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The timing for an adaptation of the classic Robert Louis Stevenson novel couldn't have been better; the releases of Dracula (1931) and Frankenstein (1931) had whetted the moviegoing public's appetite for horror films. Directors like James Whale led the pack in the adaptation of literary properties for on-screen chills and thrills, director Rouben Mamoulian had a reputation for taking a genre and putting his own stamp on it. In his first two films, he had created works that played with genre (the musical, in Applause(1929) and the gangster film, City Streets (1931)); the complex character and alter ego of Dr. Jekyll would provide the emotional heft that Mamoulian infused into the horror genre.
Although Fredric March had attracted attention in leading roles on the stage and in films, including a critically acclaimed characterization based on John Barrymore in The Royal Family of Broadway (1930), he finally attained stardom when he took on the role of the tormented doctor with a split personality. March, aided by a makeup job that rendered him hideous, and a sympathetic director who wanted to explore the emotional depths of the character, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932) became a golden opportunity for March to showcase his talents.
March would star opposite Miriam Hopkins, who became a fixture of 1930's dramas. She found herself cast against her wishes as Ivy, the saucy caberet singer who bears the brunt of Mr. Hyde's attentions. Mamoulian had to personally convince Hopkins to take the role of Ivy, the sadomaschistic caberet singer, rather than that the role of "good girl" Muriel, Jekyll's fianc. Hopkins must have later thanked her director for insisting she take the part- her performance shared the rave reviews March received for the film.
The transformation that March underwent before the camera was a source of fascination for both audiences and critics. Karl Struss, a talented cameraman created the 'transformation' scenes by using red filters that when removed, "revealed" the actor's makeup when seen in the black and white film stock, a technique he had devised for Ben-Hur (1926). His cinematography would result in one of the three Oscar nominations the film received, but Struss was unhappy with some of the results of the evolution of Jekyll into Hyde. In his autobiography, he lamented that the makeup made March look like "a monkey" and he felt that the scene should have focused on the psychological, not physical, change of the mad doctor.
Fredric March, however, saw a reason behind the balanced portrayal of both the doctor and his deranged alter ego. In an interview published in 1932 in Screen Book, March recalled, "I conceived Mr. Hyde as more than just Dr. Jekyll's inhibited evil nature, I saw the beast as a separate entity- one who could, and almost did, little by little, overpower and annihilate Dr. Jekyll. And I tried to show the devastating results in Dr. Jekyll as well. To me, those repeated appearances of the beast within him were more than just a mental strain on Jekyll- they crushed him physically as well. I tried to bring this out by increasing lines and shadows of Jekyll's makeup as the picture progressed, until, in the last scenes, he looked as though he already had one foot in the grave. Hyde was killing Jekyll physically as well as mentally."
The unbridled violence and sexual undertones of the story retain an impact even today. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was released two years prior to the inception of the Hays Office, which was responsible for enforcing a rigid code of standards that defined later films of the era. The stressful nature of March's performance was the focus of press, one writer declared that "(March's) strenuous screen characterizations are consuming his vitality and undermining his health. Worn out by the difficult dual roles in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde... March barely escaped a physical collapse.... He spent days in a Hollywood clinic, having a rigid check-up. 'Nerves shot,' came the verdict."
Risks aside, March found himself praised unanimously by not only critics, but his peers, who nominated him for his first Academy Award. His nomination resulted in an unusual piece of Oscar® trivia. According to the original rules of the academy, any contenders that came within three votes of a winner would share the award. Wallace Beery, nominated for The Champ (1931) squeaked by with one less vote than March. Coincidentally, both Beery and March had adopted children shortly before the Oscar® ceremony and March quipped, "Under the circumstances, it seems a little odd that Wally and I were both given awards for the best male performance of the year." The trajectory of March's career was in little doubt, however, foreshadowed by the comments of James R. Quirk in the fan magazine Photoplay, who wrote, "No player in pictures or on the stage could surpass his performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Any man who can handle this heavily dramatic role with such finesse, and also put over an entirely different personality, such as he did... (in) The Royal Family is a first-class, all around journeyman actor."
Producer: Rouben Mamoulian, Adolph Zukor
Director: Rouben Mamoulian
Screenplay: Samuel Hoffenstein, Percy Heath, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
Cinematography: Karl Struss
Film Editing: William Shea
Costume Design: Travis Banton
Art Direction: Hans Dreier
Cast: Fredric March (Dr. Henry Jekyll/Mr. Hyde), Miriam Hopkins (Ivy Pearson), Rose Hobart (Muriel Carew), Holmes Herbert (Dr. Lanyon), Halliwell Hobbes (Brigadier General Danver Carew), Edgar Norton (Poole).
BW-96m. Closed captioning.
by Frank Miller