Classic Horror Behind the Scenes: DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931): An Appreciation
More than 90 years old, Rouben Mamoulian’s take on the classic tale is still definitive, and still effective…thanks to the chilling dynamic between Hyde and Ivy Pearson, his most unwilling victim.
By Bill Fleck, author of the Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards-nominated book, Chaney’s Baby, available here:
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Dr. Henry M. Jekyll is in trouble.
The young scientist is handsome. Successful. A genius. His marriage to Muriel Carew—his beloved fiancée—is about to be formally announced.
But Jekyll is in hot water all the same.
He’s developed a controversial theory: that man, through certain chemicals, can separate the good and evil in his soul.
Jekyll, in his experiments, has conjured up the smoky mixture and tried it on himself in secret.
Partly, of course, to prove that his theory is true…
And partly to relieve his burning sexual passion—the fulfillment of which, in the Victorian Age he lives in, has been delayed. And delayed.
The object of his passion? Muriel, of course.
[Above: Muriel Carew and Henry Jekyll are kept from marrying by her father’s ultra-Victorian beliefs. Both are unhappy having to wait the 8 months he has stipulated.]
But their marriage is still months away—until recently, Jekyll hasn’t even been sure that it will happen at all.
So, when Jekyll accidentally comes across the provocative prostitute Ivy Pearson—who is obviously very willing to relieve his tension—he is attracted and tempted.
[Above: Jekyll rescues the prostitute Ivy Pearson from a brutal ‘john.’ Ivy—obviously attracted to the handsome young doctor—attempts to thank him, and Jekyll—in spite of his love for Muriel—almost succumbs. Though he ultimately resists temptation, Ivy remans very much on Jekyll’s mind.]
He knows that a man of his position and reputation dare not consort with prostitutes.
But what if he can separate the good and evil in his soul?
His chemical concoction does just that. He dubs his so-called evil side Hyde…perhaps because it is this identity that Jekyll hides behind to get what he wants?
But his Neanderthal-like alter-ego is violent as well sexual. Hyde traps Ivy in a brutal, life-threatening, sexual enslavement.
Only the return of his fiancée from extended travels abroad brings Jekyll back from the gutters of Soho to the drawing rooms of high society, where the pending announcement of his sooner-than-expected marriage cheers him greatly.
But what about Ivy?
Jekyll has done what he believes is more than she should expect.
She’s a prostitute who should be used to such things, so he pays her.
He’s sent her £50—more than five-thousand U.S. dollars at this writing when adjusted for inflation.
But now, Jekyll is learning that £50 isn’t enough.
All the money in the world isn’t enough.
Because Ivy stands before him now. A victim.
She gives him back his money. And, she says, if Jekyll can’t keep Hyde away from her, she wants him to gift her with some poison so she can kill herself.
[Above: “It’s a whip!” The scales fall off Jekyll’s eyes when confronted by what he’s done to Ivy. Interestingly, March’s makeup here suggests that Hyde is beginning to infect him, even in his normal state.]
She falls to her knees. Begs him for help. Calls him an angel.
Offers to work for him.
To slave for him.
To love him.
She has no idea that Jekyll is Hyde…
The scales fall from Jekyll’s eyes. This isn’t a prostitute he’s hurt.
This is Ivy Pearson, a real-life human being.
He’s even tempted again by her offer of love, however briefly.
In the end, he promises her that she’ll never see Hyde again. She struggles to believe him at first, but his sincerity convinces her. She even takes the £50 back.
After she leaves, Jekyll slumps into a chair and stares into the fire.
Are the flames of Hell awaiting him?
He can’t believe that they are, especially since he’s determined to keep his promise to Ivy:
“You’ll never see Hyde again. Believe me.”
Unfortunately for everyone concerned, he’s wrong.
* * *
I taught high school English for thirty years. For the last fifteen of those, I offered an elective course for seniors—Cinema.
Can you guess what film was among the most popular that I showed Generation iPhone?
Yup, you got it—Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931).
I believe the sick, involuntary entrapment of Ivy by Hyde is the key. Sadly, many of my students could totally relate…because the physical and mental torture Hyde subjects Ivy to perfectly illustrates what would later be known as Battered Woman Syndrome.
I also believe that the underlying theme of drug addiction—and Jekyll’s inability to control it—resonated with a number of my students who struggled with addictions of their own…or had friends who did.
* * *
“In her book, The Battered Woman Syndrome, [Lenore] Walker says most women who are battered exhibit four characteristics: They believe the violence is their fault, they can’t place the blame for the violence on anyone else, they fear for their lives and their children’s lives, and they believe their abuser is everywhere and sees everything they do.”
* * *
[Above: The scenes between Hyde and Ivy feature both physical and mental torture…and perfectly depict what would later be called Battered Woman Syndrome.]
As depicted in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Ivy Pearson is a poster child for Battered Woman Syndrome.
Does she believe Hyde’s violence toward her is her fault?
Certainly, she believes her choice of occupation—if it was a choice—makes her unworthy of normal human kindness. As she tells her landlady, “Who cares what becomes of the likes of me?”
Does she fear placing the blame for the violence on Hyde?
Well, she conceals the bruises on her back for as long as she can…obviously dreading what Hyde will otherwise do. It’s only in desperation that she shows Jekyll the bruises, saying, “Pretty, ain’t it…It’s a whip, that’s what it is—a whip!”
Does she fear for her life? Well, she tells Jekyll, “I’m afraid of him—I’m afraid of him now. If he knows that I’ve been here today, I don’t know what he’ll do! It won’t be anything human, Sir!”
And does she believe that Hyde knows everything she does? Again, she tells Jekyll:
“He ain’t a man—he’s a devil. He knows what you’re thinking about, he does…”
And then, there’s her reaction when advised to turn to the police.
“That’s what they always say, isn’t it, to victims of domestic abuse?” lyzmadness notes in an excellent blog. “Why didn’t you leave, why didn’t you help yourself? And they continue to say it, despite the ever-increasing number of cases in which women who do leave are hunted down and murdered. Ivy’s hysterical cries are an answer that stands today as much as it did then: too terrified to leave, too terrified to seek help, too terrified to move, almost too terrified to breathe…”
[Above: In spite of Jekyll’s promise—”You’ll never see Hyde again”—Ivy is confronted by her tormenter one last time…}
[Above: …and is murdered. Blogger lzymadness perfectly sums it up: “‘Why didn’t you leave, why didn’t you help yourself?’ And they continue to say it, despite the ever-increasing number of cases in which women who do leave are hunted down and murdered.”]
The situation Ivy finds herself in is sadly—and brutally—true to life.
But it wouldn’t be half as effective without great acting.
Of course, what qualifies as great acting is a matter of context. For many critics, film acting before Hollywood accepted Stanislavski is primitive at best. And admittedly, the intentionally bravura performances of March and Hopkins would never fly in, say, On the Waterfront (1954)…any more than would anything Leslie Nielsen does in Airplane! (1980).
Nor were they meant to.
The fact is, the context of Rouben Mamoulian’s vision of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the perfect one for the performances March and Hopkins give…and the unhealthy dynamic they so effectively convey. Mamoulian, a 34-year-old Russian emigrant and former Broadway director—who was once understudy to Lionel Atwill!—saw the story in broad, symbolic terms…so much so that members of the crew advised him to back off, worried that his approach to Hyde’s appearance and initial behavior would result in unintended laughs.
“I never agreed with the business of making a monkey out of Hyde,” cinematographer Karl Struss complained years later. “I said to Mamoulian, ‘Listen, you’re going to have the audiences rolling in the aisles.’”
But Mamoulian would have none of that.
“As a prototype for Hyde, I didn’t take a monster, but our common ancestor, the Neanderthal man,” he explained. “Mr. Hyde is not a monster, but a primeval man—closest to the earth, the soil…Hyde is this young animal released from the stifling manners and conventions of the Victorian period.”
[Above: As conceived by Mamoulian, Hyde is Neanderthal man…and, at first, comic.]
This was all fine with March. The 34-year-old actor was eager to play just such a part. The staid, straight-laced, repressed Jekyll’s desire to cut loose in an entirely different persona mirrored March’s actual hope to free himself of being typecast as a juvenile leading man.  As such, he decided to overplay both roles…and won himself an Oscar as a result.
In contrast, Hopkins was reluctant to take on Ivy. The 29-year-old Georgia native didn’t like the character.
“She’s unsympathetic,” Hopkins said “I just don’t want to act her.”
She wanted to play Muriel instead.
“What’s the matter with you?” Mamoulian replied, exasperated. “Ivy’s going to steal the film.”
But Hopkins was unmoved.
“All right,” Mamoulian said, walking out on her. “I’ll have no trouble finding someone to play Ivy. Half the actresses in Hollywood would give their eye teeth for the part.”
Horror film buffs today are lucky that Hopkins changed her mind.
With $535,000 to spend—a bit shy of $10 million at this writing when adjusted for inflation—Mamoulian oversaw the construction of huge, detailed sets, and the creation of one of the most famous monster makeups of all time.
As conceived by Mamoulian and applied by Wally Westmore, Hyde is Neanderthal Man…Jekyll in devolution.  Intentionally comic in his first incarnation, he becomes more horrific—and brutal—with each succeeding transformation. Also interesting—in later scenes—are the subtle makeup effects on March as Jekyll that suggest how Hyde is slowly infecting him…much like a drug addict suffers from withdrawal. This parallel, according to Mamoulian, is intentional.
“It’s right in the direction of the youth today,” Mamoulian said years ago, “looking for an expression of consciousness, for love, for the good things. And they end up taking dope, trying this, trying that, and many times they fall victim to it. That’s exactly what happened to Dr. Jekyll.”
Jekyll’s decline is obvious to everyone but Jekyll himself—and, as noted above, many of my students, who’d lost friends to fentanyl addiction—related to this. Even after murdering Ivy—and being out-and-out told that he is damned by his friend and colleague Dr. Lanyon—Jekyll remains in denial until he’s shot by police…and dies on the very laboratory table where his formula was created.
[Above: Jekyll turns into Hyde for the first time without the mixture. Jekyll’s loss of control is meant to suggest the hapless journey of a drug addict.]
Symbolism is very much a part of the film, much to the chagrin of some of the cast and crew. Rose Hobart—the 25-year-old New Yorker who played Muriel—hated it.
“He would always have something symbolic of the scene to finish up with,” she said. “That was really overdoing it!”
Mamoulian, however, obviously saw things differently.
“Films should be poetic, integrating all the components of art,” He opined. “And it should show the inner truth, not merely the ‘realistic’ truth, in a stylized manner…I don’t care how debased or sordid your subject is, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you must portray the whole truth of life, not partial truth, because partial truth is worse than a lie.” 
It’s difficult to look at the film today and not realize that Mamoulian was correct—the symbolism sprinkled throughout certainly adds to the film’s impact, especially the final shot of the fiery cauldron, very clearly indicating that Jekyll has descended into Hell.
There are some warts, of course. The transformation scenes—highly regarded at the time—are a mixed bag today.  Also, the lack of an English accent on March’s part is a bit inauthentic. And there is one very badly over-acted scene where March as Jekyll tells Muriel that he’s giving her up…and ends up rolling around in the floor in unintentionally comic agony (though the scene does effectively reference The Pieta).
Still, the film packs a wallop, largely thanks to the still relevant drug addiction theme and the unhealthy dynamic between Hyde and Ivy. As Richard J. Anobile wrote in 1976, “Hyde’s scenes with Ivy are truly terrifying.”
Time has done nothing to change that.
I only hope I look as good when I’m 91…
[Above: The film is packed with symbolism. When Lanyon tells Jekyll that he is damned, the scene is staged to suggest a courtroom. “There is no help for you here, nor mercy beyond.”]
 Interestingly, March was not Paramount’s first choice for the role. Initially, studio head Bud Schulberg wanted John Barrymore to reprise the part he’d played in the famous silent version from 1920. The 49-year-old actor turned it down. Then, the studio suggested Irving Pichel, now best known to classic horror fans as Sandor, Gloria Holden’s henchman in Dracula’s Daughter (1936). “I thought the idea was atrocious,” Mamoulian explained, claiming that Pichel could only play Hyde. “I said I wouldn’t be interested in doing the film with him.” The director held out for March. “You’re crazy!” came the reply. “Frederic March is a comedian!” When Mamoulian threatened to walk off the film, Schulberg finally relented.
 The makeup is very famous. Contemporary newspapers relate that the set was closed to outsiders to keep March’s appearance a secret, though Hyde is featured prominently on publicity materials. “For six weeks, I had to arrive at the studios each morning at 6:00 AM, so that Wally Westmore could spend four hours building pieces on my nose and cheeks, sticking fangs in my mouth, and pushing cotton wool up my nostrils.” According to Rose Hobart, the makeup almost did permanent damage. “[March] was in the hospital for three weeks!” she told Gregory William Mank. “It took his whole face off! It was lucky he wasn’t ruined for life! That’s the kind of thing they used to do in those days and that’s why I hated pictures! They didn’t give a **** about people!” March, however, saw it somewhat differently. “I must thank Wally Westmore, who made my task an easy one,” he said in his Oscar acceptance speech. “Wally, who I consider a great artist, is responsible for the greater measure of my success.”
 Quote compiled from two separate interviews published in Hollywood Cauldron and The Celluloid Muse.
 The effects are still interesting, even if they aren’t all effective. The first is excellent. It utilizes montage—we see and hear what’s going on in Jekyll’s mind (along with Mamoulian’s heartbeat, which he recorded while running) as he transforms—and the makeup is revealed in a straight-on shot wherein a clear sheet of glass stands in for a mirror (“We who come to stare see only ourselves,” wrote William K. Everson in Classics of the Horror Film). The second features the use of colored lights and contrasting filters…and also a few what-were-then clever edits, which are obvious now. A quick cut is utilized when Jekyll loses control and becomes Hyde for the first time without taking the drug. The transformation from Hyde to Jekyll—before Lanyon’s disbelieving eyes—is a series of badly overlapping shots and dissolves (Jekyll’s hair appears to comb itself). Jekyll’s transformation before attacking Muriel starts with a color filter shot, and ends with a long shot of Jekyll’s caped back—March, scrunched down under the cape, stands to his full 5’10”…making it appear that Jekyll has grown. The last two—before Hyde is shot, and after he is killed—are handled pretty well with overlapping stills and lap dissolves.
“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931).” And You Call Yourself a Scientist!? Posted May 11, 2018 by lzymadness. Web.
Higham, Charles and Joel Greenberg. The Celluloid Muse. Chicago: Henry Regnery Company, 1969. Print.
Mank, Gregory William. Hollywood Cauldron. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland and Company Inc., 1994. Print.
Orenstein, B. W., Rapaport, L., Upham, B., Landau, M. D., & Colino, S. (n.d.). Understanding battered woman syndrome. EverydayHealth.com. Retrieved September 24, 2022, from https://www.everydayhealth.com/news/understanding-battered-womens-syndrome/
The photographs used herein are for educational purposes only. I do not own the copyrights.
Thanks for reading Bill Fleck's CLASSIC HORROR BEHIND THE SCENES! Subscribe for free to receive new posts and support my work.