Saturday, August 10, 2013

DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931)

IMDB keywords: reference to bach, woman naked under covers, period in title

1931 dawns and brings with it a continuation of the technical ambitions we saw in THE BAT WHISPERS.  This version of the Robert Louis Stevenson tale makes a sharp break with 1920's actor-centric edition: this JEKYLL is all about camera tricks, makeup, and general artifice.  A lot of the actors acquit themselves well, but TBH they're like the fourth most important weapon in this film's weapons bag.


In what must have stunned 1931 audiences, we open with first-person perspective.  We're set behind Henry Jekyll's eyes, sharing his tunnel vision as he primps for an evening out.  Mirrors and candlesticks will be important symbolically, so it's good to establish them early on.  These scenes also remind us that V/H/S 2 isn't as goddamn innovative as it thinks it is.  


Jekyll is affianced to Muriel Carew and desperately wants to marry her.  He already gets to see her on the weekend and dance with her, so I'm not sure what the attraction of marri—oh.  Yeah, this film is pretty sly about talking sex with its hand over its mouth.  It's all there, just very disguised.  Her dad's insistence on a decorously long engagement and Jekyll's (rational) rejection of it as just pointless tradition does wonders to establish his character and lead him down the dark road that we will travel.


Jekyll is handsome and decent, despite his tradition-scoffing.  On the way home, he saves some tart (Miriam Hopkins as Ivy Pearson) from a beating.  When she gets a good look at his face, she stops her Cockney caterwauling cold because sploosh.  


Hopkins's Cockney accent did not win my heart.  This probably wouldn't be as noticeable to a non-Southerner, but I kept hearing her slide into her native Georgia tongue and it took me out of the whole "we are in England" thing.  But her nude squirming under white covers was a great way to apologize!  And, in her defense, her lines do seem more natural as the film goes on.


You know what happens now.  Jekyll, like Drs. Frankenstein and Banner and Lecter, takes his curiosity too far and yields monstrous results.  The transformation scenes are solid gold here.  Frederic March one-ups John Barrymore in facial contortions and the gradual accumulation of makeup is still impressive, almost a hundred years later.  March is okay as Jekyll, but he's a holy terror as Hyde, filling his performance with constant motion: leaps, cane swinging, and animalistic jaw movements.  


The intriguing thing about Hyde is that he's not a monster in the crush/kill/destroy sense.  He's definitely not going to shy away from dishing out beatings, but he's really more of a self-obsessed rake than anything, almost a sociopath.  He's the id unleashed, without concern for consequences.  Hyde decides to take Ivy up on the scandalous offer she made to Jekyll.  The scenes between these two are some of the film's best and most intense.  I don't care how poor a girl's accent is, you shouldn't hit her with a whip about it.


Whippings, naked pseudo-Cockneys, volcanic violence...this film's heart is purely pre-Code and, even though concessions clearly had to be made to looming censorship, the subtle workarounds almost make it more perverse.  Everything is hidden in statuary and allegory.


Director Rouben Mamoulian does a great job of crafting sets and stages on which actors and cameras can race.  JEKYLL is appropriately full of doubling, from people posing like their home decor to multiple characters banging on keyboards or crying on their knees.  Even the Jekyll/Hyde dichotomy has its mirror in nice-but-boring Muriel and busty-but-probably-poisoned Ivy.   
  

Even with the accent, you'll probably be pulling for Ivy.  The Jekyll/Muriel love seems mawkish and present only to lead to the climax.  Puns aside, it's the dullest part of JEKYLL, but it thankfully occupies little screen time once we really get going and this certainly boasts many splendors that invite viewing.  The camera work and effects are a grade above anything we saw in the 20s, while we've still got a bit of that 1920s subversion happening at the edges of many scenes.  Remade in 1941 and many times thereafter!


RATING: 7

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