Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—it’s pronounced Gee-kyl, incidentally, as in Fronkensteen—is a stunning disappointment. It’s difficult to know where to begin, given the film is about a scientist, Fredric March, who’s really horny for his fiancée, Rose Hobart (and she’s horny for him too), but her dad, Halliwell Hobbes, thinks March’s a no good horn-dog so he won’t let them hurry the engagement. It’s very frustrating for March, who’s working on a serum to make men less horny and more productive. For a while there’s that joke about Bruce Springsteen’s I’m On Fire is the song your mom liked about the Boss being so horny could die but then Jekyll becomes about March holding lower class working girl Miriam Hopkins his prisoner and raping and beating her for a month while Hobart’s away.
Large portions of the film are just Hopkins in utter terror as March, in the Hyde persona, threatens her until the scenes fade out on him inflicting pain on her while terrorizing her. March plays Hyde in makeup to make him look more savage, like a caveman. Only we’re going to find out the only savage thing about March as Hyde is his lack of empathy, which cave people had obviously. And then we find out… March the “good guy” is well aware of his bad behavior. The whole reason Hopkins is in this situation is because after March whines to his butler, Edgar Norton, about Hobart going away, Norton tells him just to start seeing a prostitute but March is too high class for it. So instead he takes the serum, which lets him terrorize and assault with abandon.
While the film is Pre-Code and so can get away with quite a lot, including Hopkins’s suggestively dangling her leg for forty-some seconds—see, March the good saves Hopkins in the street, she fancies him, but he’s engaged after all… so he has to take the serum to give himself the excuse to rape her.
I don’t think I’ve seen this film more than once or maybe twice before—a long time ago—and it’s possible I watched the cut version, which apparently excises the entire “March sets Hopkins up so he can constantly assault her” plot thread by dropping six minutes. But I’m trying to imagine how they recapped this movie for the Crestwood House kids’ monster books I used to read. Most of my memories of the film are things I’m sure were stills in that book.
So, another thing about the film is how much it acknowledges the reality of the situation. When March confides in fellow doctor Holmes Herbert, you’re hoping Herbert will have the sense to turn him into the cops. All of Hobart’s scenes become these layered suspense sequences; she’s under threat from March, who she’s convinced is a literal saint. I mean, March does operate on the poor and help little kids walk again, but he’s clearly only doing it because otherwise he’d be abusing women.
March is great as Hyde, low middling as Jekyll. The film punts resolving any of the multitude of questions it raises with a rushed third act. In addition to getting the movie done without fully addressing March—the good—as the villain, director Mamoulian doesn’t tie together any of the visual stuff he’s been doing throughout. The film opens with a length first person perspective shot, which echoes during one of March’s transformations (the transformation scenes start great but are terrible in the third act) and then Mamoulian forgets about them. The film’s aurally and visually ambitious until all of a sudden it’s just not anymore. Mamoulian’s composition is still good, it’s just not wildly ambitious like the start. He does do the big chase action sequences really well—and it’s really impressive if March did all the Hyde stunts himself–and Karl Struss’s photography is superb.
It just seems like Mamoulian’s going for something and instead all we get for a moral is “beware horny scientists.”
Again, March is terrifying and fantastic as Hyde. Hopkins is even better. Hobart’s good, Hobbes is good.
If the film’s third act were as deliberate and intentional as the first act, if it tried to resolve itself even a little instead of dropping the ball and running away as fast as humanly possible—which, even Pre-Code, might not have been possible… who knows. Also if March were anywhere near as good as the good guy as the bad guy, though Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath’s screenplay deserves much blame on that one. They punt on March’s character development far sooner than anyone else.
The film’s just the right combination of unpleasant and unrewarding; it’s undeniably effective but also a pronounced failure.