Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

As far as I know, the first feature film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s story The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the 1920 film I wrote about last week. It was to be followed by many others, and one of the best is the first sound version, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, starring Fredric March.

Fredric March in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

This film starts with a very nice first-person sequence, where we get to follow Dr. Jekyll on his way to a lecture on his research. First-person narrative is not that common in modern film, but here it works since it is well made and later in the film it is just used frequently enough to make it a distinguishing feature of the film, without seeming intrusive or overused.

March plays the dual role of Jekyll and Hyde with a vigour and zest that is pure joy to behold. You can tell that he is having fun, and at the same time he is giving a completely professional performance. Not only March is excellent in his dual role, but many of the other actors are also very good, not least Miriam Hopkins as the fallen woman who tempts Jekyll, and thereby indirectly becomes the agent of her own destruction.

It is of course almost impossible to avoid comparing this version with Barrymore’s from 1920. Both actors make brilliant, and somewhat different interpretations. Personally, I prefer March as Jekyll but Barrymore as Hyde. The later film has some very nice special effects in the transformation, and is overall more impressive and more moody in its sets and lighting. Dr. Jekyll’s lab, in particular, is absolutely marvellous. The later film is also more specific and less Victorian in its attitude to Hyde’s atrocities. While still pretty tame compared with some modern movies, it is a good step forward, and quite more open in terms of violence and sexuality, in spite of being produced after the introduction of the infamous Production Code.

As you may guess from the above, I do have a preference for this version over the silent one, but both are very good, and both deserve to be seen on their own merits.

Several other filmed versions of the Jekyll and Hyde story exist at the Internet Archive. In addition to Barrymore’s 1920 version, two early shorts are of particular interest. They seem to be the two oldest surviving versions, one from 1912 and one from 1913. Of these two, the latter is definitely the better, although the older version naturally has a strong historical significance.

This film is best enjoyed for its mood and attention to detail. It is a good example of the films that were made just in the beginning of the sound era, and that retained much of the creativity and artistry from the best silents.

Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Download link
Year: 1931
Running time: 1 h 36 min
Director: Rouben Marmoulian
Stars: Fredric March
Image quality: Good
Resolution: Medium (720×542)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: MPEG4 (975 M)

No Man’s Land – Hell on Earth (1931)

When the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they immediately banned a number of films that they perceived as spreading “dangerous” propaganda. One of them was Niemandsland, known in English under different titles; the copy at the Internet Archive is called No Man’s Land – Hell on Earth.

No Man’s Land is set during World War I, and begins by telling the background stories of five different men of different nationalities. Stories that are perfectly everyday, until the men are drafted into World War I. These men come together when they seek cover in the cellar of a bombed-out house in the middle of no man’s land. They each have their own loyalties, and their own families back home, yet have to cooperate in order to survive.

World War I soldiers going over the top in Niemandsland / No Man's Land - Hell on Earth (1931)

The film sends a strong anti-war message. This may have been one reason why it scared the Nazis, but probably more importantly because one of the five men is a Jew, a Jew depicted as a perfectly normal and honest human being. Imagine the threat.

Just like last week’s Vampyr (1932), No Man’s Land is a film from the period just after sound film had broken through, and again an example of inexperience with sound technology. As a result, the poor sound detracts somewhat from the enjoyment of watching, though this film is still good enough that such a small detail can be overlooked.

I saw a comment somewhere on the Internet that this film is pointless, because five men cannot stop a war anyway. It takes the will of an entire civilization to do that. Well, that is exactly the kind of attitude that means war will never come to an end, because first and last, it always comes down to the individual. Sure, there must be powerful political leaders to sign the treaties, but they will never do it unless they feel popular demand behind them; they will never be elected in the first place unless the people support their opinions. So, yes, five men’s stand, or even one man’s stand, counts. Because as long as everyone sits on their behinds waiting for someone else to act, nothing is ever going to change.

This film is best enjoyed for its warm and deep humanism. The five men in the cellar all come through as living, three-dimensional characters. As a viewer, I care about each of them, and therefore the film’s message also comes through as meaningful and interesting.

Ernst Busch, Vladimir Sokoloff, Hugh Douglas, Georges Péclet and Louis Douglas in Niemandsland / No Man's Land - Hell on Earth (1931)

No Man’s Land – Hell on Earth
Download link
Year: 1931
Language: English, German, French, Yiddish
Running time: 1 h 6 min
Director: Victor Trivas, George Shdanoff
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (720×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: Cinepack (517 M)

X Marks the Spot (1931)

Sometimes, I find myself watching a film for very strange reasons. X Marks the Spot, for example. I was looking at this blog’s alphabetical list of films, and realized that I had blogged about films starting with every letter in the English alphabet, except X. I am a fan of balance, unity and harmony, so I set about to find myself an X film at the Internet Archive (no, not that kind of an X film). This proved easier said than done, but two films eventually turned up with the title X Marks the Spot. Finding that one was a remake of the other, I went for the original, and to my great satisfaction, it turned out to be quite a gem of a film.

Wallace Ford, Sally Blane and Lew Cody in X Marks the Spot (1931)

Before I go on, I should probably mention that there is one big problem with the available copy: image quality is terrible. A good copy may not exist. Apparently, the original negative was deliberately burnt during the filming of the great fire in Gone with the Wind (1939). Sound is not great either, but good enough, especially considering that sound in the early 1930s was not very good even under the best of circumstances.

The plot is difficult to describe without giving away too much, but it involves a reporter who needs money for an operation to save his sister’s life. He puts himself in debt with a criminal, only to find, years later, that he may have to cash the debt in an unexpected and unpleasant way. Wallace Ford plays the reporter and Lew Cody gives us a genre cliché with his hot-tempered editor-in-chief.

The best thing about X Marks the Spot is the snappy and often funny dialogue. Accounts differ regarding when the first real screwball comedies were made, but this is definitely a big step in that direction, even though some say that proper screwball only appeared a few years later.

As I hinted above, a remake with the same title is also available at the Internet Archive. From what I have been able to find out, however, it is not as good as the original.

This film is best enjoyed if you like The Front Page (1931) and want more of the same. X Marks the Spot is not quite as good, especially not the actors, but it shares similar environments, similar dialogue, and there are some parallels in the plot, also. Sensitive viewers will be advised that the film contains some unfortunate racial stereotyping.

Fred Kohler in X Marks the Spot (1931)

X Marks the Spot
Download link
Year: 1931
Running time: 1 h 6 min
Director: Erle C. Kenton
Stars: Lew Cody, Wallace Ford
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (480×360; not counting black border)
Sound quality: Acceptable
Best file format: H.264 (395 M)

The Speckled Band (1931)

The early 1930s was an interesting time for Sherlock Holmes film fans, since there were no less than three actors playing the detective. Clive Brook (who does not seem to be represented at the Internet Archive) made two films in 1929 and 1932, and inbetween those, both Arthur Wontner and Raymond Massey debuted as Holmes within a month of one another in 1931.

Massey, in The Speckled Band, debuted not only as Holmes, but it was for a fact his first-ever appearance on film. And while Wontner’s Holmes (in Sherlock Holmes’ Fatal Hour and four more films) was competent but traditional, Massey’s performance still feels fresh and original.

Raymond Massey (Sherlock Holmes), Lyn Harding and Athole Stewart (Dr. Watson) in The Speclked Band (1931)

This was not only because of Massey’s youthful and vigorous acting, but also because of his surroundings and methods. His Holmes, in addition to his flat at 107(!) Baker Street, has a hyper modern office, complete with a staff of secretaries and a computer-like mechanical database.

The Speckled Band is an interesting and well-crafted film in many other ways as well. In acting as well as photography, many traces can be found from the silent era ideals. This is not at all a problem in this particular case. Especially Lyn Harding’s exquisite over-acting makes him one of the most formidable and enjoyable Holmes villains on the screen ever. The film’s editing is also somewhat ingenious. There is a wonderful sequence where Watson tells Holmes about the various persons connected with a certain case, and each person’s face appears ghost-like in the background, as if listening in on the conversation.

Unfortunately, the version of the film at the Internet Archive is heavily abridged (a full 40 minutes cut out of original 90!), and this is often painfully obvious. Many scenes are so heavily and poorly cut down that the dialogue and plot can be hard to follow. Also, sound and image quality are quite terrible. I have been unable to find a complete and restored version, so for the time being, we shall have to settle for this mutilated one. I find that the film’s many good qualities outweigh the various problems with the available copy.

If you find the dialogue difficult to follow due to the poor sound quality, there are also downloadable subtitles in various formats. I have not tested these, so I cannot guarantee that they are synchronized with the version of the film that I link to.

Another version of this Arthur Conan Doyle tale is available at the Internet Archive. The Adventure of the Speckled Band (1949) was part of the American TV series Your Show Time. Less than 27 minutes in length, it featured Alan Napier (who also played Batman’s butler Alfred in the classic 1960s TV series) in his only appearance as the great detective. This version may be preferable if you cannot stand the poor technical quality of Massey’s The Speckled Band, though it lacks the latter’s playfulness and originality.

This film is best enjoyed by fans of Raymond Massey. Massey was a fantastic actor (as can be seen in classics such as Things to Come (1936) and Santa Fe Trail (1940)), and while The Speckled Band may not have been his best performance, it is nevertheless of more than merely academic interest.

Athole Stewart (Dr. Watson), Angela Baddeley and Raymond Massey (Sherlock Holmes) in The Speckled Band (1931)

The Speckled Band
Download link
Year: 1931
Running time: 50 min
Director: Jack Raymond
Stars: Raymond Massey, Lyn Harding
Image quality: Poor
Resolution: Medium (576×392)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: MPEG4 (421 M)

The Front Page (1931)

The Front Page was originally a Broadway play, which has been adapted for movies and television at least eight times (according to IMDb). The most famous version today is probably the screwball comedy His Girl Friday (1940), but the first adaptation, and also one of the best, was The Front Page from 1931. Some also claim that this first adaptation was the first screwball comedy in the movies.

Mary Brian, Pat O'Brien and Adolphe Menjou in The Front Page (1931)

The story, briefly, is that the reporter Hildy Johnson is going to quit his job, get married to the girl he loves and move to a different city. But Hildy’s boss, Walter Burns, wants to stop him and avoid losing his best reporter. He therefore tries to involve Hildy in covering one last story, the case of a man who is going to hang in the morning. But is the man guilty in the first place? As the story progresses, the two originally separate plots of Hildy’s resignation and the condemned man become increasingly entangled in a movie with many interesting twists.

The Front Page has, somewhat unfairly, been overshadowed by the remake His Girl Friday, perhaps because of the latter’s fantastic chemistry between Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, a chemistry that cannot be reached in the same way in The Front Page, where the story follows the original and has Hildy played by a man (Pat O’Brien, to be specific).

To let Russel play the originally male role was a stroke of genius, and allowed for some new plot twists in the remake, but it is a mistake to believe that this automatically makes the original into an inferior movie. It does not. It is just very different. And not only because of the sex change. The variations in the dialogue, the differences in photography and directing, and the equally impressive but very different actors make these two very different movies. Both are well worth watching and I would be hard pressed if I had to pick a favourite.

The Front Page was made when sound film was a fairly new invention. Fortunately, it uses many dolly track shots and other techniques that became rarer in the early 1930s for economic and technical reasons.

This film is best enjoyed when compared with its many remakes, and it shines quite brightly in that comparison.

Adolphe Menjou, Mary Brian and Pat O'Brien in The Front Page (1931)

The Front Page
Download link
Year: 1931
Running time: 1 h 40 min
Director: Lewis Milestone
Stars: Adolphe Menjou, Pat O’Brien
Image quality: Acceptable
Resolution: Medium (640×480)
Sound quality: Poor
Best file format: DivX (700 M)