Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (US 1931)


I was pleased to get the rare chance to see a 1931 classic in a new print on a BFI re-release. I don’t remember seeing the film before, although the image of Fredric March as Mr Hyde is very well-known. The whole experience was a real treat and I wasn’t prepared for either the brilliance of Mamoulian’s approach via camerawork, editing and production design or the sheer eroticism of the film pre Hays Code. The film begins with an audacious subjective camera shot, seemingly hand-held, but presumably on some primitive form of dolly.(This follows a sequence of passionate organ-playing that must have been an inspiration for Monty Python.)

There is already quite a lot of material out there on the film and there is no need for me to repeat it. Here are two blogs that offer (1) a short interview with Mamoulian and (2) a formal analysis with loads of screen grabs showing the compositions and glorious wipes:



I suspect that the fans of the film who have only seen it on TV or DVD have missed some of the erotic charge of the film, partly because US TV versions were cut for a long time (as was the initial UK release), but also because the big screen has the kind of mesmeric effect in Mamoulian’s hands that you just can’t get on a small screen. In the final sequence there is a shot in which Mr Hyde approaches Jekyll’s fiancée from behind (as depicted in the poster above) and the subjective shot makes the woman’s dress seem almost touchable – and what dresses they are in the film, close fitting and low-cut. In his ‘Cinema One’ book on Mamoulian (1969) Tom Milne sets up a spirited defence of Mamoulian in the face of later critical apathy. 

Rouben Mamoulian (1897-1987) was a Georgian from Tbilisi who trained as a theatre director in Moscow and then travelled to first London and then New York, directing both straight theatre and opera. In cinema by the late 1920s he was seen as a real innovator in the use of sound, the roving subjective camera of Jekyll and Hyde and later the first Technicolor feature, Becky Sharp in 1936. He was seduced away from Paramount by the moneybags at MGM (where Garbo’s Queen Christina was a highlight) but after Becky Sharp, his career faltered and he became known for films which he left for various reasons, the last of which was the ill-fated Cleopatra in (1963). The last film he completed was Silk Stockings in 1957, the Cold War musical version of Ninotchka, with the sublime Cyd Charisse and Fred Astaire. Milne argues that Mamoulian’s sense of rhythm and timing in shooting and cutting was such that all his films could be seen as musicals.

I can see that my viewing is Mamoulian-light. I have Golden Boy (1939) to watch but now I must also seek out Applause (1929), City Streets (1931) and Love Me Tonight (1932).

Here is the famous scene between March and Miriam Hopkins, demonstrating what Hollywood lost when the Production Code came in:

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