The best-filmed version of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella gets a spectacular Blu-ray treatment from Warner Archive. A brand new HD master struck from a 4K scan of the best-surviving nitrate elements yields a breathtaking transfer that heightens the story's thrills and enhances our appreciation of both Fredric March's mesmerizing Oscar-winning portrayal and director Rouben Mamoulian's impeccable artistry and dazzling technique. Excellent audio and a substantive supplemental package add luster to this revelatory disc that deserves a spot in every cinephile's collection. Must Own.
Hollywood has mounted several adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde dating all the way back to a 16-minute 1908 short. I haven't seen them all, but it's tough to imagine any version eclipsing director Rouben Mamoulian's dazzling interpretation of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic novella. And it's even tougher to imagine any actor embodying the tortured title characters better than Fredric March, who won a well-deserved Best Actor Oscar for his mesmerizing portrayal of two polar-opposite men trapped in the same body. Though produced more than 90 years ago at the dawn of the sound era, the 1931 edition of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde remains a vital, engrossing, and terrifying film that brims with artistry, innovation, thrills, and emotion.
A disquieting portrait of schizophrenia, sexual repression, and the age-old tug-of-war between good and evil, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde deftly uses science as a springboard for exploring the human psyche's murky recesses. Much like the 1941 remake, the 1931 version chronicles the serious consequences that ensue when the upstanding, noble Dr. Henry Jekyll (pronounced "Gee-kill" here) ingests an experimental homemade elixir designed to separate his benevolent and nefarious impulses. Jekyll, who's desperate to marry his fiancée Muriel (Rose Hobart) and consummate their relationship but is continually put off by her priggish, domineering father (Halliwell Hobbes), believes isolating good and evil and allowing man to satisfy his shameful yearnings will help him ultimately become a better person. "If these two selves could be separated from each other," he opines, "how much freer the good in us would be. What heights it might scale! And the so-called evil, once liberated, would fulfill itself and trouble us no more."
He couldn't be more wrong, of course. Indulging his desires only makes him crave them all the more, until his alter ego Mr. Hyde, who previously manifested himself only when Jekyll drank the transformative potion, comes out on his own. Once Jekyll can no longer control or contain the beast lurking within him, Mr. Hyde runs rampant, wreaking havoc on Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins), the prostitute who stokes his passions and drives him to commit numerous acts of sadistic violence against her. It's a tragic, deeply affecting tale filled with angst, guilt, regret, and self-loathing that also challenges us to look inward at our own twisted souls and reflect on how we manage the demons that prey upon us.
Mounted hot on the heels of such blockbuster chillers as Dracula and Frankenstein during the early 1930s horror craze, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde gives us a monster more unnerving and realistic than any Hollywood previously created because its seeds lie in all of us. Mamoulian takes a leaf from Stevenson's novella by depicting Hyde as a Neanderthal, a sub-human species unbound by the constraints of stringent Victorian moralism who becomes ever more grotesque as his soul decays and insatiable appetite for animalistic acts increases. Other film versions, including the 1941 remake, tone down the depiction of Hyde so he can better assimilate into society, but the stark difference between the two here amplifies Hyde's evil and increases the fright quotient.
The fact that this version also was produced before the adoption of the Motion Picture Production Code works to its benefit by giving Mamoulian the freedom to generously sprinkle titillating and downright explicit elements throughout his film. Jekyll's desires are surprisingly overt, blatant sexual imagery is everywhere, and there's no attempt to paint Ivy as anything other than a prostitute. Such frankness makes Jekyll's internal struggles more visceral and stark, and Mamoulian amplifies them with plenty of bold cinematic brushstrokes that add style to the story's substance.
Mamoulian pulls out all the stops, stoking our senses with innovative and exciting visuals that lend the film a surprisingly contemporary feel. Technical tricks abound, but they complement rather than overshadow the story. The extensive use of a subjective camera, elongated dissolves that thrust us into Jekyll's tortured brain, wipes that stall midway through to produce an arresting split-screen effect in which action transpires in both halves of the frame for several seconds, and psychedelic special effects that resemble an acid trip keep us off-kilter throughout and contribute to the film's unsettling mood. Sumptuous sets and costumes and gorgeous cinematography also keep the eye engaged while fostering a seductive elegance that hammers home the Jekyll-Hyde dichotomy.
Most impressive are the seamless transformation scenes in which the handsome Jekyll devolves into the hideous Hyde. Shifting colored lens filters play off special dark makeup on March's face to create the effect, which is enhanced by March's agonized facial expressions. (A backward transformation from Hyde to Jekyll at the end of the film is choppier but still well executed.) To think all this visual wizardry is spun in a film made in 1931 really boggles the mind and inspires even more appreciation for this expertly crafted production.
Mamoulian may be the maestro orchestrating this symphony of horror, but March is the virtuoso who puts every fiber of his being into his exceptional portrayal. March fills Jekyll first with passion and bluster, then adds revulsion, shame, and a remorse so heartbreaking it stirs the soul. Equally dimensional, his Hyde begins as a youthful, joyous, unchained specimen anxious to sow his oats and taste forbidden fruit, yet as his depravity and deviance increase, he morphs into a rotten-to-the-core primordial beast who revels in his sadism. The facial contortions March performs during the transformations are Oscar-worthy on their own, and Wally Westmore's frighteningly realistic simian makeup that becomes ever more horrifying as the film progresses certainly would have won an Oscar if the category existed at the time. Reportedly, the makeup for Hyde's final rampage was so heavy and elastic it severely stretched March's face, nearly causing permanent disfigurement. (The actor spent three weeks in the hospital after shooting wrapped to repair the damage.)
Hopkins should have been honored by the Academy as well. Her raw, touching portrayal of the tragic Ivy, a jaunty, sexy, streetwise woman who becomes consumed by fear as Hyde continually terrorizes and brutalizes her, ranks among her best work. It's a showy part and Hopkins is a showy actress, but she never crosses the line into caricature. As Jekyll's devoted fiancée, Hobart makes Muriel come alive, infusing a cardboard ingenue role with warmth, sincerity, and maturity. She's often passed over in discussions of the film, but her potent chemistry with March and natural acting style make her work worthy of mention.
The 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stands as a towering achievement and enduring work of cinematic art. Whether regarded as an indictment of rigid Victorian morality, a disturbing portrait of a splintered psyche, a cautionary tale of science run amok, or a garden-variety monster movie, Mamoulian's film brilliantly succeeds and outclasses all the other Jekylls and Hydes Hollywood has produced over the past century. Mixing technical prowess, lyrical elegance, countless thrills, provocative themes, and searing performances into one motion picture is no easy task, but Mamoulian concocts an intoxicating brew that's as irresistible to movie lovers as the fateful elixir is to Jekyll himself.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.19:1. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
I always expect a lot from Warner Archive's video transfers - and often they exceed my expectations - but even given the studio's terrific track record, I didn't anticipate my gobsmacked reaction to its impeccable treatment of this 91-year-old film. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer struck from a new 4K scan of the best-surviving nitrate elements is absolutely stunning and inspires newfound admiration for the technical wizardry and lyrical artistry that visually define the film. The heavy grain that plagues most early 1930s features is nowhere in evidence here, yet the image still exudes a marvelous film-like feel that faithfully reflects the brilliance of Karl Struss's Oscar-nominated cinematography. Superior clarity and contrast bring out all the fine details in the movie's gorgeous production design, from the array of glass pipes and beakers in Jekyll's laboratory and lush foliage in General Carew's garden to the misty, cobble-stoned London streetscapes and dowdy interior of Ivy's flat. Fabric textures are wonderfully defined, as are intricate wallpaper designs, flowers, falling rain, bits of bric-a-brac, and erotic paintings and sculpture that often dot the rear of the frame. The picture is so sharp you can even see spittle coming out of the actors' mouths during passionate speeches.
Deep, inky blacks predominate, but splashes of bright, stable whites and an array of wonderfully varied grays produce a well-balanced picture that brims with depth. I rarely rave about shadow delineation, but it's breathtakingly crisp here, especially during the climax. The special photographic effects that comprise Jekyll's transformation into Hyde, slow dissolves that can last up to a minute, and wipes that often stall to produce prolonged split-screen action are flawlessly rendered. So, too, is a dizzying 360-degree pan that feels as if Mamoulian anchored his camera to a spinning top. Extreme close-ups are employed to great effect and their razor-sharpness amps up the fright quotient of Hyde's ever more grotesque appearance. (You might think such intense clarity would betray the makeup's artificiality, but it doesn't at all.) Hobart's silky complexion and March's square-jawed bone structure are also well rendered in their tight shots. One close-up of March at the end of the film is especially striking, as the beads of sweat dotting his forehead and cheeks pop with palpable dimensionality.
A few scenes flaunt some softness (they were most likely drawn from an alternate source) and a few missing frames here and there disrupt the otherwise seamless flow of the film, but such minor hiccups are easy to forgive. (I'll say it again: the film is 91 years old!) Any damage that afflicted the print has been meticulously erased, leaving a picture that's almost completely devoid of dirt, nicks, and scratches.
This is one heck of a transfer that impressed me over and over and over again and meets every challenge Mamoulian's virtuosity throws at it. I don't own the 2004 DVD, but it's impossible to think it could come close to rivaling this exceptional effort. Upgrading is mandatory, and if you've never seen this version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you're in for a visual feast.
Early talkies rarely, if ever, sound this good. None of the typical traits of primitive recording methods - tinny, hollow voices, palpable pops and crackle, and wildly fluctuating levels due to the static placement of the microphone - are present on this crystal clear, wonderfully balanced DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track that just might be the finest audio rendering of a 90-year-old movie I've ever heard. On its own, the track is comparable to plenty of other remastered Golden Age tracks, but it deserves high praise because it sounds so much better than other tracks from late-1920s and early-1930s films.
Miraculously, surface noise is almost completely absent. A faint amount of hiss can be heard during a few pregnant pauses, but you really have to listen for it. Sonic accents like shattering glass, gunshots, ear-piercing police whistles, screams, and Hyde's guttural grunts are pleasingly potent, while atmospherics like chirping birds, rain, and bubbling cauldrons subtly augment the narrative. A wide dynamic scale handles all the highs and lows of the incidental music, which includes passionate organ and piano pieces, without any distortion, and all the dialogue is clear and easy to comprehend.
The audio can't eclipse the dazzling video, but it substantially boosts the drama's impact and makes Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde feel more vital and contemporary than other movies of the same period.
Both extras from the 2004 DVD (the Greg Mank commentary track and Bugs Bunny cartoon) have been ported over to this Blu-ray release that also includes a couple of new supplements.
New Audio Commentary - Screenwriter and film historian Dr. Steve Haberman and filmmaker and film historian Constantine Nasr sit down for an informative, analytical, and insightful commentary that covers both the film's artistry and the story's provocative themes. Nasr calls the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde the "most aggressive and dynamic horror film of the period," and he and Haberman discuss such topics as the spiritualism and animalism that pervade Stevenson's tale, the film's damning portrait of Victorian society, and the impressive special effects that engender March's hideous transformation into Hyde. They also point out some deleted and extended bits from the movie's shooting script, examine the differences between Stevenson's novella, a stage adaptation, and Mamoulian's film, and compare the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to its 1920 and 1941 counterparts. The two men share a nice rapport, and their cogent comments make this track well worth one's time.
Archival Audio Commentary - Recorded for the DVD in 2004, film historian Greg Mank's commentary covers some of the same territory as the new track, but supplies fresh information as well. Mank provides cast and crew bios, identifies scenes that were deleted when the movie was recut and later reinserted when a complete print was rediscovered, discusses Mamoulian's major technical innovations during the early sound era, and runs through the various stage adaptations of the tale before Hollywood got into the mix. He also delves into the censorship issues that plagued the film (even during the pre-Code era), shares some amusing anecdotes, and notes March's intense Hyde makeup in the film's final scene came close to permanently disfiguring the actor's face. This is another fine commentary that definitely deserves a listen.
Vintage Cartoon: Hyde and Hare (HD, 7 minutes) - This 1955 cartoon chronicles Bugs Bunny's efforts to evade the clutches of Mr. Hyde after kindly Dr. Jekyll adopts him.
Vintage Radio Adaptation (52 minutes) - Almost 20 years after the movie premiered, March reprised his iconic role for this truncated adaptation of Stevenson's tale, broadcast on November 19, 1950 as part of the Theater Guild on the Air series. Barbara Bel Geddes co-stars as Jekyll's fiancée Elizabeth. Without the arresting visuals that usually distinguish the tale, this radio adaptation takes a more psychological tack, effectively using Hyde's voice to taunt and tempt Jekyll into undergoing his transformations. Their internal dialogues, which mount in intensity as the play progresses, lend a freshness to this version, which strangely deletes the character of Ivy Pearson, includes plot points that were omitted from the 1931 film adaptation, and alters other story elements, most notably the ending.
Brimming with innovative style, packing plenty of thrills, and featuring a bravura Oscar-winning performance by Fredric March in the title roles, the 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stands as the finest adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's timeless tale of split personality and the internal battle between good and evil. Warner Archive honors director Rouben Mamoulian's dazzling work with a spectacular transfer struck from a 4K scan of the best surviving nitrate elements. Excellent audio and a mix of new and previously released supplements add to the allure of this top-notch Blu-ray presentation of an all-time classic. Must Own.