Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931) is a dazzling gem from old Hollywood that surprised me in so many exciting ways. It's one of those stories that is so embedded in our cultural history that you just assume you know everything there is to know about it. What I didn't know was how sophisticated this movie is, both in content and execution. Frederic March plays the title role, for which he won an Oscar, so that gives you a sense of the prestige the film had at the time. The director is Rouben Mamoulian, someone I never heard of but will definitely make a point of investigating. (It turns out I have seen one of his other films and enjoyed it: Blood and Sand starring Tyrone Power). Of course, the story is about a respected gentleman who, constrained by the social mores of Victorian society, decides that the only way to rid oneself of one's inner "nasty" urges is to bring them out, and then let them go. Conveniently, he is a doctor who has discovered a potion that he believes will do just that.Now, Dr. Jekyll is engaged to a beautiful, prim, respectable, rich girl and they love each other dearly. He's pressuring her to marry him right away despite her father's insistence that they wait for several months. The sexual tension is apparent in their first scene together, or, at least Jekyll's sexual tension is apparent. The subtext here is that he wants to have sex with her ASAP, and screw convention and screw her father, and he does a good job of trying to talk her into it. Of course, her virtue is stronger than his lust, and eventually wins out. The early scenes in the movie are so idyllic and stylized, the characters so noble and virtuous, and it's a great set up. It's beautiful, but it's also suffocating.
Another fabulous discovery I made watching this movie is an actress by the name of Miriam Hopkins, who plays a low class wench who's all too willing to provide sexual company in exchange for some money. Dr. Jekyll saves her from her brutish boyfriend, and she proceeds to seduce him in the first of several fantastic scenes these two have together. This movie is post Hays Code, so the overt sexual behavior and symbolism in this scene is quite a surprise. On the commentary you find out that much of it was excised for many years in subsequent releases of the film, and even upon its initial release in certain parts of the country. This is the scene in which Dr. Jekyll's inner demon is summoned, and unfortunately for the seductive summoner (Ivy is her character's name), the demon doesn't forget her.
Mamoulian used a lot of symbolism and directing techniques that frankly I had no idea were in existence at the time this film was made. Think about it: this film was shot just after the stock market crash of '29 during the Great Depression. It was practically the 20s, as the 30s had just started. And yet, this director is using techniques I thought were invented by the likes of Jonathan Demme, Hitchcock and Brian DePalma. The cap above is one example, which happens right after Jekyll and his colleague leave Ivy's apartment. As they leave, she whispers to Jekyll "Come back!" in a seductive whisper as she dangles her bare leg over the side of the bed. The men leave, continue walking down the street, discuss the business of keeping onseself respectable, and all the while her voice continues to whisper its invitation, and the image of her dangling leg never leaves the screen. The men have left her apartment, but she hasn't left their heads.
Another interesting technique the director uses is that of a subjective camera. The first time we see both Jekyll and Hyde, we see them as reflections of themselves in mirrors. Mirrors, as a matter of fact, figure prominently throughout the movie. It really is an interesting (not to mention effective) method of making the viewer identify with both the good and evil personas of the main character.
Another interesting aspect of this film is that Hyde is not a monster, as I had always assumed, but a man. He's just a man who is not constrained by the social and moral rules of society. So when he first makes his transformations, he is presented as an almost comical figure, not a monster. He's like a big kid acting out on his impulses without restraint. And this, at first, isn't scary. This part of the movie also delivers one of its best elements: the acting fireworks that goes on between March and Hopkins. Hyde tracks her down and meets her on her own turf (a tavern), where he basically overpowers her and makes her his own. The verbal and physical sparring between the two is a sight to behold. On the commentary track you learn that Hopkins was quite the diva, hated by the likes of Bette Davis and tons of other actors of her era due to her tendency to upstage everyone else. She's amazing in this flick, however, and the energy between her and March is electric.
One quick note about these subjective shots of characters looking directly into the camera at various points throughout the film to convey a wide range of emotions. I thought Demme used it to great effect in Philadephia as a way to make the viewer feel the pain of homophobia and prejudice face to face. Here, it's used to much greater effect because of the wide range of emotions the actors show you: fear, seduction, love, lust, it's all here.
Eventually, Ivy becomes Hyde's kept woman in an apartment in SoHo. This cap is great for showing how, even though he becomes uglier and more wild with each transformation, so does he become more vain and cocky. I can't say enough about the acting dynamic between these two actors in every scene they share. There are about 5 or 6 of them and they are all magnificent to behold. This film really belongs to these two characters, and specifically, to these two actors.
Mamoulian also makes use of the split screen throughout the film to highlight the dual nature of Jekyll/Hyde and the compartmentalization of his life as his two selves live out their roles. Of course, what happens is that, once Hyde is let out, Jekyll loses control of him and the two lives threaten to collide. I, as a gay man (and I doubt I'm alone in this), can definitely relate to this aspect of the story. But it's men in general who feel this type of duality, which I find interesting. I wonder if women just don't, as a rule, deal with the same type of issues of needing to control their inner wild animal, or if as a society we're just taught (and therefore assume) that it isn't an issue for them. Note that the women are not having any struggle with who they are: the virgin and the whore are separate characters who never try to escape their assigned roles. It's the men who talk about the struggle, and it's Jekyll/Hyde who acts it out. And yet, it's the women who come to represent each side of the male's identity.
This cap is from March's and Hopkins' final scene together, and it's amazing: melodramatic and brutal, it's when Hyde's emotions and instincts boil over into something beyond human. There have already been allusions to the sadistic sexual nature of Hyde and we know by this point that Ivy suffers at his hands as he satiates his perverse desires. Nevertheless, even though she's a bad girl, we've come to empathize with her and it's sad to see her demise.Going back to the idea of the women representing the male's indentities, it's interesting that the male decides to destroy that which represents his wicked self rather than the actual wicked self...
This flick is a really great rental. The commentary by Greg Mank is informative and entertaining, not just about the film but about the actors and the era. The 1941 version of the film starring Spencer Tracy is also on the disc, and it's sadly inferior in almost every way (in spite of its stellar cast, which includes Ingrid Bergman as Ivy and Lana Turner as Jekyll's virtuous fiancee). The gem here is the 1931 version, and it's certainly a sight to behold. It includes restored scenes that were thought to have been lost for decades (which you'll only know about if you listen to the commentary). Considering that this film is nearly a century old, it's amazing how well it holds up and still resonates. Aside from the obvious theatricality of it and the slower pacing of the era, it's an outstanding movie and I highly recommend it.