Saturday, February 14, 2009

Another Spell in Black & White

My second selection for my hunker-down with movies was not everythingDavid Copperfield proved yet again to be, but interestingly, where it failed it failed for much the same reason that that film succeeded so well. Made in 1931, Rouben Mamoulian's film of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, is acted in much the same style as Cukor's 1935 film. The supporting players, from butlers to gentlemen, from cabbies to whores, are just as good, but the principles, particularly Frederick March as Henry Jekyll, are sometimes painfully theatrical, the acting of a style, that while it suited almost perfectly Dickens' story from 1850, looks disproportionately broad and old fashioned in Stevenson's story from just 1886. Curious.

Miriam Hopkins, as Ivy, the prostitute controlled, abused and eventually murdered by Hyde, is quite sexy, with a still rather shocking pre-code show of nudity and desire in her first big scene, and she's quite good later on as she shakes apart under the pressure of being beauty to the beast, but her accent is laughably bad, particularly in contrast to some of the minor players, more obviously part of the British community in Hollywood. (Why did no one seem to mind in the audiences of the thirties and forties when the American leads so seldom sounded as English as their obviously English butlers, maids and landladies?)

But it is March, in his Oscar winning dual role, who is most jarring, because his performance as Hyde is still one of the most remarkable jobs of acting ever filmed. He is genuinely weird, thrillingly so, particularly in his first transformation scene. He stretches and gibbers and barks from his first moment as Hyde, and when he looks in the mirror and shakes his fist and shouts "Free!" he is completely convincing, and genuinely frightening, still. In fact, all of March's scenes as Hyde are riveting, just as almost every moment he has as the romantic Jekyll is embarrassing. In the second half of the film, when Jekyll is tormented by what he has become, March is better. His confession of murder to his friend, though brief, suggests a naturalness and sincerity that might still move an audience. But such moments are rare. March's Hyde is so very good, one wonders how the same actor could be playing both parts. March is handsome as Jekyll, and even charming in some early scenes, and convincingly kind and troubled when Ivy comes to ask for Jekyll's protection, but in his opening lecture to the medical school, and particularly making love to an affect-less leading lady, he looks ridiculous.

And yet... no one has ever been a better Hyde. Hyde's seduction of Ivy in the theater, if such a violent scene can be called by that word, and his grotesque sadism in both scenes later on with Ivy, are among the most wildly theatrical, and absolutely riveting I've ever seen in film. There certainly have been better Jekylls, but I'm forced to say again, there was never a better actor as Mr. Hyde than Frederick March.

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