Saturday, November 14, 2009

Classic Rewind: 'Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde' (1932)

By Chase Kahn

Before Cecil B. DeMille repaired his image at Paramount, and in the early stages of the sound era, Rouben Mamoulian was the studio's edgiest director, a natural counter-programmer to Ernst Lubitsch's musical comedies of the early 30's. Beginning with work on the stage, Mamoulian moved to the big screen in 1929, where his subversive techniques and fluid camera movements culminated into the classic adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's novella, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde ('32).

Starring freelance actor Frederic March as the titular bipolar mad scientist, the film has the same foggy, top-hat-and-tux 19th-century eeriness as Albert Lewin's The Picture of Dorian Gray ('45). Both films are about unintentionally evil protagonists, their inner struggles, and their insistence on keeping it a secret.

Beginning the film with an opening first-person tracking shot (beginning with the playing of an organ) we are first introduced to Dr. Jeykll through a trick mirror shot while he adjusts his cuffs and slicks back his hair. For a 1932 film, this is an impressive feat, and the film proves to be as technically on-par as Lewin's almost Hitchcockian Dorian Gray 13 years later.

In-house Paramount actress Miriam Hopkins plays a prostitute named Ivy Pierson whom Jekyll and Hyde both find extremely attractive, but whom only Hyde treats with utter cruelty as Dr. Jekyll is set to marry the rich and and royal Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart). It is during these scenes, and those of its era alike, where the film was opportunistic of its pre-Code condition. The Hollywood Code, which cut-down significantly on sexual and religious perversities like the ones seen here, was not put into affect until July 1, 1934.

Wally Westmore's makeup and the filming of the transition between Jekyll and Hyde, shot in a time-lapse form, is quite stunning considering the year. Frederic March is damn-near unrecognizable in his Quest for Fire get-up with a snarling rack of teeth. I haven't seen the Spencer Tracy/Ingrid Bergman 1941 version, but I plan to. Apparently, Mamoulian's is widely considered the best of the bunch. There is also a silent version starring John Barrymore from 1920.

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