Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

The problem with adapting Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is that not a lot happens in it. The story is told inside-out, as a story-within-a-story narrative, with outsiders talking about what happened to Dr. Jekyll and who is this mysterious Hyde dude. As far as monstrous behavior goes, Hyde tramples a little girl in the street, then beats a guy to death with his cane. Then he goes home and kills himself. The “foreground” characters, that is, the people who are telling the story to each other, are utterly forgettable.
That leaves a lot of latitude for adaptation! You can pretty much start anywhere, like, say, making Dr. Jekyll the protagonist of his own story. A lot of adaptations keep the late Victorian London setting of the story, because “late Victorian” immediately conjures up thoughts of the duality of man, with its top-hatted swells going to society balls while commoners die of diphtheria down the street. Shades of Jack the Ripper, who took up his practice of murdering prostitutes a mere two years after Stevenson’s book was published.
The story seems focused on the separation of man and beast, a variation on a werewolf parable, with Dr. Jekyll’s dreamy scientist giving way to the brutish lout Mr. Hyde, who cannot control his violent nature, but Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 movie, with its fiercely committed performance from Frederick March, takes the character in a different direction. This Mr. Hyde certainly has the look of a brute, with his quasi-simian hairpiece and his jagged, protruding mouth prosthetic, but his intentions aren’t merely violent. It shouldn’t surprise anyone that Hollywood decided to make the story about sex.
This Dr. Jekyll is a brilliant doctor who gives lectures at the local medical school about his wacky theories of splitting the psyche into good and bad and also does shifts at the local free clinic — a full Victorian gentleman, hobnobbing with the top-hatted swells but with his heart with the suffering poor. He’s engaged to a local society girl, and they cannot wait to be married.
The funny thing about Pre-Code Hollywood movies is that they are, in their own way, still heavily coded. People talk all around the subject of sex without ever using the term. All manner of coded language is used, from words to gestures to costumes, to indicate just how horny this or that character might be, without anyone actually announcing anything. Long story short, Dr. Jekyll and his fiancee are VERY horny, and, under Victorian rules, they are forbidden to have sex, or even be alone in a room together.
One night, after Jekyll has had his libido cranked to its full resolution at a society party, he happens upon a lower-class woman who’s being beaten in the street by her “date.” The movie never says specifically that the woman, Ivy (the great Miriam Hopkins, who, 100 years later, still comes off as shockingly contemporary in her performances) is a prostitute, maybe because the dividing line between “single woman” and “prostitute” is a blurry one in Victorian society. In any case, Jekyll intervenes in the beating, takes Ivy home and puts her to bed. In spite of having just been assaulted, Ivy takes one look at Dr. Jekyll’s top hat and tux and immediately offers to have sex with him right then and there, going as far as to get completely naked and pull him into her bed.
So that sets up the dynamic of the narrative: not man vs beast, but “nice girl” vs “bad girl.” Jekyll fully intends to marry his society fiancee, but the specter of easy sex from an undemanding woman drives his Victorian Gentleman mind crazy, as visions of Ivy’s swinging, naked legs flood his intellect.
So when his fiancee heads out of town with her father (whose goal is to dump a bucket of ice water on his horny daughter), Jekyll snaps and decides to drink the potion he’s been working on.
He becomes beastly in appearance, but otherwise completely articulate. He puts on his tux and top hat and makes a beeline to Ivy’s dive apartment in the slums, ready for some quick action, but learns that she’s hanging out instead in a local nightclub.
And here’s where it gets interesting. Mr. Hyde goes to this nightclub, looking for Ivy. He pushes the help around, he barks orders, he refuses to tip, he pranks a helpless waiter, and then lures Ivy over to his table by flashing a wad of cash. That is to say, he becomes that creature that has recently leaped to the forefront of American culture: the Alpha Male. Mr. Hyde is, essentially, Andrew Tate.
Ivy is skittish about Hyde’s looks, but his money is real and plentiful, and, as he makes clear, she doesn’t really have a choice but to go with him — he has money and power, and, if she refuses, he’s capable of destroying her. Hyde rents Ivy a spectacular new apartment in a high-class building, but forbids her to leave the house or see other people. He’s vicious and controlling, a veritable Weinstein, keeping Ivy in his control with threats and gaslighting.
And then, suddenly, Jekyll’s fiancee comes back to London with her father, and his life is suddenly back on track. The two of them succeed in getting her father to agree that they can be married in a month, and everyone is happy. Jekyll sends an envelope of cash to Ivy, and thinks that that is the end of it — she’s served her purpose, after all, which was to give him sexual release while waiting for his “good girl” to be available.
But by this time, Dr. Jekyll’s potion has gotten into his system, and he finds that he can no longer control its effects. On his way to his own engagement party, he transforms back into Hyde, goes to Ivy’s apartment and murders her after a prolonged bout of terrorizing her.
The metaphor couldn’t be more clear: the potion is an excuse for Jekyll to get what he wants. Unable to bed his fiancee, he makes a potion to get laid without conscience. When his fiancee returns, despite his best intentions, he knows that the only way to move forward is to kill the other woman.
Anyway, and then there’s an action climax with a lot of running around and fighting, as the law finally catches up to Mr. Hyde.
Pre-Code Hollywood movies are valued for their “frankness,” but I don’t find them particularly frank. They’re still skittish about sex and violence, relying on elaborate misdirection for a appearance of decency. But when you dig under the perimeters of their walls, the ideas become shockingly modern and discomforting, and I can only imagine how audiences in 1931 reacted to this sort of thing, back when the coding was common parlance and the subtext was more easily understood.


One Response to “Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde”
  1. My friend Sonya Taaffe has blogged a lot about pre-Code movies — less about their “frankness” per se than about the vastly wider range of roles they had for women and minorities and the evidence of queerness in them, which really help give the lie to the notion that things like that are new. They existed; then they got whitewashed nearly out of existence. It’s been eye-opening for me!