By breathing life into the classic tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, director Robert Mamoulian and cameraman Karl Struss, ASC set an eerie tone for schizophrenic chillers to come.
by George Turner
When it was first published in the year 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson's novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde aroused a storm of controversy. Quaint Victorian sensibilities were outraged by its premise that every human being has a demon lurking within, longing to break loose and indulge in forbidden pleasures. By scientific means, the tale's protagonist, the kindly Dr. Jekyll, frees his suppressed self and plunges into an orgy of uncontrollable licentiousness that ends in an untimely demise.
A year after the book's arrival, Richard Mansfield staged an enormously successful theatrical dramatization of the story. In August of 1888, he brought the play to London's Lyceum Theatre at the invitation of impresario-star Sir Henry Irving, whose manager was, quite appropriately, Dracula author Bram Stoker. On August 31, however, a murder was committed by a black-hearted butcher who would achieve infamy under the moniker of Jack the Ripper. By October, three more Ripper murders had occurred. Due to accusations that the play had encouraged these heinous acts, the accomplished stage version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde play was terminated in its 10th week.
In 1908, the Selig Polyscope Company made a movie version of the Stevenson tale. Other attempts followed, including Universal's 1913 edition directed by and starring King Baggot, which proudly introduced the "dissolving effect," via which Jekyll transforms into Hyde in a fast dissolve. Paramount's East Coast Studio produced the finest silent-film version, starring John Barrymore, in 1920. Spurning Stevenson's middle-aged Victorian hero, Barrymore portrayed Jekyll as young, romantic and adventurous. This version established Jekyll's sexual motivations and emphasized the women in his life. Again, the Jekyll-Hyde metamorphoses were accomplished via dissolves, but with improved finesse.
Spurred by the success of Universal's Dracula in early 1931, Paramount decided to remake its classic for the talkies. The new screenplay penned by sophisticates Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath further expanded the possibilities: Henry Jekyll, a prominent young physician, is convinced that each man contains two selves one good and one evil. His "blasphemous" theory that the two can be separated brings censure from colleagues and friends. Only his fiancée, Muriel Carew, understands, but her wary father postpones the couple's impending marriage. Frustrated, Jekyll drinks the conversion formula himself. His evil self, whom he calls Edward Hyde, takes over his consciousness. Hyde makes a love slave out of Ivy Pierson, a barmaid who had aroused Jekyll's libido, and sadistically drives her to near madness. Jekyll can no longer repress the increasingly dominant Hyde, who murders Ivy after she seeks help from Jekyll. Eventually, Hyde attacks Muriel and murders her father when he intervenes. After being cornered in his laboratory by police (who are led there on a tip from Jekyll's former friend, Dr. Lanyon), Hyde is shot dead. As the life drains from his body, he is transformed into Dr. Jekyll one final time.
Second only to MGM in mounting expensive productions, Paramount offered John Barrymore an astonishing $12,000 per week to reprise his performance. Barrymore instead signed with MGM. By the time studio president Adolph Zukor had chosen Rouben Mamoulian to direct, he decided to cast somebody already under contract at a nominal salary the fine stage actor Irving Pichel.
Mamoulian rebelled, insisting that Pichel would be a fine Mr. Hyde but was not handsome enough for Jekyll. He stumped for and finally received another contractee, Fredric March, a light romantic lead. His bosses, however, had little faith in March, despite his stage background and strong resemblance to the Barrymore of 10 years earlier.
Born in Russia's Caucasus region to Armenian parents, Mamoulian was one of many stage directors brought to Hollywood from New York during sound cinema's early years. He had studied at the Moscow Art Theatre and King's College, and was internationally renowned as a director of operas, plays and musicals. Unlike many of his theater colleagues, Mamoulian instinctively grasped the possibilities of film. His first movie, Applause (1930), made in Astoria, restored camera mobility and was the first to use two channels of sound. His second, City Streets (1931), introduced the concept of having thoughts heard as voice-overs. The third, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932), produced at Paramount's studio in Hollywood, is filled with superbly realized, innovative ideas.
Paramount gave Mamoulian seven weeks of shooting time and a budget of about $500,000 twice the cost of most A-pictures. He cast 81 actors in speaking parts: 10 principals, 30 players with more than one speaking scene, and 41 bit players with one line or more. About 500 extras appear, including some 150 each in the medical-school and music-hall sequences. A sturdy chap named Robert Louis Stevenson, nephew of the author, appears as a cockney.
[ continued on page 2 ] © 1999 ASC