Fredric March won his first Oscar for playing Dr Henry Jekyll in the pre-code horror classic, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.
Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a good old-fashioned horror film that may be a bit dated, but is still watchable as a whole. First of all, I must admit that I really dislike watching movies from the early thirties. I mean, it’s fascinating to see how things were done back then but I rarely enjoy watching the movies from this era. I always get the feeling that the film makers were still figuring their way around, and it shows. The camera angles are very “stagey”, and there’s always this annoying lack of atmosphere that can make the most exciting story seem dry and lifeless. Each scene will play out individually, but they always feel disjointed or abrupt, and the actors…talk about laughable. Thankfully, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of the better ones of the lot, and it actually manages to capture the ideas of the original novel without over-simplifying things too much. In fact, some of the scenes were so filled with tension that I was actually rather impressed! Naturally, the fact that it is based on a fantastically-written classic helps it out a great deal despite the noticeable flaws in the film. Personally, I find the supporting actors mostly forgettable or overbearing, especially Miriam Hopkins, but one aspect of the film stands out.
Nowadays, you rarely see the academy reward horror film/sci-fi performances, and this makes Fredric March’s win even more unique. The role of Dr Jekyll/Mr Hyde may seem like a strange choice for the Oscar, but in my opinion it is a fantastic one that gets to showcase the actor’s range. It’s essentially a dual role, but even the character of Dr Jekyll is also complex on his own. Fredric March was a great fit for the part – the man was good-looking and he really brought the charm, idealism and passion of Jekyll convincingly, making him a strong and charismatic presence right from the beginning. Jekyll clearly has some crazy/fascinating ideas, and March never fails in showing his obsession and drive in wanting to explore them further, even if it involves experimenting on himself. Naturally, Jekyll himself is not without his flaws despite being the “good guy” here, and March succeeds in capturing his impatience and stubbornness. His scenes with Muriel (Rose Hobart) are, in my opinion, not very good and the chemistry between them isn’t that strong. Even though Hobart was underwhelming, March still managed to bring the passion needed to sell their romantic scenes together, and effectively portrayed his frustration at her father’s attempt to stall their marriage. What is even more impressive is how he portrays Jekyll’s passion both as a strength and a flaw. Yes, he believes that his experiment would be for the betterment of mankind, but it is also an unhealthy obsession that is bordering on insane and dangerous.
The scenes as Mr Hyde are usually the ones that are highly-praised, and it’s amazing how March injects terror and menace into Hyde. The make-up is a bit much, especially the teeth, but the animal-like movements and expressions never feel false or cartoonish. Hyde is obviously not that complex a character since he is just pure evil, and March’s acting becomes much more “external” here, focusing on the Hyde’s ruthlessness and brutality. The way he taunts and stalks Ivy (Hopkins) is also very intimidating, especially the way he goes on about how he has to “have” her etc.
What I especially appreciated about the performance is how Jekyll’s inner conflict is shown. Temptation is one of the central ideas in this story, and Jekyll is later shown to become more and more frightened by his own actions, but at the same time you get the feeling that he enjoys his Hyde persona even if it is not explicitly stated. The arc of the character is fully realised, as he loses control over his own body and mind and becomes ravaged with guilt over his actions. The scene where he begs for help was especially well-played as you could see Jekyll’s desperation and fear so well.
Of course, the performance is not without its flaws; some of the dialogue can come across as plastic in the very typical 30s fashion, especially the romantic scenes, and they do drag March’s work down a bit. But to me it is all about energy and emotions and I think March succeeds here as a whole, making his performance compelling and fascinating.