The 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde begins with a pair of hands playing the organ, the camera acting as the eyes of Dr. Jekyll (Fredric March) as he stands and follows a servant through into the hallway of his home. Our first glimpse of Dr. Jekyll is merely his reflection, as he puts on a coat and prepares himself for a university lecture on the possibility of splitting the human soul into two separate entities: one innately good, one unspeakably evil. From the very beginning, it establishes a sense of duality, foreshadowing the division between Dr. Jekyll’s two selves that will become the theme of the film. But it does much more than that: its innovative camerawork and uniquely dynamic visual style would serve as an early indicator of the immense creative possibility that the horror genre held.
Horror films have not traditionally held an esteemed position in cinematic history. Relatively inexpensive to make, throughout much of the classic Hollywood era they occupied a distinctly separate tier of B-movies. In the entire 92-year history of the Academy Awards, only eighteen horror films have ended up winning an Oscar in any category, and it’s telling that almost all were awarded for either art design, costuming, or makeup — some form of visual effects rather than their acting or directing. But the 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was one of the few that would achieve acclaim for both: Fredric March won a Best Actor award for his dual performance as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and it has long received praise for its groundbreaking special effects, specifically in its transformation sequence. The lasting relevance of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was not always assured, though: when MGM wanted to remake the film in 1941 starring Spencer Tracy, they bought the rights to this version and destroyed every copy they could get their hands on. (Indeed, it was considered by many to be a lost film until a copy was released to be screened in the late 1960s.)
Despite the best efforts of MGM to erase it from memory, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde remains an incredibly special piece of early horror filmmaking. Director Rouben Mamoulian imbues the familiar narrative with a persistent visual dichotomy between an individual and its mirror image: one light, and one dark. The kind-hearted Dr. Jekyll and lecherous, depraved Mr. Hyde are obvious examples of the two sides of human nature and a clear, pre-Code warning about the corrupting influence of sexual repression. But the film is filled with them. Muriel (Rose Hobart) and Ivy (Miriam Hopkins), the two love interests of Dr. Jekyll, are just as compelling. Muriel is chaste, demure: she and Jekyll speak of love with the highest ideals in mind. Ivy is earthy and sensual, representing the physical side of love.
While Muriel feels like the type of well-brought-up young lady who would be welcome in any drawing room across the entirety of the classical Hollywood era, Ivy’s scenes push the envelope, even for a pre-Code film. Muriel is festooned in full-length party dresses; Ivy has a shockingly sexual sequence where she slowly removes her garters and climbs into bed naked, kissing Jekyll and allowing her bare right leg to swing enticingly over the edge of the bed, an image that lingers in Jekyll’s mind as he leaves her apartment.
Evidence of duality is all over Mamoulian’s visual language. Early in the film, Jekyll visits a pauper’s hospital, and treats a little girl on crutches. Mamoulian does a match cut between the joyful cries of the girl, delighted at being able to walk again, and an old woman moaning in pain on a hospital bed. Youth and age, light and dark, temptation and chastity. Two sides of the same coin.
But the shining achievement of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is its inventive transformation sequence. We see Jekyll hold up the potion, followed by a close-up of the glass, which blurs out of focus and is lowered to reveal Jekyll’s reflection in the mirror. By using the mirror extensively in this scene as well as the opening sequence of the film, Mamoulian has essentially already separated Jekyll into two — himself, and his alter ego. And that’s just the set-up; the real coup is how he executes the transformation, using special effects that are stunning to this day. As Fredric March sputters in discomfort while the potion takes effect, his face, without the benefit of a single cut, morphs into something grotesque. Mamoulian uses an ingenious series of camera filters that interact with specific makeup on March’s face, showing up on black-and-white film not as different colors, but as the shadows and facial disfigurations that define Mr. Hyde.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a film that – despite its release a mere year and a half after film even switched to sound, despite being buried by the studio for the better part of three decades – helps to establish a precedent of horror cinema as a bastion of creativity. It cultivates not only a distinct visual language that brings the original Robert Louis Stevenson novel to life, but features special effects that would influence the genre for years to come. Still, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde wouldn’t have the same impact without Fredric March’s outstanding lead performance. Without the moral heights of his saintly Jekyll and the deviant depths of his Hyde tied together by sheer magnetism, it would be a good, scary movie, but not one of the defining pieces of early cinematic horror.