The Transformer
Nick Pinkerton on Rouben Mamoulian and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

“Stevenson’s story is—God bless his pure soul—lame as a detective story. Neither is it a parable nor an allegory, for it would be tasteless as either. It has, however, its own special enchantment if we regard it as a phenomenon of style.”

This is Vladimir Nabokov, speaking on Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1885 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The text is from a lecture on Stevenson that Nabokov gave to American undergraduates between 1941 and 1959, first at Wellesley College, then at Cornell University, as it comes to us in a collection called Lectures on Literature. Earlier, Nabokov has advised his students to “veil the monstrous, abominable, atrocious, criminal, foul, vile, youth-depriving jacket” of the Pocket Books edition of Stevenson’s story, so that they may “ignore the fact that ham actors under the direction of pork packers have acted in a parody of the book, which parody was then photographed on a film and showed in places called theatres.” Given the years in which these words were set down, we may presume that the Pocket Books edition depicts a scene from the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and though his typification of director Victor Fleming and star Spencer Tracy is unfairly, if not atypically, dismissive, I will not protest too much at his treatment of the MGM film. As to Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde for Paramount—well, the description “a phenomenon of style” will do quite nicely.

In addition to being an emotionally taxing experience, of which I will say more later, Mamoulian’s film is an inventory of just about everything that the cinema could do in the year 1931, quite a lot of which still outlines its capabilities today. It opens with an extended point-of-view shot from the perspective of Dr. Henry Jekyll, played by Fredric March, who is first seen as he pauses to look at his reflection in a mirror on his way to the lecture hall where he is the idol of the young men and a scourge to the conservative elders—“always sensational, always indulging in spectacular theory,” they chide. Later, when Jekyll stays late to tend to a charity patient in the free ward of the hospital, the first of several usages of the split screen occurs, setting off the contrast between his world and that of his high society fiancée, Muriel (Rose Hobart), preparing to play hostess to an evening of dinner and dancing. When Jekyll finally arrives they sequester themselves in the garden, he speaking of their faraway-so-close marriage with a heated urgency as they present their light-rimmed profiles to the camera, which breaks away from the action to pick up a pair of water lillies in a fountain, then the shoes of an interrupting butler—one of several instances in the film in which the frame will be repeatedly realigned without cutting. After the party, as Jekyll and his colleague Dr. Lanyon (Holmes Herbert) walk home, they interrupt an anonymous brute who is savaging a woman. She turns out to be a bar singer, Ivy (Miriam Hopkins); Jekyll accompanies her to her room to examine her injuries, and she gives him a frank invitation to her bed. (The scene, incidentally, appears on a flat-screen TV in Jean-Luc Godard’s Goodbye to Language.) Though he demurs, the image of her bare leg swinging like the pendulum of a grandfather clock lingers in a long lap dissolve over what follows. From here on, everything will be a countdown for Jekyll, who perfects his formula to separate man’s baser impulses from the nobler, which in effect transforms him into a subhuman brute. These “hydizations,” to borrow Nabokov’s term, are visualized through sleights of trick photography—how-did-they-do-that lighting gags, kaleidoscopic effects, 360-degree pans, layered dissolves, and cuts hidden in lurching camera movements.

It isn’t uncommon for artists who view themselves as visionaries to use the experimental scientist or bold explorer as a kind of alter ego—see for example Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar—though in the case of Rouben Mamoulian this self-image is not entirely unearned. When Mamoulian came to cinema, his first act was to prod the limits of his newly adopted medium. Before going on to refute Mamoulian’s reputation as a “mere” innovator, Tom Milne, author of one of the first and finest book-length studies of Mamoulian, succinctly summarizes his achievements. He was, Milne writes “the man who broke the sound barrier to liberate both camera and soundtrack (Applause, 1929); who experimented with subjective sound (City Streets, 1931), subjective camera (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1931); non-realistic sound (Love Me Tonight, 1932); and who paved the way for dramatic use of color (Becky Sharp, 1935).”

Mamoulian, the consummate trailblazer, was born into a culture with an unbroken link to antiquity. He came into the world in 1897, a near contemporary of Nabokov’s, and was also born in the Russian Empire of the Romanovs—in Tiflis, the present-day Tbilisi, Georgia, to a well-off Armenian family who afforded him a cosmopolitan upbringing. Like Nabokov, Mamoulian would be part of that ongoing hemorrhaging of talent from Old to New World entre les deux guerres which, Tom Wolfe notwithstanding, was a stimulating infusion to the American scene. From Joseph Horowitz’s book Artists in Exile: How Refugees from Twentieth Century War and Revolution Transformed the American Performing Arts, I glean that “English was [Mamoulian’s] seventh language, after Armenian, Russian, Georgian, French, German, and Latin.” His father was a banker, his mother an actress; further facts are difficult to come by. Per David Luhrssen’s 2013 biography, Mamoulian: Life on Stage and Screen, “[the] years before [Mamoulian’s] permanent exile from the Caucasus cannot be reconstructed with precision.” We know that he had sojourns in Paris and Moscow, where he studied at the Moscow Art Theatre with Konstantin Stanislavsky’s disciple Yevgeny Vakhtangov, also of Armenian stock, in the Theatre’s Third Studio. Mamoulian also studied law by day, so to have a practical fallback option—but as it happens the world for which he was preparing himself a practical place was about to disappear forever, and in the aftermath of revolutionary upheaval he would depart for London.

From here it becomes easier to follow Mamoulian’s trail. Through London’s émigré community he made his entry into stage directing, and his debut, handling Austin Page’s three-act play of the Russian Revolution, The Beating on the Door, at St. James’s Theatre, gained him the attention of Vladimir Rosing, freshly appointed manager of the Rochester American Opera Company, a subsidiary of roll film tycoon George Eastman’s new Eastman School of Music. After three years in Rochester honing a style which relied, in his words, on “rhythm and poetic stylization,” Mamoulian was ready to beat on the door of Broadway, directing student productions for the Theatre Guild, before making his big break with Dorothy and DuBose Hayward’s Porgy in 1927, whose last act “Symphony of Noises” he would later lift intact from Charleston to Paris for the opening of Love Me Tonight.

Now, 1927 was also the year that cinema spoke, the year of “You ain’t heard nothing yet” and The Jazz Singer. This was the second revolution that would profoundly affect Mamoulian’s life, for in its wake the movie studios were casting their nets far and wide to haul in stage directors who had experience with dialogue. The Englishman James Whale, whose 1931 Frankenstein parallels Mamoulian’s Jekyll and Hyde in many respects, came to Hollywood on the strength of his productions of R. C. Sherriff’s Journey’s End on both sides of the Atlantic. Mamoulian only had to travel as far as Queens, where he spent a five-week apprenticeship at Paramount’s Astoria Studios before launching into the production of Applause.

Mamoulian, who’d been influenced by Vakhtangov’s theatricality rather than Stanislavsky’s realism during his days at the Moscow Art Theatre, established himself as a stylist from the first. “Style is actually your point of view on life—on the world,” Mamoulian said, “any play or film has to have the elements of life’s truth in it . . . But the outward expression of it can be highly stylized and by stylizing it you are intensifying it and the emotion.” This sentiment is echoed in a footnote to Nabokov’s Stevenson spiel in my edition of Lectures on Literature, which contains a section of Stevenson’s Essays in the Art of Writing that Nabokov had typed out for future reference: “The style is therefore most perfect, not, as fools say, which is the most natural, for the most natural is the disjointed babble of the chronicler; but which attains the highest degree of elegant and pregnant implication unobtrusively; or if obtrusively, then with the greatest gain to sense and vigour.”

Mamoulian’s style is, to be sure, of the obtrusive sort. Jekyll expounds his theory on the duality of man before a crowded lecture hall. As he discusses the man who “strives for the nobilities of life,” the camera, positioned behind his back, tilts far to one side of the auditorium; when he discusses the man who “seeks an expression of impulses that bind him to some dim animal relation with the earth,” it tilts to the other extreme—thus are visualized the poles of good and evil. Later, at the moment when Jekyll prepares for the first time to quaff the potion that will pry apart his two halves, acting as his own guinea pig, the camera follows his gaze, panning to a foreboding medical skeleton hanging in his laboratory. Another scene suggests a dichotomy other than good and evil—when Jekyll receives a telegram informing him that the vacationing Muriel’s physical presence will be further delayed, a gas pipe crossing the frame seems to separate his head from his body, mind from physique. After he receives the fateful telegram, a sequence of shots which show Jekyll’s fidgeting at his rain-streaked laboratory window—drumming fingers, a tapping foot—ends with the image of a pot on an open fire, boiling over.

The boiling, roiling Jekyll, stratjacketed by a long engagement, is at odds with the Victorian English reserve on the subject of sex. “We’ll be so gloriously happy that even the French will be jealous of us,” he tells his betrothed, and the naked longing in March’s dark-rimmed eyes leaves little doubt as to what sort of happiness he has in mind. (Anglo-American timidity is a running joke for Mamoulian: “It has taxi-horns and klaxons/ To scare the Anglo-Saxons” sings Maurice Chevalier of Paree in Love Me Tonight.) When Jekyll’s butler, Poole, who seems to glean the nature of his master’s problem, suggests that he look into London’s “amusements,” Jekyll bemoans that this isn’t an option for a man of his class: “Gentlemen like me have to be very careful of what they do and say.”

Jekyll at once righteously despises the canting fear of sex demanded by the expectations of propriety“You hypocrites, deniers of life!” he is once heard to rage—and is entirely prey to it. When Layton upbraids him for his behavior with Ivy, Jekyll speaks like an advocate of Free Love, inquiring “Why aren’t you frank enough to admit that other, that indecent self in you?” Then, in the next minute, speaking of his impending nuptials, that same Jekyll tells Layton that he wants “to be clean, not only in my conduct but in my innermost thoughts and desires.” Hyde, an alter-ego that Jekyll can slip on and off like a mantle, is a safety valve—left to go about his own business, Hyde will expunge all of Jekyll’s taboo urges, while leaving Jekyll innocent of whatever acts he has carried out, allaying his guilt. Jekyll is, therefore, both the anti-Victorian and the quintessential Victorian. (Though Mamoulian’s film gives Jekyll a hot temper, it departs from Stevenson’s narrative in failing to mention his “impatient gaiety of disposition” and the vaguely alluded-to concealed pleasures of his youth, ending in a “morbid sense of shame.”)

“There are bounds beyond which one should not go,” Lanyon advises Jekyll early in the film, a sentiment that his friend will come around to all too late, once he discovers that he has lost the ability to control his hydizations. If Lanyon’s circumspect stodginess is, ultimately, proven correct, he is never allowed to glory in his correctness. When Jekyll turns to his friend for help, Lanyon appears very much the sanctimonious prig. “You’ve committed the supreme blasphemy,” he tells Jekyll as they converse beneath the portrait of Victoria that decorates Lanyon’s study, “there is no help for you here.” He seems almost to relish Jekyll’s comeuppance, but the viewer will find it impossible to do the same. This is thanks in part to the extraordinary, irresistible performance by Fredric March, a consummate artist and one of the finest screen actors that the United States has ever produced, right up to his curtain call as Harry Hope in John Frankenheimer’s The Iceman Cometh (1973). It is also a testimony to Mamoulian’s dedication to his stricken protagonist, to the point of self-identification—he used the sound of his own heartbeat to stand in for Jekyll’s during the transformation scenes, part of the film’s remarkably sophisticated sound mix.

Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, from a script by Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein, dispenses with the mystery buildup of Stevenson’s novel, which processes Jekyll’s tragedy through the slowly dawning observances of his friend, the doughty lawyer John Utterson. Mamoulian is also considerably more frank about the nature of Hyde’s indulgences than Stevenson was, or perhaps could’ve been. “[T]his Victorian reticence,” Nabokov writes, “prompts the modern reader to grope for conclusions that perhaps Stevenson never intended to be groped for.” Jekyll’s hidden duality has variously been interpreted as a metaphor for drug addiction, homosexuality (or other verboten sexual practices, which in Stevenson’s time and place included just about all of them), or venereal disease contracted through consorting with low women. This obfuscation may work on the printed page—the reader so inclined may substitute his own private shame in place of Hyde’s vague, unspoken sins—but the screen has different demands, and here the nature of Hyde’s transgressions becomes quite concrete. He returns to Ivy, the slattern whom Jekyll had shown a friendly and flirtatious interest in, and sets her up in a tchotchke-cluttered flat in Diadem Court, which he regularly visits to inflict sadistic beatings on her.

There is also the by-no-means-small matter of visualizing what Nabokov calls Stevenson’s “epoch-making scene,” Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde. In the 1941 film—more a remake of Mamoulian’s than a fresh interpretation of Stevenson’s novella, retaining the invention of the Ivy character—Spencer Tracy plays Hyde with minimal makeup. For March, the transformation is complete: The hydization turns him from an altogether dashing Midwesterner to a creature part-ape, part-hyena, squeezed into a gentleman’s waistcoat. As Hyde, he acquires a dark complexion, hairy knuckles, and flared nostrils. His head becomes pointy, his forehead short, his brow knobby and protuberant. (This is the work of the brilliant makeup artist Wally Westmore, soon to work on the 1932 Island of Lost Souls—another film which carries more than a whiff of the fear of miscegenation.)

As newborn Hyde, March blinks as though to adjust to the light, and works a twitch in the corner of his mouth, which has acquired a jutting overbite. This maw has the aspect of a leering grin, for as March plays him, Hyde is unmistakably happy. (“[H]is love of life is wonderful” Jekyll’s posthumous confession reads in Stevenson’s book.) When first unleashed, Hyde engages in a moment of luxurious stretching, wriggling and relishing in the very feel of his new, liberated body. When Hyde steps outside on a wet evening, he casts his head back to drink in the rain. Prowling the gaslit streets of soundstage London, he shows something of the simian lope that we associate with Jerry Lewis—who of course would make his own inside-out version of Stevenson’s tale with The Nutty Professor.

Hyde’s grin is never so sardonic as when he’s coercing Ivy, with threat of violence, into enacting a parody of romantic happiness, turning their “love nest” on Diadem Court into a conjugal torture chamber. (When Hyde finally does away with her, the camera turns away to linger ironically on a porcelain reproduction of Canova’s Psyche Revived by Cupid’s Kiss.) Forcing Ivy to play-act the role of a smitten, doting bride until she finally falters and gives way to her natural revulsion, Hyde scornfully drips a litany of loving phrases in her ear (“My little bird, my little starling…”), and his mockery of wooing hangs over Jekyll’s final meeting with Muriel (“My love, my darling, my beautiful…”), when he must forswear his claim on her.

The scene is one of the most moving that I know—the way Jekyll draws his trembling hands away from Muriel’s, only to instinctively seize her again as she reaches for him; his tone when he pounces to silence her “I know you’ve done nothing base or wrong,” as though the very voicing of such trust is unendurable; the moment when his grief renders him nearly incomprehensible (“I want you so that I can envy the damned . . . I am damned . . . ”). As we seem to fancy we can solve, overcome, or domesticate the force of desire, as dogmatic in our enlightened way as the Victorians were in theirs, March’s suffering speaks to something in us which knows better, speaks to anyone who’s ever gotten in their own way for reasons but dimly understood. Mamoulian’s film is a “phenomenon of style,” yes, but that controlled, coruscating style is a means through which to attain this height of flaying emotion. The scene of Hyde’s death that follows, which has him bouncing off of laboratory walls and toppling a half-dozen constables, would be the highlight of most other movies. Here it’s an afterthoughtthe last rattle of a man already dead.

Museum of the Moving Image’s Rouben Mamoulian Weekend is November 7–9, 2014. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde plays November 8.