The 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a strange little picture: shot and released prior to the creation of the Motion Picture Production Code, it’s kind of like a Universal monster movie crossed with The Last House On The Left. It’s a quirky, unforgiving marriage of gothic horror and exploitation, combining the spooky flair of the former with the unmitigated sleaziness of the latter with relative ease. It’s gothic exploitation and there aren’t many films like it.
I know what you’re thinking: that picture of Hyde looks a little silly. And maybe it does, but only without context. I assure you, Fredric March’s portrayal of Hyde is both really good and amply disturbing. It won him Best Actor at the Academy Awards — something that would never happen today, because of both the current state of the genre and the increasingly pretentious nature of the ceremony. But I’m inclined to believe that he deserved it then, just as I think he would deserve it now. March’s performance as both Jekyll and Hyde is truly a thing to behold: half well-meaning protagonist, half one of cinema’s most twisted villains. He’s perfect.
The performance is so good because of one simple reason: it was allowed to be. Like I said, this film is Pre-Code. It didn’t have to worry about censorship, and as such was able to truly sleaze up its antagonist for maximum effect. Good never soars higher than when prevailing over particularly nasty evil, and Mr. Hyde is just that. He was trying to rape prostitutes in the same year that Frankenstein’s Monster began stalking around looking for companionship and Dracula started biting rich people’s throats whenever the cameras weren’t looking. Hyde’s wrongdoings make those of his contemporaries look… a bit silly, really, by comparison. And that’s because his wrongdoings are real. Hyde does things over the course of the film that are truly offensive — even (and perhaps especially) by today’s standards, because Paramount was willing to take advantage of the era’s lack of censorship in ways that Universal wouldn’t.
To put it simply: this film is what would happen if Rob Zombie was alive in 1931.