Friday, December 30, 2011

A Strange Case for ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’

Early in his amusing study Danse Macabre, Stephen King lays out the three essential monster archetypes: “the Vampire, the Werewolf, and the Thing Without a Name.” Each of these creatures serves as the central villain of three “twentieth-century gothics which have become known as ‘the modern horror story’.” King’s categorizing of Bram Stoker’s Dracula as a vampire novel and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as a “thing without a name” novel need no explanation. His werewolf tale is slightly dodgier. But the gnomish ghoul in Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has always sat outside the pack despite his broad influence and importance. Mr. Hyde is not a werewolf in any official sense, but it isn’t too tough to suss where King is coming from. Hyde is a monster brought on by transformation, a not-so-subtle representation of uncontrollable, destructive id. He parallels alcoholics and drug addicts neater than the Wolf Man does, but the similarities are still significant. So is King’s categorization of Hyde as a werewolf. There was never a major werewolf novel in the vein of Dracula or Frankenstein, yet that beast naturally completes the holy trinity of major monsters. The werewolf took its fated position alongside Dracula and the Frankenstein Monster in 1941 when Universal Studios released The Wolf Man; its final great, serious monster movie during its great golden age of monster movies, and one of its few without literary precedent.
Since that film’s debut seventy years ago, it’s been Frank, Drac, and Wolfie all the way. Together they scared the witless wits out of Abbott and Costello, joined forces in a
crime-fighting Monster Squad, led a cartoon Rock band called the Groovie Ghoulies, have been the focus of an essential DVD box set, and have had their likenesses slapped on countless cash-ins: coffee mugs and dolls and Halloween decorations and T-shirts and coloring books and just about any other scrap of merchandise imaginable. Those three enduringly horrible faces will probably never slip out of the public consciousness, and they are hardly the faces described in any twentieth-century gothic novel. They are the faces Universal Studios’ resident mad scientist, Jack P. Pierce, designed. Certainly Shelley and Stoker’s novels were popular and original enough to survive to some degree through the ages. The same could be said of Tod Browning’s adaptation of Dracula and James Whale’s version of Frankenstein both released in 1931. But it is Universal’s aggressive, ongoing merchandising and commercializing campaign that may have played the deciding role in their ongoing iconic place in pop culture.

At the very, very end of the year that saw Universal revolutionize the sound horror movie with Dracula and Frankenstein, Paramount Pictures got in on the creepy surge by adapting that third monument of nineteenth-century gothic horror. Released on New Year’s Eve of 1931, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could have been little more than a slapdash bandwagon jumper. Director Rouben Mamoulian had only made two films previously, although his debut feature Applause (1929) indicated an innovative talent more comfortable working with sound than either Browning or Whale. The two lead actors, Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins, were fairly fresh too. Yet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde contradicts its creators' relative lack of experience. With the arguable exception of Boris Karloff’s turn as the Monster, March as Jekyll/Hyde and Hopkins as Ivy the barroom floozy easily outshone any performance in either of Universal’s horrors. They give two of cinema’s great performances. Hopkins doesn’t display a trace of the artificiality that dates much pre-method acting. March is a bit more theatrical, but he accomplishes the most impressive thing an actor can do: he plays a single character with two completely different sides and makes each totally distinct and fully developed without undermining the fact that they emanate from a single person. March’s complex performance compliments Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath’s complex, thoughtful script. Jekyll is not merely good in glowing white against Hyde’s stark black. The hero embodies the eternal struggle, both the goodness his charity and romanticism embodies and the “evil” he wants to separate and eliminate with chemicals. Of course, Jekyll’s evil is only superficially immoral: his lust for Ivy, the woman he would love if not for class differences. Compare this playful, sexy, gorgeous, clever, witty, funny, and fun character to Jekyll’s pretty but ordinary fiancé Muriel (Rose Hobart). The script’s true evils are the class-hierarchy and puritanical sexual attitudes that drive Jekyll to “cleanse” himself of desire.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is also lushly produced. According to imdb, Universal made Dracula and Frankenstein for less than $650,000 combined. MGM afforded their monster movie a $1,140,000 budget. The costumes are sumptuous; the sets are magnificent (even if it isn’t likely Ivy would live in such a swanky apartment). Mamoulian’s on-camera transformation special effects and surreal montages and inventive use of first-person perspective to force us viewers into complicity with Jekyll are more audaciously groundbreaking than any of Browning or Whale’s tricks in their respective films. The pre-code script is more intense than any horror Universal dared develop until Psycho thirty years later. Hopkins and March’s chemistry in their first scene together is still erotic today. Hyde’s relentless terrorizing of Ivy hasn’t lost an iota of its disturbing power.

The superior film of 1931 did not go unrecognized during its day. The film doubled its massive budget in worldwide ticket sales. It accomplished the nearly unimaginable when March won horror’s first Academy Award for Best Actor (an honor he shared with Wallace Beery, who won for The Champ). Few more would be handed to the genre in the decades to come. Disney even sat Hyde between his two more enduring peers in the 1933 short “Mickey’s Gala Premier” (though don’t those elongated ears make him look more wolfish than he did in Mamoulian’s film? A hint of things to come…):

Paramount’s creepy experiment was an unquestionable success. Still the prestigious studio had no intention of following Universal as another monster grind house. There was Island of Lost Souls the next year, but the film’s controversial mix of vivisection and sexiness proved too much and it was unprestigiously banned in the U.K. Paramount produced two less artful thrillers, the surprisingly lurid Murders in the Zoo and Supernatural, in 1933, but its brief dalliance with horror was clearly petering out. When MGM remade Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1941 with Spency Tracy, the studio reportedly recalled all existing copies of Mamoulian's film to prevent it from competing with the inferior remake and it was long believed lost. That it would not be shown again for several decades undeniably damaged its legacy.

Meanwhile, Universal barely broke its stride despite a brief horror hiatus between 1936’s Dracula’s Daughter and ‘39’s Son of Frankenstein. The movies got schlockier and schlockier after The Wolf Man, but they were still fun and profitable and continued to solidify Universal’s monstrous reputation. Mr. Hyde, of course, was never invited to jump studios and join the rally. There was the middling Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1953, which has rightfully been bypassed by the duo’s meeting with Frankenstein (and Dracula and the Wolf Man). Still MIA because of MGM, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde did not stow away in the package of 52 horror pictures Universal sold to T.V. in 1957 as Shock Theater, which single-handedly revitalized fascination with classic horror movies for a new generation of monster kids. It's reputation continued to fade.

When the American Film Institute released its highly publicized list of the 100 greatest American movies, Frankenstein made the cut. The superior Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde didn’t even make the list of 400 nominees. Amazing, it did not make 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die, an inventory selected by some 70 film critics. Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Wolf Man (as well as The Black Cat and Bride of Frankenstein) are present though. There have been numerous adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella throughout the years, but none cower in the shadow of Mamoulian’s. There are no obligatory references to March’s apelike Hyde in Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde or Mary Riley. His jumbled teeth are not as instantly recognizable as Bela’s arched eyebrows or Boris’s flattop. He is not a recurring presence come October 31st. Kids can’t snuggle up with a plush Hyde at bedtime the way they can with little Frankenstein Monster or Dracula. But wouldn’t that be too strange if they could?

Hyde is unwelcome at the sleepover party.

Perhaps the lack of marketing on the part of Paramount is not the only reason Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been marginalized. Perhaps it is the very nature of the monster. A furry rapist is hardly the image any sane person would want to display on his T-shirt or her coffee mug or send his child to bed snuggling. If Mamoulian’s Hyde has a worthy successor, it is Frank Booth in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, a character cult-movie historian Danny Peary once wrote “may be the most evil villain in film history.” Booth shares Hyde’s relentlessness, cruelty, and incongruous, uncomfortable humorousness. Unlike Blue Velvet—and Universal’s most popular monster movies—Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde offers no happy ending. Everyone leaves this picture dead or devastated. The only film of similar bleakness in Universal's roster is The Wolf Man, yet that film is too artificial for its bleakness to be felt deeply. The lingering unease I feel whenever I finish watching Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has kept it out of my own heavy rotation. I’d personally rather watch Bride of Frankenstein or Dracula or The Wolf Man: fun movies never consumed by their tragic elements. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde isn’t a fun movie. It’s not something you’d want to screen at a Halloween party. Most horror fans like to watch monster movies because they’re fun or scary or campy. We usually don’t go looking for ones that make us feel bad. Perhaps its very content is the reason Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde continues to crouch in the shadows. And isn’t that where a truly horrifying horror movie belongs?

Tomorrow is the 80th anniversary of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
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