Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), directed by Rouben Mamoulian.

If eminent, humane physician Jekyll (pronounced "JEEK-ill" in those days) is so good, why does he want to transform into the indecent, neanderthal-like and violent Hyde? He's not splitting him off, he is becoming him for a time. The good doctor wants it both ways; does it really matter that he is ashamed when in his right mind? (In the original story the doctor simply wants to pursue his vices undisturbed; he is indulging his dark self, not trying to purge it).

I love how -- just before first taking the potion -- he stops and locks the door to his lab, as if he were indulging in a private vice.

Mr Hyde certainly enjoys life: at first he is like a puppy, relishing simple pleasures like standing in the rain. That doesn't last long: soon he is beating the servants and whipping his mistress and doing "more that I can't tell you" she says, after trying to kill herself.

A pre-Code horror film, the sexual content is pretty blunt and Miriam Hopkins shows a lot of skin. Local censors chopped it up in various ways but most of the cuts have been restored now.

In some ways it has the stageyness and dramatic declamations of the early talkie, but we also have some remarkably fine-tuned performances and clever, innovative camera work by Karl Struss. We often get point-of-view shots that put us in the film.

Fredric March -- who had been a comic actor before this -- won the Academy Award for the role but Hopkins wasn't even nominated, which seems unfair. She puts a lot into it, the brassy prostitute ("Strike me pink, you interest me!") who becomes a terrified victim of the creature.

The story had been staged and filmed many times even before this. As is always the case, the film is based more on the developed mythology than on the original text. Here we have the "good" and "bad" women to balance Jekyll and Hyde; they aren't even in the book.

They arrange an impressive transformation special effect for when he first drinks the potion: no cuts, just colored makeup and filters that change the black-and-white image before our eyes.

Hyde is remarkably ugly, but you can get away with a lot if you dress like a gentleman. Those Jerry Lewis teeth are hard to take today. March was in the hospital for a while after filming: the makeup nearly ruined his face.

Available on DVD with a valuable commentary track. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) is on the same disc.

Tidbit from the commentary: stage adaptations of the original story began as soon as it was published. One actor shut down his production during the Jack the Ripper murders: he became a suspect just because he played a deranged stage murderer so effectively.