One of the greatest special effects ever put on film are the transformation sequences in 1931’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde“. Fredric March, who plays the kind scientist who changes into an evil man when he takes a potion, looks right into the camera in these scenes as his face undergoes dramatic changes. The cuts aren’t obvious; the transition is seamless. It wasn’t until the 1960s when director Rouben Mamoulian revealed the trick: different colored makeup was applied to March’s skin and shot through various different colored filters. It’s still amazing to watch today.
What’s even more amazing about this film is March’s performance. Prior to being cast in this adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel, March had only been featured in a few unimportant films. Mamoulian considered several different actors for the role, but in most cases, while an actor would be fantastic in the role of Jekyll, he would have made a terrible Hyde, or vice versa. John Barrymore, who had played the character in a 1920 film, was approached but unavailable for this movie, so March, who resembled Barrymore, was chosen despite his lack of experience. His performance as both characters could not more magnificent. The gentle, intelligent Jekyll is a complete 180 from the twitchy, grunting, and brutal Hyde, and March balances them both perfectly. He won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance, and was given more high profile roles from then on.
The supporting cast is also wonderful, and includes Rose Hobart as Jekyll’s fiancée Murial and Miriam Hopkins as Ivy Pearson, a nightclub singer who Hyde pays for her company, but also abuses her to the point where she fears for her life. The two very different women serve to enhance the contrast between Jekyll and Hyde. This movie was produced during the Pre-Code era, so strong risque content and violence is abundant throughout (and also help make this movie superior to some of its tamer successors, including 1941 version starring Spencer Tracy). When “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was rereleased in 1936, eight minutes of film had to be cut for content to comply with the Production Code.
Mamoulian’s “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was a huge influence on future productions of the story, particularly on the appearance of Mr. Hyde. But this version is still, by far, the best.
“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” is available to rent on all digital platforms and will air on TCM at 8:15 AM EST on Halloween. Runtime: 95 minutes.