Release Date(s)1931 (October 25, 2022)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: A+
- Video Grade: A+
- Audio Grade: B+
- Extras Grade: A
Many adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde have been made since the dawn of film, but one of the most heralded takes on this classic story is Rouben Mamoulian’s effort, produced at Paramount Pictures in 1931. Unfortunately for many of the last one hundred (plus) years, the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become a bit of a joke, a cultural go-to whenever referring to somebody who exhibits any type of out-of-character behavior, not to mention the many parodies that came in the story’s wake. However, the 1931 film version with Fredric March remains thoroughly effective because it holds almost nothing back creatively, giving us a Mr. Hyde that’s dangerous, disturbing, and frightening, even to this day.
A story that’s part of the cultural zeitgeist shouldn’t need to be retold, but for those under a certain age who might be unaware of it, it involves the good-mannered yet heretical Dr. Henry Jekyll (March), a respected, Victorian England-era doctor who puts forth to his colleagues the notion that all people are actually two beings: kind and gentle on the surface, and impulse-driven and capable of anything underneath. This is met with skepticism, though not from his loving and potential bride-to-be, Muriel (Rose Hobart). To prove his theory correct, he creates a formula that, once he drinks it, transforms him into a pre-man type of being completely driven by impulse, whom he dubs “Mr. Hyde.” He subsequently takes up with a young woman named Ivy (Miriam Hopkins), who had previously expressed an attraction to Jekyll, but when Hyde comes for her, he's completely brutal and abusive to her. Jekyll tries to resist this side of himself and make things right, but Hyde continues to grow more aggressive, which ultimately leads to tragedy.
For many, this version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (pronounced JEE-kyll here) will seem like a revelation. It’s almost modern in the way that it’s mounted. From the cinematography to the art direction to the performances, it’s a stellar effort. Since it’s a pre-Code film, it’s often unrestrained when it comes to salacious and horrific content, though done with considerable taste and aesthetic. There are incredibly expansive and oversized sets, and the camera is frequently freed from its static confines, flowing through scenes and allowing frequent uses of panning and POV.
However, there are more reasons why this film is held in such high esteem, and it’s because of its performances from both Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. March is truly horrific as Mr. Hyde, yet sympathetic and tragic as Dr. Jekyll. We hate what he’s become, but we’re also stricken by his plight and his inability to overcome it. All of his scenes with Miriam Hopkins are showstoppers as she attempts to fight this monster of a being off and keep herself from harm. It’s almost unbearable to watch as he mentally and physically assaults her, creating a sense of dread and a primordial urge to want to help her. For women of a certain age who have been victims of abuse, I can’t imagine what must be going through their minds when they see this film for the first time.
The most influential aspect of 1931’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is Wally Westmore’s amazing special effects make-up, not only the simian-like features given to Hyde, but also the transformation scenes, of which there are six, and all of which vary in technique. There are moments you would expect of traditional time-lapsed transformations, but there are also clever uses of editing with the camera in motion that are sometimes difficult to detect. It gives these moments a diversity to keep the visuals interesting, while also selling the effect to the audience.
Unfortunately, when MGM decided to remake Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde after it had been an enormous box office success in both 1931 and in its re-release in 1938, they purchased the film from Paramount, as well as the 1920 version starring John Barrymore in the title role. Prints of each film were destroyed and the films were locked away in the vaults, never to be released again until they were re-discovered decades later. Sadly, nearly 8 minutes had been cut out when the film was re-released in 1938, and it was several decades before a near approximation of the original cut of the film could be restored, missing all but 2 to 3 minutes of footage.
The important thing to remember about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is how groundbreaking and influential it became. All make-up jobs on Mr. Hyde in subsequent adaptations can easily be traced back to Westmore’s iconic look for the character. Fredric March also received an Academy Award for his performance (sadly, Miriam Hopkins was overlooked), which is quite a feat for a horror film. It was also a feat not repeated until 1991 when Anthony Hopkins won the Best Actor award for The Silence of the Lambs. “Horror” as a term hadn’t been invented in 1931, nor was there a stigma surrounding it in Hollywood, but along with Dracula and Frankenstein (all three of which were released the same year), what we now think of as the modern horror film was born.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was shot by director of photography Karl Struss on 35 mm black-and-white film, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.19:1. The Warner Archive Collection debuts the film on Blu-ray sourced primarily from a 4K scan of the original nitrate camera negative, as well as a pre-release duplicate, in its intended aspect ratio. The duplicate negative has been used to re-institute much of what was trimmed out of the film in 1938 as the footage from the camera negative is currently missing, along with the aforementioned additional 2 to 3 minutes, which are still lost. However, the two sources blend wonderfully, making for a sumptuous black-and-white presentation. It appears filmic and natural to its source with a high bit rate, solid unobtrusive grain, and exceeding levels of fine detail. Excellent contrast is displayed with perfect gradations, allowing for deep blacks, solid whites, and everything in between. The image is consistent, clean, and stable for the entire presentation. It’s quite crisp with only a minor softness during transitions and a few missing frames here and there. For a film that’s nearly a century old, it’s remarkable to behold.
Audio is included in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio with optional subtitles in English SDH. It’s a solid single channel-sourced experience with good support for dialogue and score. Only a minor touch of hiss can be heard, but never at the expense of the various elements.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on Blu-ray sits in a blue amaray case with an insert featuring the original theatrical artwork. The following extras are included:
- Audio Commentary with Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr
- Audio Commentary with Gregory William Mank
- Hyde and Hare Cartoon Short (Upscaled SD – 7:05)
- Theatre Guild on the Air Radio Broadcast (HD – 52:06)
The first audio commentary is a new one and it features film historians Steve Haberman and Constantine Nasr. The film’s troubled release history is discussed, along with the footage that was excised at different points, and the process of restoring the film for DVD and Blu-ray. Most fascinating are the deleted moments that were shot but never used, including a scene that takes place after Jekyll’s first transformation, which having been deleted, left a logical lapse in its wake. Having access to a second draft of the shooting script, they also compare it with the final film, noting that many of the film’s visuals and more intriguing moments were not scripted and created on the set. They also compare the film to the book and other adaptations made before and after, including the Spencer Tracy version from 1941. Also discussed are the many positives of the film, including the performances, the art direction, the cinematography, and the make-up. Professing their love for the film, they provide an excellent audio companion to the film. The second audio commentary, which was included on the 2004 DVD release of the film, features author and film historian Gregory William Mank. His commentary delves much more into the backgrounds and careers of the cast and crew, but he also takes us through the stage and filmed history of the story. He highlights sections of interviews with some of the film’s key players, and also occasionally pauses (rightly so) to appreciate the performances of Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. It too is a fine track, highly educational and entertaining.
Hyde and Hare is a 1955 Looney Tunes cartoon featuring Bugs Bunny, Dr. Jekyll, and Mr. Hyde. Last is a performance of The Strange Case of Dr. Jeykll and Mr. Hyde from Theatre Guild on the Air, a radio broadcast from November 19, 1950 featuring Fredric March, Barbara Bel Geddes, and Hugh Williams. It should be noted that everything is carried over from the previous DVD release of the film, aside from the trailer for the 1941 film.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an amazing film in terms of visual storytelling, with astonishing performances and inventive camera work that could rival even the most tepid of cinematographers today. Warner Archive’s restoration and Blu-ray release is truly an eye-opener, and every fan of classic horror must have this film in their collections. Highly recommended.
- Tim Salmons