Monday, July 19, 2010

100 years, 100 films 23: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1932)

Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde mixes some great moments of cinema with some terrible asinine garbage. The moment where Dr. Jekyll first drinks the formula and turns into Mr. Hyde - great. The moment where Dr. Jekyll convinces a little girl with crutches that she is able to walk - terrible. The scene where Mr. Hyde tortures a woman, forcing her to declare that she loves him, through her tear streaked face - great (I mean as a piece of cinema, obviously. I'm not saying that torturing people against their will is "great"). All the torturous scenes where Dr. Jekyll blathers on endlessly about how much he loves his boring-ass fiance and blah blah blah - terrible.

And I think this gets right to the heart of what makes the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story both so fascinating, and also so annoying. Dr. Jekyll is a virtuous, boring douche bag, and Mr. Hyde is a horrible, entertaining monster. Any time spent developing Dr. Jekyll as a character feels like a complete waste - it's time we could be spending in fascinated horror with Mr. Hyde. But if you don't develop Dr. Jekyll as a character - then why the hell is this virtuous windbag allowing himself to be transformed into a horrible monster? Without spending enough time with Dr. Jekyll, you don't learn the answer to that question. You don't learn that he transforms himself into Mr. Hyde because the monster is inside of him the whole time, and Dr. Jekyll is so virtuous that he hates that fact. He feels the need to be virtuous so badly that he is willing to make himself temporarily monstrous, to get it all out of his system. And we do learn all this from Mamoulian's film, which I guess is a good thing, but I just which it wasn't done so... cloyingly. Can't someone be virtuous without coming off as a stupid prick?

Another problem that a lot of people have with adapting Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the fact that people already know the twist. Robert Louis Stevenson's book is written as a detective story - a character sets out to discover who this horrible "Mr. Hyde" is, and at the end, learns that *gasp* Mr. Hyde is the amateur detective's good and virtuous friend, Dr. Jekyll! You couldn't possibly do a film adaptation like that, because everyone already knows the ending. So you have to come up with some other driving narrative force. Mamoulian doesn't really do that, but just uses the fact that everyone already knows what's going on as an excuse to excerise his crazy visuals. This does, in fact, turn out to be enough.

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