Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)
Like so many of the most famous big breaks in Hollywood, Fredric March’s role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde almost never happened.
It’s hard to imagine the film without him, which is testament to his greatness. After all, without March’s perfectly realized dual performance as both the arrogant, demanding Dr. Jekyll and the domineering, belligerent Mr. Hyde, would this adaptation be even half as great as it is? And yet, when the film was made, March was hardly even on the radar to be in it. John Barrymore was first up for the role, having made an impression in the 1920 silent version, but being under a new contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, he was out of the running. Other actors were suggested, including Irving Pichel, but one central question came over and over again: could they find an actor who could play both aspects of Dr. Jekyll – the wholesome and the villainous?
Ironically, there was much doubt about March’s ability to pull off the same feat. At the time the film was made, March was known more for lightweight roles in romantic movies, and studio executives saw little to suggest that March could pull off the swagger, violence, and menace necessary for Mr. Hyde. Nonetheless, director Rouben Mamoulian saw promise there, and argued for March to get the part, finally getting the studio head to agree – a decision which led not only to March’s first Oscar win (albeit a tied victory with Wallace Beery), but also the real birth of his career as a leading man. Even now, more than seventy years after the film’s release, March’s performance is a dazzling accomplishment, one that casts a long shadow over anyone who wants to try to take on the role.
Much has been made of the phenomenal makeup effects that aid in the transformation between Jekyll and Hyde, and with good reason; by using colored makeup and lights that slid from red to green, Mamoulian created a gradual transformation between the two that holds its own with any CGI version you could come up with today. But as incredible as the effects are, they’d be empty spectacle without March’s performance, which creates two characters so incredibly varied and different that it would be easy to think they were played by two different actors if you didn’t know any better.
Take, for instance, March’s rendition of Dr. Henry Jekyll. Introduced through an impressive point-of-view sequence, March’s Jekyll is an accomplished scientist in the long tradition of Dr. Moreau – one whose knowledge and confidence leads him to believe that he not only knows more than those around him, but knows better.
And, to some degree, he’s right here – his accomplishments are staggering, his lectures well-respected and attended, his medical work outstanding, and his reputation spotless. By the time we’re fifteen minutes into the film, we’ve seen him help a crippled girl walk, operate on charity cases, win over an incredulous crowd, play an organ beautifully, and charm his beautiful and wonderful fiancee. In other words, he’s a man who has it all, and if he has an ego, isn’t it a deserved one?
But after his future father-in-law once again refuses to push up his wedding date, we start to see the other side of Jekyll, one that he’s hidden from us so far. It’s a man who has little patience for fools and simpletons, and grows angry when he doesn’t get his way. It’s the sort of man who, when discovered kissing a woman of, let’s say, less than perfect virtue, laughs it off and tells his offended friend that there’s nothing wrong with it in the world. It’s a man, then, who feels that the rules shouldn’t apply to him, and that the world should accept his greatness and give him the freedom he deserves. In other words, it’s the perfect sort of man to have an untapped dark side that’s threatening to overtake him, and a man who needs a vent through which that darkness can escape.
Are we really prepared, though, for just how brutal that darkness is going to be? Because as embodied by March, Jekyll’s alter ego, Mr. Hyde, is a violent sociopath, more beast than man. Berating waiters, assaulting those who dare to speak back to him, seizing everything he wants, beating women simply for the fun of it, March’s incarnation of Hyde is a swaggering, violent force of nature, channeling every dark impulse of Jekyll’s and becoming a rampaging, unrestrained id in every imaginable sense. And I do mean “every,” because rest assured, this is definitely a pre-Code horror film, even if the (in)famous nude shot is removed from the version you’re watching. Hyde takes up with a woman, paying for her abode for the girl of moving in with her, abusing her sexually and physically whenever he wants and expecting her to be grateful for the chance and for the money he’s throwing at her in the process. Cackling with glee at her terror, threatening her with little more than sheer imposing presence, and exuding menace and horror, March’s Hyde is a terrifying figure.
What’s even more incredible, though, is how much is done through nothing more than his acting and his posture.
There’s a phenomenal shot late in the film where Jekyll transforms with his back to the camera, and all we see is the trembling, uncertain Jekyll slowly straighten up and fill with confidence. He almost appears to grow in front of our very eyes, and we know that Jekyll’s dark side has emerged once again, all without a single effect. Moreover, March changes so much about himself – his voice, his volume, his body language, the rhythms of his speech – that the makeup is hardly necessary.
Of course, the film does have its makeup, and it uses it phenomenally in those aforementioned transformation sequences that could never have been accomplished with color film. And there’s no denying the impact that Mamoulian’s direction has on the film, from the lurking shadows to the brilliant use of mirrors and doubling to emphasize all of the film’s themes and ideas. But the truly horrific nature of Hyde or the arrogance of Jekyll – all of that is March, and there’s little denying that the film wouldn’t be the classic that it is without his incredible performance. And that’s appropriate for this story; at its core, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has always been a story about the darkness within the human soul, so if the film was more about effects and visuals, it wouldn’t resonate as much
as it does.
Instead, what lingers after you finish Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the glee as Mr. Hyde beats a waiter who sneers at him, or the cackling as he forces a girl to sing for him, or the unbridled glee as people react in terror to his visage. The other thing that lingers, though, is Jekyll’s realization of just how damaged and damned he may be, but knowing that it’s not an “other” that can be blamed; it’s all him. Even seventy years later, there’s an element of that fear of one’s own self that resonates with us all, and keeps the film relevant – and even scary – after all this time. And the secret to all of that impact is March’s fearless, go-for-broke, fascinatingly dualistic performance, a performance that not only made him a star, but deserved to be every bit as recognized as it was and then some.
Josh Mauthe is a high school English teacher who lives in Nashville, Tennessee. He’s known Jill since high school, which is an embarrassingly high number of years ago for both of them. You can find his reviews of every movie he’s seen and book he’s read since 2004 at clydeumney.net.