Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: 1931 Version Will Stun You With Its Transformation Scene Effects

Timothy Sexton By Timothy Sexton, 8th Sep 2011 | Follow this author | RSS Feed
Posted in Wikinut>Reviews>Film & TV>Horror

1931's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde contains an astonishing transformation scene that beats any special effect in any movie today. What's more the, transformation scene creates a metaphor for the psychological depth of the movie.

Oscar Winner For Best Actor: Fredric March

Eve Harrington. Travis Bickle. Joan Crawford. Regina Giddens. Alonzo Harris.

What do all these movie characters have in common? (And yes, I do mean movie character when I write Joan Crawford.) Don't fret if you can't answer that question; I will return to it later. Before I do that, I first want to make it clear that Fredric March deservedly won an Oscar for playing both title roles in the 1931 version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" directed by Rouben Mamoulian and written by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath. What March did not deserve was having to share his Oscar win with Wallace Beery for "The Champ" due to a rule at the time that granted a tie when the winning nominee beat his nearest competition by three votes or less. March beat Beery by just one vote and thus was destined to a legacy of sharing an award despite a performance significantly more unforgettable than his "co-winner."

The Astonishing Transformation Effects

This version of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic horror novel is worth seeing for a number of reasons, but aside from March's performance, the single most compelling reason is the scene where Jekyll transforms into Hyde for the first time. Even the most talented purveyors of computer graphic imagery have never put on a screen a more astonishing visual effect; you will want to watch this sequence again in a desperately futile attempt to uncover the nonexistent secret cuts and camera trickery that allowed it to be pulled off. The imaginative technique results in 25 seconds of cinema overlooked for too long that is, with precious little room for argument, the single most impressive special effects sequence in movie history. That half minute of screen time works on two distinct metaphorical levels: your jaw will drop at the sight of upright Dr. Jekyll's face deteriorating into amoral Mr. Hyde right before your eyes without the help of cuts, dissolves, prosthetics or postproduction optical effects. The purely cinematic method by which honorable Jekyll becomes the grotesque Hyde was accomplished using a variety of colored filters and colored makeup that revealed their presence in March's face as they were exposed beneath the lights. You can thank the glory that is black and white movies for this genuinely unique special effect that simply could not be repeated in a color movie.

Transformation as Metaphor

More importantly, the transformation scene is also a metaphor for the fact that the villain of this movie is not just the hideous and apelike Mr. Hyde, but also the abominable Dr. Jekyll. The seamless transmogrification symbolically synthesizes Jekyll and Hyde together as single entity in a way that the overlapping dissolves that turn Lon Chaney, Jr. in the Wolfman or the robotics utilized to alter David Naughton into an American werewolf in London utterly fail to do. Mr. Hyde is unquestionably the sinister Id of Jekyll unleashed to an uncomfortable degree courtesy of Hyde's cruel and humiliating personality, but thanks to two different cinematic decisions by the filmmakers, it becomes clear that Hyde is not intended to exist in a vacuum of his own. In addition to the transformation scene acting as a solid refusal to allow a split to exist between Jekyll and Hyde, the film's opening sequence thrusts the viewer directly into the shoes of the doctor and, by association, demands that the audience ultimately identify with both characters.

The Psychology of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

The opening scenes of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" situate the audience directly into the body of Jekyll through the decision to film from the first person point of view of Jekyll himself. The audience's perspective is the doctor's perspective. And that directorial decision ultimately creates a disturbing dichotomy between viewer and character that takes on an entirely different disposition when Hyde is ripped from our own doppelganger right before our eyes in a scene that is itself shot from the first person perspective of Dr. Jekyll. And, just in case we missed the importance of this decision, the transformation scene is done in front of a mirror so that we are actually looking at ourselves when Jekyll becomes Hyde. Or should I say when we become Hyde. And let me warn you before you decide to check out this movie: you do NOT want to become this Mr. Hyde.

The darker side of himself that kindly Dr. Jekyll consciously allows--desires--to become flesh and blood over and over again was unleashed on silver screens across the country with a much more explicit realization of the dynamic of sexual repression that is at the core of Stevenson's book than you might expect from a movie made at the onset of the Great Depression. This movie shows us Dr. Jekyll engaged in a bedtop embrace with a nearly nude Miriam Hopkins who erotically urges the pre-Hyde doctor to "come back" as she temptingly swings a gartered leg bared to the middle of her thigh back and forth. Mamoulian's film ultimately casts this Dr. Jekyll whose sexual frustration with his fiance is the result of paternal interference as the real villain of this story for letting himself change from sexually repressed bourgeous physician to the Neanderthal sadist that is Mr. Hyde. What is most frightening about the twofold aspect of this beast is the almost imperceptible way that Mamoulian and his writers reveal that Hyde's existence is no longer dependent upon the drug that Jekyll initially drinks; eventually all that is needed for Hyde to break free is for Jekyll to have just the slightest uncivilized thought enter his mind.

Surprising Sexuality

Miriam Hopkins' screen time is a pittance compared to March, but her woman of extremely loose morals whose temptation of Jekyll ultimately results in her tragic downward spiral into the obscene object of Hyde's sadistic desire practically burns the celluloid on which it was filmed. It is surely less than mere coincidence that Hopkins' rising star built upon low-cut decolletage against which Hyde rests his face, cops a feel and plants his lips essentially burned out with the arrival of the Hays Code. That game changing piece of regulatory censorship resulted in anywhere from eight to ten minutes of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" being excised from prints of the movie shown following the adoption of the Hays Code.


Even this truncated version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" disappeared from view as a result of MGM buying the rights and hiding the competition when they decided to make their own version ten years later. As a result, this film has never managed to take a place in the public consciousness of those other horror films of the period: "Dracula" and "Frankenstein." Without question, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is superior to both. Does that mean it has no flaws? Certainly not. The early scenes beween Jekyll and his fiance are excruciatingly earnest and tediously presented. The biggest flaw of the movie, and it is a huge one, is that it does skirt uncomfortably close to outright racism as a result of Hyde's physical appearance eventually taking on some decidedly African-American features. Fortunately, it is only Hyde's appearance and not his actions that tread the line of racist stereotyping. Aside from these two quibbles, however, the 1931 version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" must clearly rank as one of the greatest horror films of all time.

What Do Those Names on the Opening LIst Have in Common?

And now to that list that opened this review. All those names show up on the top 50 list of the American Film Institute's greatest villains of movie history. Joan Crawford in "Mommie Dearest" and Regina Giddens--does anybody even know who Regina Giddens is--are all considered more memorable villains. The time has come to recognize that Fredric March's Dr. Jekyll AND Mr. Hyde is certainly a more memorable villain than Nurse Ratched, Gordon Gekko or Bruce the Shark.

Although, now that I think about it, Joan Crawford actually is scarier.


Classic Movies, Horror Films, Horror Movie, Movie Review, Movies

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author avatar Timothy Sexton
Timothy Sexton owns EverythingofInternet.com, has published two novels & contributes to "Sherlock Holmes & Philosophy," "Jeopardy & Philosophy," "Jurassic Park & Philosophy" and "Dracula & Philosophy"

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