The basic plot of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is well-known. While doing research on the duality of human nature, Dr. Henry Jekyll, a renowned London physician, invents a potion that will separate good from evil, the civilized man from the barbarian. After that many people draw a blank. The original novel by Robert Lewis Stevenson focuses on the efforts of Gabriel John Utterson, a lawyer, to track down the real identity of Mr. Hyde, a brutish, sub-human man who has committed a series of violent crimes. In the 1931, pre-code film by Rouben Mamoulian we dispense with the mystery of Mr. Hyde’s real identity altogether. Mamoulian, who also directed what’s still by far the best version of The Mark of Zorro, lets us know right from the beginning that the bestial Mr. Hyde is really Dr. Henry Jekyll, a young, handsome, well-educated man played by the thirty-four-year-old Fredric March. That Mamoulian’s Jekyll is almost two decades younger than Stevenson’s, who’s described as being a “substantial, smooth-faced man of about fifty,” is important to the particular approach his film takes towards the familiar story. The very first “sound” interpretation of Stevenson’s novel, filmed during the Great Depression and, like a surprising number of “pre-code” Hollywood films, written for angry, working-class women, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a harrowing dramatization of domestic violence.
The film opens, quite literally, from the point of view of Dr. Henry Jekyll as the camera follows him from his house, to one of his lectures at a local medical college, to the clinic where he cares for underprivileged children and senior citizens. At first glance, Jekyll is exactly the kind of young man you’d want your daughter, or your sister, to marry. When he successfully encourages a little girl to get rid of her crutches and walk on her own, it’s hard to imagine any woman not imagining that he could be the father of her children. Yet something seems wrong. There’s something about Dr. Henry Jekyll, some strange, unlikable quality, that goes beyond the self-centered arrogance of a high-priced physician. General Sir Danvers Carew, his intended father in law, distrusts him so much that he takes his daughter, Muriel Carew, on an extended vacation in the hopes that he’ll forget about her and move on to someone else. Often, in stories like this, a father who’s jealous of his prospective son-in-law is motivated by some sort of overly protective, smothering, even incestuous feelings for his daughter. In the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, however, not only is Danvers Carew, who’s played by the British actor Halliwell Hobbes, right about Henry Jekyll, his attempts to save Muriel eventually cost him his life.
For Dr. Henry Jekyll, General Sir Danvers Carew is an uptight bourgeoisie, part of a repressed Victorian culture conspiring to divide civilization against sexuality, the subconscious and the intellect. Jekyll only partly understands that he’s not only part of the same Victorian bourgeoisie as Danvers Carew, but that he’s also a far more extreme representative. When he describes his ongoing research about the duality of man to his friend, and severe critic, Dr. Hastie Lanyon, it’s clear that Jekyll isn’t a sexual libertarian who wants free the culture from a repressive puritanism, but a deeply disturbed man who’s horrified by his own lust, which he describes as “evil” and hopes to cut out of his body and soul like a malignant cancer. So when he meets “Ivy Pierson,” a dancer and prostitute who lets him know that unlike Muriel Carew she’s sexually available any time he wants, we get a feeling that none of it will end well. Shortly thereafter, when Jekyll drinks his potion, and becomes the bestial Mr. Hyde, he feels liberated, but anybody watching the film begins to wonder exactly what Jekyll has liberated.
When Dr. Jekyll returns to Ivy Pierson’s apartment, not as the handsome, educated young man she fell in love with, but as the horrible Mr. Hyde, part of what Mamoulian is doing is critiquing the Victorian, sexual “double standard.” Bourgeois marriages are economic arrangements. Bourgeois men seek sexual satisfaction outside the bourgeois home with working class women. Bourgeois women own cats or sleep with the pool boy. But Jekyll isn’t looking for a cheap lay, something Ivy, played by the amazing pre-code actress Miriam Hopkins — who hated playing the role — would be more than happy to provide. There’s a real working-class rage underlying Mamoulian’s film. Jekyll is a sadist, a monster looking, not for sex, but for dominance and control, a side of himself he feels he can only fully express with the lower-class Ivy.
Indeed, there’s nothing particularly “savage” about Mr. Hyde. That he looks like a neanderthal seems like an insult to neanderthals. Mr. Hyde is never motivated by primitive sexual desire. On the contrary, he’s as much an educated bourgeoisie as Dr. Jekyll, only, in his case, rationality has turned rancid, malevolent. He’s smarter and more powerful than Ivy and he knows it. He also lets her know it. He taunts her with her poverty, lack of education, and low status. Just before he murders her he reveals to her that the only reason he knows so much about her conversations with Dr. Jekyll is that he is Dr. Jekyll. He lets her know that her romantic illusions about the upper-classes are empty and vulgar. He considers her no more than a bug he’s put under a magnifying glass, or a lab rat he decided one day on a whim to dissect. Dr. Henry Jekyll is in fact a sexual serial killer, Ted Bundy years before he was born, Jack the Ripper re imagined as another legend of Victorian horror. He’s not a brute. He’s a man who’s violated reason itself.
I don’t think I’ve ever been happier to see a character in a movie shot down like a dog.