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.
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.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
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)