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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.

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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.

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Comments

KimWilson
Reply

An insightful and well-written piece about one of March’s best performances. I enjoyed reading this a lot.

R. D. Finch
Reply

Josh, a lovely, articulate piece of writing that was a pleasure to read. I was most impressed by your insightful analysis of the psychology behind the Jeckyll-Hyde duality, especially the way you showed how the monstrous side existed in potential form even before the serum released it. I certainly agree that March’s complete embodiment of the two sides of this personality is a marvel of acting skill. I especially admire the way March shows both Dr. Hyde’s escalating horror as he realizes what he has done and also his uncontrollable attraction to the ruthless quest for gratification of his alter ego.

Page
Reply

Jill,
I really enjoyed your thought provoking review of Dr. Jekyll. Certainly one of March’s best performances. A well written piece to start out your Blogathon.

Page

kittenbiscuits
Reply

Hi Page,

This is actually written by one of the contributors Josh Mauthe.

whistlingypsy
Reply

Josh, you have written an excellent and insightful review of a film I’m embarrassed to admit I have not seen, yet. I was introduced to the story on film in John Barrymore’s silent interpretation, and for sentimental reasons I haven’t given Fredric March’s version a chance. Your review has convinced me that I need to change this and soon. I find it somewhat amusing how the shadow of Barrymore lurked about the early career of Fredric March: March appeared in “The Royal Family of Broadway” as a very Barrymore-esque character, and he nearly lost the role in “Jekyll and Hyde” to Barrymore. I also find it interesting how excellent literature, Stevenson’s novel, and excellent acting, March’s interpretation, always make an excellent argument for classic films. Thanks again for your powerful contribution to the blogathon.

clydeumney
Reply

Thanks for the kind feedback, everyone. I tend to be a horror film fan, so when Jill approached me about doing this, I gravitated right toward this one; it wasn’t until doing some research that I realized just what a big deal this one was for March’s career. 

RD Finch: I think the way March starts showing Jekyll’s dark side before the transformation is one of the best things about it. It goes from being an “external” horror film to an “internal,” with Jekyll being forced to confront his own inner darkness that he’s obviously aware of and already struggling with. The first time I saw the movie, I was genuinely shocked when Jekyll started ranting about his future father-in-law; March embodies the “saintly” side of Jekyll so well that we never expect his inner darkness. 

Whistlingspy: You definitely need to give it a shot. Shamefully, I have yet to see the Barrymore version – I’ll try to remedy that soon. This one is the definitive version of the story for many people, and I think there’s a lot of good reasons for that – even if March wasn’t great (he is), even if the scripting wasn’t outstanding (it is), the transformation effects alone are definitely worth the price of admission. Mamoulian sat on the secrets behind them for decades, and rightfully so – they’re pretty amazingly well done. 

kimalysong
Reply

This was my second March film but probably the one that made me a fan.

Great article and I agree with you what makes his performance so great is he truly shines in both roles and shows us that Hyde is a part of Jekyll not a separate entity.

Now your post made me want to watch the film again.

whistlingypsy
Reply

Karen, thank you for your excellent and insightful review of a film that has been on my “too see list” for a few years. The title and the pre-code allure captured my imagination, but I want to see the film as much for the pairing of Sylvia Sidney and Fredric March (I agree with R.D., Sylvia deserves the same recognition as Joan Blondell for her pre-code roles). Thanks again for confirming the wait has be worth it, now I’m even more impatient to see this film.

whistlingypsy
Reply

I apologize, I meant to post this comment for Shadows and Satin on her review of “Merrily We Go To Hell”.

ScribeHard
Reply

Sorry I’m late to this, Josh. It’s easy to be dazzled by the special effects in this film and overlook March’s performance. You do very well in making sure he gets the credit he deserves. Nicely done.

silverscreenings
Reply

Great article and insightful comments. March was terrific. … On an irrelevant side note, we love how everyone in this movie pronounces his name as “Jeekyll”.

clydeumney
Reply

Apparently, that’s really the way it was supposed to be pronounced, meaning that this is the only version where the name is pronounced correctly!

kittenbiscuits
Reply

Josh,

I am so glad you chose this film for your entry for the event. To me, it is the definitive film version–although I have to admit I haven’t seen the Barrymore version either. Poor Spencer Tracy. His performance does not work. At all.

Thanks for including information on the special effects. It’s amazing what they were able to accomplish in 1931.

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