Monday, October 5, 2015


 John Barrymore as Mr. Hyde in 1920

The story comes from a dream. Robert Louis Stevenson’s wife, Fanny, woke him up from a nightmare one hundred-thirty years ago. He had been screaming. According to her, he said, “Why did you wake me? I was dreaming a fine bogey tale.” She had awakened him during the first transformation of the good Dr. Jekyll into the evil Mr. Hyde, and he was as anxious to see it again himself as audiences have been ever since.
Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was published in 1886. Three years after Stevenson’s dream, actor Richard Mansfield was under suspicion of being Jack the Ripper because of his disturbing change into Mr. Hyde. (The 1988 made-for-TV “Jack the Ripper” has Armand Assante as Mansfield in a terrific transformation scene.)
The Jekyll and Hyde switch speaks so strongly to people, it’s part of the lexicon. Stevenson himself was not satisfied with the story, evidently even irked by its success. Yet it has inspired over a hundred film renditions and untold offshoots from Altered States to The Silence of the Lambs.
The best film version is from 1931 starring Fredric March. The 1920 silent version has John Barrymore looking suitably creepy in stills as Hyde, otherwise it’s as stagey and dated as one would expect. Not so with the 1931 film.

Rouben Mamoulian’s innovative direction puts the viewer in Dr. Jekyll’s shoes at the start, and again during the transformation. Thick fog in Victorian gaslight sustains the Gothic atmosphere of this Academy Award-winner. For many years the puzzle of how the transformation was accomplished in the film remained secret. Turns out, different colored filters were removed in stages through the shot, allowing makeup on March to convincingly appear.
On one level, audiences respond—presumably particularly during the Depression—to the monstrous inner self of the outwardly respectable rich. However, the malleability of the change and what it means means everything. Certainly repression is involved. On the one hand the change into the bad self, which comes from drinking a potion, may clearly be likened with alcoholism. But then in the 1941 version, Spencer Tracy as the doctor says in one scene that the bad needs to be segregated—and this from the director of {Gone with the Wind}—segregated to “destroy itself in its own degradation.”
Sean Young in Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde (1995) and Julia Roberts in Mary Reilly (1996) further said malleability. The Incredible Hulk and the Batman villain Two-Face also both owe a debt to Jekyll and Hyde.
Classic Looney Tunes episodes and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (2003) willfully ignore Stevenson in making Hyde huge. In the novella Hyde is “smaller, slighter and younger” than Jekyll. This is due to the lack of Jekyll’s evil being exercised. The callous trampling on the poor does not require an impressive physical presence, only the presence of evil. Jekyll’s dehumanization of himself as a product of the Industrial Age cuts closer to the heart of it. As a story about a doctor seeking to eliminate human imperfection, it even anticipates eugenics and genetic modification.

 Stewart Kirby writes for


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