Horror Flix: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

This was released early in 1932, just a couple months after Frankenstein and about a year after Dracula. The copyright in the credits is 1931. It stars Fredric March, who won an Oscar for the role. (Actually in a tie.)


  • As in these other early films, there’s no composed score. In this one, the classic music borrowed for the opening credits is Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, which the main character is also seen playing in his mansion.
  • The director is Rouben Mamoulian, and he makes a curious choice at the start of the film: We don’t see the protagonist’s face, but rather see his point-of-view, as he plays the organ, as his servant enters to remind him he has a speaking engagement. It’s not until he walks across the room and looks in a mirror that we see him, in the mirror. This pov continues as he takes a coach to the university to give a talk. But then the angle is abandoned. It’s used again later in the film when Jekyll transforms into Hyde—and we don’t see Hyde until he looks in the mirror. What is the point of this? To make the appearance of the transition more shocking? Yet later in the film they try to show the transformation on screen, through fades from one stage to the next, rather crudely.
  • As in Frankenstein the story opens in an auditorium. Here it’s Jekyll, apparently a respected doctor and surgeon, speaking of the soul, the human psyche, and his notion that man is truly two, one striving for nobilities, the other given to base impulses. If separated, the good would be free to attain new heights! (He doesn’t wonder where the other half would go.)
  • We then see how generous Jekyll is, as he skips a dinner invitation to attend to an old woman in the ‘wards,’ apparently a free hospital for indigents. He also encourages a girl on crutches to throw them aside, and sure enough, she can walk, albeit shakily.
  • Later in the evening Jekyll joins the dance party that follows the dinner he missed. Here again, as in the previous films, we see lavishly furnished mansions and lush gardens. The plot issue here is that Jekyll is anxious to marry Muriel, but her father, a retired general, insists they wait…some eight months.
  • Next key plot point: as Jekyll and his friend Lanyon leave the party, walking through the foggy London streets, they hear a brawl and break up a fight.
    • Jekyll carries an injured woman, Ivy, up to her flat. She comes on to him, kisses him, as Lanyon enters and sees. Leaving her, Jekyll defends himself as expressing his instincts; after all, he won’t be married for months!
    • Wouldn’t the implication of these remarks have seemed rather indecent for this times? Actually, like the other films from this era, it is “pre-code,” from before mid 1934, when standards were imposed on the movie industry to prohibit innuendo, vulgarity, drug use, etc. Before the code was imposed, things got racy.
  • I’ve noted on Facebook that Jekyll here is pronounced Jee-kle, rhymes with treacle, whereas I’d always thought it rhymed with heckle. Apparently is a regional thing.
  • Next key scene; Jekyll in his lab, a typical movie lab with bubbling flasks and test tubes.
    • Apparently, judging from a couple shots, his lab is located in a separate building across an alley from his house, reached by a second-story archway.
    • Jekyll mixes solutions and checks droplets in his microscope. Finally – wait, first he locks the door, then he writes a note to Muriel – he drinks the flask. He clutches his throat, groans, changes color, falls to the floor, as flashbacks of conversations, and of Ivy, whirl before us.
    • Then his POV again…as he walks to the mirror. And now sees a squat man with dark eyes and lots of teeth. Free at last! He cackles, and puts on his coat and hat. But is interrupted by servant Poole. Reverting to his original state, Jekyll tells him that another man, um, a Mr. Hyde, was here and just left.
  • The plot develops.
    • Muriel’s father takes her to Bath, for a month.
    • Jekyll, frustrated (!), drinks his potion and turns into Hyde. He goes to a music hall where Ivy sings, orders champagne, invites her to his table. She’s horrified, he’s crude and imperious, and insists he can provide her a better life.
    • He pursues her to her flat, scaring off the housekeeper, reaching for her garter, and kissing her… Presumably we are meant to understand that he has his way with her.
    • The potion wears off; back in his rooms, Jekyll vows to never use it again, and has some cash sent to Ivy.
    • Ivy receives the money and visits Jekyll, trying to return it. She pleads with him for help from Hyde. He promises to fix everything.
  • But then…
    • The site of a cat pouncing on a bird, in the park, triggers the transformation, even without drinking the potion. It’s as if his resolve to be good is more and more easily undermined by any suggestion of the crudities of life. (As a plot point this seems implausibly convenient, but I’m not checking Stevenson’s original novella to see how his plot worked out.)
    • As Hyde he attacks Ivy in her flat, revealing his secret, and kills her.
    • Then has the presence of mind to send a note to his friend Lanyon, to fetch materials for the (reverse) potion, admitting the whole sordid situation to him. Jekyll vows to set Muriel free from him.
    • As Jekyll he visits Muriel and her father, unable to explain, insisting he must break off their engagement.
    • But the transformation happens again; as Hyde he reaches for Muriel, she screams, he flees, police pursuing all the way back to his lab, where a big fight wrecks the lab until they shoot him. He reverts to Jekyll, dead. Servant Poole weeps. The cauldron boils.
  • Despite the fact that Dracula and Frankenstein, and later The Mummy and The Bride of Frankenstein, were made by Universal, and this film by Paramount, there are all sorts of similarities.
    • The inclusion of high society people and lavish sets. Even Jekyll’s home has an enormous entry and living area, complete with that organ.
    • The running theme, here and in the Frankenstein films, is about some scientist meddling in things he shouldn’t – that are God’s provenance, or whatnot – and dying for it. As such they established the template for much of what people think horror and science fiction is: science creates a threat in terms of some frightening monster that must, of course be destroyed, and when it’s destroyed, the end. Was this some cultural reaction to scientific discoveries or social ills of the time? Or did it just take filmmakers a while to realize there were other kinds of stories to tell? Science fiction films not in this horror mode didn’t arrive until about 1950.
    • All these films have occasional full-face close-ups, even here of ordinary characters (not the monster), in ways that seem jarring by the editing standards of even a few years later.
    • Minimal or no music.
    • Like Dracula and much of Frankenstein and The Mummy, it’s almost all set at night.
  • One doesn’t examine Hollywood films too closely for plausibility, so let me just wonder if Stevenson handled the theme more thoroughly. If Jekyll thinks a man might be split into two, into ‘good’ and ‘evil’ parts, why does the story contrast the complete Jekyll with the base Jekyll? That is, isn’t the original Jekyll a combination of both? Why does the potion suppress the good and bring out the evil portion? Would another portion do the reverse and turn Jekyll into a selfless saint?
  • Fun fact from Wikipedia: when MGM remade the film 10 years later with Spencer Tracy, they tried to find, and destroy, every copy of this 1931 film. For years it was thought lost.
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