Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931, dir. Rouben Mamoulian)
Paramount’s pre-Code production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the most celebrated iteration of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic, but as we previously discussed, it seems to be the hardest to find. It’s one of the true gems from Hollywood’s nascent horror landscape, it netted its lead (Frederic March) an Oscar, and it’s based on one of the most famous horror tales of all time, so it struck me as odd that it would be so much harder to come across than the other versions of the story. I thought maybe its having been produced at a studio other than Universal was what hurt it, but as it turns out, its absence was less about where it was made, and more about where it wound up. Before MGM produced its own version of the film in 1941, they bought the rights from Paramount, and proceeded to bury the original as best they could, presumably to limit the competition and unfavorable comparisons (or maybe they just thought it would be fun to squelch something that so many people liked). It didn’t help that the film had already been mangled before then, as a 1936 re-release faced several deep cuts from a Hays Code that had grown claws since the time of the original release. Considering that much of the film’s quality stems from its ability to absolutely throb with lust, the loss of its most gloriously indecent scenes would have been devastating. But, mortifying as those cuts were, the overbearing censorial attitudes and wanton prudishness that provoked them are the same sort of zealotry that drives our poor Dr. Henry Jekyll to release his inner monster. A staunch believer in the capacity of science to cure all ills, Jekyll strives to perfect a formula that will free all good, right-thinking people from the savage hedonist that shares his upstanding head space. You can see where this is going.
Let’s skip the obvious duality (Jekyll/Hyde) and talk about another, subtler one, the duality of Jekyll being both ahead of his day, and mired in it. Jekyll’s theory about two separate personalities in every man was quite taboo in Victorian England, partly for being such a fantastic notion, but partly because the fine and upstanding Victorians bristled at the suggestion they were ever prurient. But don’t get carried away thinking of Jekyll as some sort of progressive. Much of Jekyll’s inner demons seem related to sex – on a more innocent note, he’s anxious to expedite his impending marriage, both for romantic reasons, and for other, more obvious reasons; on a less innocent note, he’s bewitched by a bar singer who tempts him with some rather obvious reasons of her own. The latter is problematic, but he’s far from a deviant leading up to the consumption of his transforming formula. Hyde, however, has a bottomless appetite for every sin he can dream up, and that’s… odd. Also frightening, but for purposes of analysis, let’s stick with odd.
For all of Jekyll’s high-mindedness when he talks about separating good and bad selves, the purity of Hyde’s frenzy suggests he might have a personal stake in letting loose. Does this mean that Jekyll was a bomb yearning for a fuse? Not necessarily – if I had to guess, I’d say that Jekyll was just as upset by the idea of his having urges as any other good Victorian, but more bedeviled by them than others. Guilt and compulsion don’t have to be extreme to be powerful; the tragedy of Dr. Jekyll isn’t the loss of self to Hyde so much as his apparently fervent belief that his apparently quite normal urges roughly equate to some insatiable living id. This severe exaggeration physically perverts Jekyll, and perverts the actions of Hyde. All the more troubling is that it’s explicitly clear that Hyde and Jekyll are aware of each other, and what they get up to. Hyde’s first order of business is looking up the bar singer, Ivy, who beguiled Jekyll. But something happened to that banal desire in the transformation, and Hyde gets his carnal kick by engaging in some shocking brutality. We see Jekyll as a friendly, compassionate, and brilliant young doctor, but when he looked inward, what he thought he saw was Hyde. We don’t get outright confirmation, but I’d still wager that this is less a matter of Jekyll having monstrous impulses, and more the sad fact that the man, ahead of his time in so many ways, believed too deeply in the misguidedly clear-cut virtuosity of his contemporaries.