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In honor of the life and career of classic horror film historian, author, and director David J. Skal, who passed away on New Year’s Day 2024, is the release of this never-before published interview with Skal from 2021, for the 1931 Oscar-winning horror classic, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
Bonilla: Paramount Pictures made the silent version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1920. Why did they decide to remake it in 1931?
Skal: Paramount made Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde right at the very end of 1931, because it was obvious that horror was very profitable. It surprised a lot of people in the industry that Dracula starting back in February of 1931 was such a big success all over the country. People think Dracula and Frankenstein together saved Universal from going under. It was the worst year of the Great Depression. And a brand-new kind of entertainment seems to have saved the day.
Paramount had been in the in the running to buy the rights to Dracula. It came down to Universal Studios, MGM, and Paramount. They all thought they might do something with it. Apparently, Paramount was interested in using the British actor Raymond Huntley, who first did the part in the West End and then did it on tour in America.
I was the first one to tell him that story. I think that’s how I got my sit-down interview with him. I wrote him and said how “I was so surprised to hear that Paramount was considering you for Dracula.” He was quite interested in that. Although, he shook his head because he said, “Oh, I can’t understand why people are so interested in that over-the-top performance.” He was only 21 years old. When he turned down the chance to do it on Broadway, Raymond Huntley was responsible for Bela Lugosi’s later fame in the part. Lugosi’s whole career wouldn’t have happened.
I asked him, “Did you see Lugosi on stage?” He said, “No. But I just saw the film.” Well, I said, “What do you think of it?” He said, “Well.” He just rolled his eyes, “It was a little over the top, wasn’t it?” And it was.
What impact did the director have on the style of the film?
Paramount got the stage director Rouben Mamoulian to do Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It made you just wonder, “My God, what would they have done with Dracula?” It could have been very, very stylish. It holds up better than any of the 1931 films I think, in terms of using the medium to its greatest, to exploiting all the possibilities of the new medium of talking pictures. It just looks beautiful. It looks lush. The makeup is extraordinary, and […] it gets worse as it goes along. It’s even more exaggerated, more ape-like.
What was the makeup like for Fredric March?
Rose Hobart, the leading lady, remembered that it was it was hell for him to take it off. And they had difficulty once, and they actually burned his skin with these solvents. He spent a little hospital time as a result. There was no OSHA back then to protect actors. There were no latex appliances. All that stuff was built up with putty and cheesecloth. It was a very painstaking amount of time worked, and it really paid off. It’s an achievement that isn’t as famous as the Frankenstein Monster, but I think it’s on the same level of achievement. It was a great example of the makeup technique just pushed to its maximum. It pushed the possibilities of makeup like nothing that had come before both the Frankenstein makeup and the Mr. Hyde makeup.
Why do you think that the 1931 Hyde had a more animal-like appearance versus the 1920 and 1941 versions, which looked more humanlike?
That was something that was kind of lurking in the background in the public conversation. The whole idea of eugenics and the idea that we have to start housekeeping in terms of our genetic makeup, because evolutionary backsliding might happen. It’s this crazy idea about degeneration that started way back in the 19th century. In the context of the early 1930s, it formed a lot of film censorship controversies.
It was the idea that for these “evolutionarily backsliding, weak-minded classes,” that’s the kind of language they would use, we can’t show this kind of a story to general audiences because too many of these are weak-minded people. And somehow their idea of weak-mindedness had to do with economic class, and it had to do with race. It’s an old story, and it’s still actually with us.
It was there, and you see it in the Frankenstein Monster. He’s also a kind of Neanderthal robot. And so, this idea of the lurking ape, the evolutionary throwback, was a big part of horror in the early talk era. It’s there in King Kong.
In the film, there is a lot of discussion and distinct visuals between the classes. Was this intentional?
But of course. It’s the elite classes, who, under the disguise of Mr. Hyde, [are] preying on the lower classes. And that whole idea of the aristocratic, upper-class monster feeding on the common people or exploiting the lower classes has been a part of the horror tradition.
It was not part of the original superstitions about vampires, for instance. Vampires in folklore were always originally peasants, and they were family members. This idea of the class predation only came along at the beginning of the Romantic era in literature, and figures like Lord Byron were thought of as vampiric and decadent. And monsters have been decadent ever since.
Stoker’s Dracula was an aristocrat, but he wasn’t an attractive one. There was nothing romantic about him, but Hollywood, in its infinite wisdom, decided he had to be, because that was just such a familiar kind of formula. And audiences wanted that. Stoker was more interested in the evolutionary throwback aspects.
We also see this class exploitation, as well as gender exploitation, between Hyde and Ivy, played by Miriam Hopkins.
Between Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins is one of the rawest depictions still today of domestic abuse. It’s all there. I mean, some things really haven’t changed. And that’s one of the most frightening things about it, is that we all probably know unfortunately, relationships as ugly and predatory as this. And it was an example of something Hollywood could do before the Production Code was really enforced. It was considered especially risqué. They really did their best to make her as provocative as they could get away with.
I noticed the film has a lot POV shots of Dr. Jekyll and then a lot of close-ups especially on faces and the eyes versus other horror films of the time. Was that done intentionally to stir up the audience?
I think it was. The moving point of view camera was used earlier that year by Karl Freund and his cinematography for Dracula. In the early scene at the castle, the camera seems to just pull you down into the crypt and toward the coffin, almost against your will.
But POV shots do kind of mess with your head because they put you right in the middle of the action. And if it’s less in action or mysterious action, it’s all the more effective. So it was a novel way to open the film. It makes you identify with Dr. Henry Jekyll. For better or worse, you might want to question your own atavistic dark side tendencies.
Although Fredric March won the Oscar for this role, did this role negatively impact his career, considering the controversy surrounding the film and how many see horror as lowbrow entertainment?
No, he wasn’t typecast at all. It was only a career boost for him if anything, unless I’ve missed some interesting stories. He was very busy in the early ’30s and did all kinds of parts and roles. Then he was a romantic lead. And then he became one of the top character actors later in his career in Hollywood. And, really, a very distinguished career. He didn’t need the horror genre to stay in the public eye.
One part he didn’t get to play that would have been very interesting was one at Warner Brothers. Warner Brothers was considering following up it’s lavish production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. That’s the one that had Mickey Rooney as Puck. People really do roll their eyes, but it was a lavish kind of kind of production. They thought they would follow it up with Faust. It actually appeared in the papers that they wanted Fredric March as Faust, Greta Garbo as Margaret, and Bela Lugosi as Mephistopheles. That would have been just amazing. And it’s never happened, of course, but it was interesting.
What is your favorite scene or the scene that interests you the most from Dr. Jekyll Mr. Hyde?
I think it’s that scene between Jekyll and Ivy, when he goes to treat her and she becomes very coquettish, provocative, and seductive. And you can see Jekyll not struggling with transformation into Hyde but struggling with impulses and feelings that are already there that Hyde will amplify to a nightmarish degree later on.
But it’s remarkable because it’s so suggestive, and it’s so risky for the time. It was the sort of thing that people were being pulled into the theater to see. And then, of course, there were those who were working very hard to curb this sort of thing.
What do you see as the overall impact of this film?
Well, I think the main thing it did was solidify this whole sexual subtext to the story, which is not in the Robert Louis Stevenson book. There are no women and that story, it’s all told from the perspective of the men. And it was only when it was adapted to the stage that I think the early adaptors were very influenced by Oscar Wilde and The Picture of Dorian Gray. In the novel, Dorian gets involved with an actress and destroys her. In the stage versions, she went further down the social ladder.
Onstage, Jekyll was given a very proper fiancé. Then, to counter her, a lower-class woman had to be her foil and the object of Jekyll’s real interest. From Dorian Gray, they kind of dragged it down to the level that she was a musical singer, or later, she’d be a barmaid. That sort of thing. But it absolutely cemented that as part of the Jekyll and Hyde story, and it was just imitated and done over and over and over, even though it was nowhere to be found in the original book.