March in the title roles, and his Jekyll is a much more multi-faceted guy than in many of the adaptations. He's an idealist workaholic, love-struck fiance, and rebellious critic of societal and personal repression, and he's also super horny and barely keeping his libido in check while he waits for his future father-in-law's stubborn unwillingness to approve moving the wedding date closer to the present. His Hyde is one of the darkest I've seen, a terrible and cruel man-beast who delights in the fear, pain, and revulsion he brings out in others, particularly in his hard-to-watch treatment of Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins, best known for her role in Lubitsch's great screwball comedy Trouble in Paradise). Rose Hobart plays the other major role as Jekyll's fiancee Muriel. Supporting roles are played by the awesomely named Holmes Herbert, Halliwell Hobbes, and Tempe Pigott.
With a bare minimum of sentimentality and corn, Mamoulian's Hyde is surprisingly frank and adult in its treatment of both sexuality and cruelty, even for a pre-Code film. This is not a movie that softens the blow with euphemisms, allusions, or exposition. We see Hyde's domestic violence against and sexual abuse of Ivy in a direct and terrifying way, and these scenes are uncomfortable to watch in ways most classic Hollywood films aren't. This is not purely an entertainment. It's a serious and troubling look at the darkest parts of masculinity and the pain it causes to others.
I realize I've made the film sound like an unpleasant downer, and in a few scenes, it is. However, there are moments of levity, suspense, and visual invention throughout, the cast is wonderful, and Mamoulian tells this dark story with an incredible formal eye. He takes a lot of stylistic risks that mostly pay off.
Those risks include subjective camera angles that put the audience in the body of Jekyll, extreme closeups of people's faces, a transition between scenes that looks like a windshield wiper bringing one frame slowly down on top of another, and the use of lights and shadows to make part of the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde appear as if it's happening without edits or cuts and then abruptly switching to a series of quick edits as the makeup becomes more pronounced. In one particularly fascinating scene that reminded me of a scene in the penultimate episode of last summer's Twin Peaks (a work that makes use of doubles, tulpas, and the splitting of good/evil selves), the swinging leg of Ivy starts to fade into the next scene but stays super-imposed on the screen for a few minutes as the action progresses without her.
This is a harsh but fascinating film, and a very good one. 

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