The title role in Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde is an actor's dream: a dual role playing both a prig and a monster with a dramatic physical and psychic transformation from one to the other requiring the actor to hit a wide range of emotional notes. But the part also presents the actor with a dilemma, too. Ground the performance too firmly in Method realism and the action implodes; play it too broadly, and the horror becomes campy comedy.
John Barrymore, who was without doubt the greatest ham in movie history (sometimes brilliantly so), chewed so much scenery in the 1920 silent version of the story, the performance became the gold standard for over-acting—watch Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.'s imitation in Our Modern Maidens sometime if you don't believe me.
On the other hand, Spencer Tracy, the most empathetic actor ever to grace the screen, never really convinces us in the 1941 version he's either the priggish Jekyll or the brutal Hyde precisely because he can't convince us he's oblivious to the feelings of his fellow beings. (He probably wasn't helped much by a Production Code-era screenplay that dialed down both the violence and the sex.) It's one of the few performances of his great career that doesn't work for me.
It took Fredric March in the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde to thread the needle between the two extremes and give the definitive performance in the role. The Academy recognized it as the best performance of the year and for once, I agree.
These days we like to pretend we've advanced well beyond notions of moral rectitude, repressed desire and a secret id run wild. As the A.V. Club put it just last month in writing about Stevenson's novel, "Today’s worst impulses run cheek-and-jowl with the best mankind has to offer, and the idea that some saintly seeming public figure might like to drink and whore around in private isn't so much unsurprising as it is a job requirement."
Oh, yeah? Let me just say two words: Tiger Woods.
If the apparently genuine public shock and, in any event, the nonstop tabloid Sturm und Drang over Woods's professed infidelities tell us anything, they tell us we haven't come anywhere close to getting a grip on the notion that a public figure can have a dark side. And as long as fans expect their heroes to be saints, as long as parents expect their children to be perfect, heck, as long as spouses expect their mates to stop banging cocktail waitresses, the story of a man who tries to repress his dark side only to see it destroy him is always going to be relevant.
Thomas Boswell wrote recently in the Washington Post that everyone has a public face and a private face and that "Our interior life, our soul, our truest sense of ourselves, whatever you call it, is too difficult and changing a thing to summarize easily or share widely.
"But," he went on to say, "when the gap between the public face and the private self becomes a vast gulf, people go into crisis. The split inside you becomes intolerable. You feel that are 'living a life of a lie.' You becomes reckless, partly out of self-hatred ..., but also because you want to put the warring sides of yourself back together, even if the cost is huge."
Jekyll suffers from the same intolerable split—"It's the things one can't do that always tempt me," he confesses—but unlike the rest of us, he doesn't want to put the warring sides back together; he wants a permanent split, and not just psychically but physically as well. He works feverishly to perfect a potion that will accomplish this dream, reasoning that once freed of the constraints of conscience and societal norms, the private self will fulfill its dark desires and trouble him no longer.
It's a nutty notion since as we all know (or ought to) once the baser self is allowed to run free, it wants only one thing: to quote Johnny Rocco, "More." Jekyll discovers this truth the hard way and pays the ultimate price for his knowledge.
Director Rouben Mamoulian introduces Jekyll with a tracking shot from Jekyll's viewpoint, starting in Jekyll's laboratory, following his butler through his manor house, and ending with him gazing at himself in a mirror, preening prior to an important speech before his colleagues in the medical profession. Coming from most directors, this point-of-view tracking shot would be a mere film school stunt, but here, it's an inventive way to introduce the main theme of the movie, the two faces of a man, the one people see (i.e., the face in the mirror) and the one we hide away, in Jekyll's case, even from himself.
Tellingly, director Mamoulian has Jekyll return to the mirror when he first drinks the potion and we see his transformation into Hyde in reflection—the handsome public face becoming the hideous private one. (As a side note, listen for Mamoulian's imaginative use of sound in this sequence, typically cutting-edge. The heartbeat on the soundtrack, by the way, is his own, recorded after running up and down a flight of stairs.)
A key to the movie's success is, of course, how well it shows the transformation from Jekyll to Hyde. The special effects work of Wally Westmore is very good, astounding really considering the movie will be eighty years old next year. Westmore created Jekyll's transformation to Hyde using layers of makeup, each a different color, each revealed with a different filtered camera lens, so that without clumsy cut-aways or overlapping dissolves, Jekyll's face changes before your eyes.
Well, and then they put in some big teeth and a Neanderthal's nose. But it's impressive work.
Still, if clever effects, no matter how good, are all a movie has to offer, within a few years of its release, you wind up with something akin to, say, Tron, a special effects extravaganza from 1982 that made lots of money, inspired an arcade game, and is now remembered, if at all, as an insufferably stupid movie with dated special effects. Something to keep in mind as you champion this year's special effects wonder, Avatar.
That Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde continues to speak to an audience nearly eighty years on is a testament to the screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath which takes the original Stevenson tale and adds depth and action; to Miriam Hopkins terrific supporting performance; to Mamoulian's inventive direction—the only horror movie he ever directed, and one he was justly proud of—and above all, to the skill with which March convinces us he is both the pompous, repressed Jekyll and the gleefully brutal Hyde.
"One aspect that amazes me about March's performance," Bill Cooke said as part of a roundtable discussion at Video Watchdog, "is that I don't at any point feel it's the same actor playing both roles. That certainly can't be said of every other version I've seen featuring one actor in the part."
And at the same discussion, Richard Harlan Smith argued, "March remains unmatched as the definitive Victorian throwback. His performance ("I'll show you what horror means!") still unnerves, almost 80 years later."
I agree with both assessments.
It was director Mamoulian who insisted on casting March. The studio was pushing Irving Pichel, who had earlier that year played the key role of district attorney Orville Mason in An American Tragedy, and who had a wonderful voice—he later narrated She Wore A Yellow Ribbon (he also became a director)—but who didn't fit Mamoulian's conception of the role.
"[M]y concept all along for the character of Hyde," Mamoulian later said, "was that of a Neanderthal man, not a monster, because it is the animal side of human nature that attracted me to the piece. At the time I was offered Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, I had seen Freddie March in some comedy, and I knew he would be perfect. Now I had never met this actor before in my life, but I took a risk and told Paramount that I would not make the film without Fredric March. And he gave an inspired and dazzling performance!"
If you know where to look, you'll discover that March gave a number of great performances throughout a career that stretched across fifty years, from the silent era to the Seventies. He was nominated for five Academy Awards, winning two, for Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde, of course, and for the classic film about the difficulties of coming home from war, The Best Years Of Our Lives. He played comedy and drama equally well, for example, starring with Gary Cooper and Miriam Hopkins in Ernst Lubitsch's ode to the menage-a-trois, Design For Living, and with Carole Lombard in the screwball classic Nothing Sacred; but also in 1937's super-soaper A Star Is Born (later remade with James Mason and Judy Garland) and the Rod Serling-scripted political thriller, Seven Days In May.
In 1960, March and fellow Jekyll, Spencer Tracy, squared off in a fiction- alized account of the Scopes' Monkey Trial, Inherit The Wind. That movie proved to be a showcase for the two actors contrasting styles, with the naturalistic Tracy and the more formal March playing off each other to great effect. If the Academy Awards are any judge, Tracy won that battle, garnering an Academy Award nomination for best actor. But when it came to the dual roles of Jekyll and Hyde, March was the hands-down winner.