Nearly all of Georgia, Russian-born Rouben Mamoulian’s films creak today, like old doors or (myself included) old people. Mamoulian was never a “natural” in cinema, rendering claims made on his behalf that he directed much of the silkeny Laura (1944) that producer Otto Preminger signed suspect. But he was an experimenter in a place called Hollywood where studios generally believed that directorial experimentation countered the wisdom of tried-and-true formula. In the early 1930s, however, Paramount was the studio most hospitable to cinematic daring and originality, much as Warner Bros. was the studio most hospitable to gritty social import and topicality. Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, to date, is the only horror film to bring its star the best actor Oscar*—and the film begins creatively, dazzlingly. A creaking, uninvolving morality play today accounts for nearly all of what follows this startling opening.
It is a long bravura passage; in Victorian London, charity-minded Dr. Henry Jekyll is readying himself to leave his expensive home in order to deliver a lecture to an assembled group. It is a rigorously and novel subjective passage, with the camera adopting Jekyll’s point of view. We see presumably what and whom Jekyll sees as he presumably sees them, anticipating the postwar use of camera in Robert Montgomery’s Lady in the Lake (1946) and Delmer Daves’s wonderful Dark Passage (1947). (Depicting the unseen narrator’s wandering in a dream, the opening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca, 1940, had adapted and modified the technique.) We do get to see Jekyll briefly, though, as he pauses before a mirror to corroborate that he looks perfect in his role: an eminent doctor in Victorian society. His almost shocking handsomeness is certainly a surprise, perhaps because the delay of this glimpse of him may seem to suggest to viewers that there must be something wrong about his appearance. Why else should the film hide him from us for so long?
Actually, Mamoulian’s Jekyll’s-eye camera technique, prior to the shift to an objective perspective inside the lecture hall, accomplishes at least four things. One, it suggests how important a man this Dr. Jekyll is. Another, it suggests how important a man this Dr. Jekyll considers himself. The elimination of difference between camera and character as Jekyll goes about his supremely confident, condescending business—for instance, when he exchanges hollow pleasantries with his coachman—marks him as almost Godlike. A third benefit of the subjective technique is that it introduces the theme of hiding that becomes central to the material. In effect, Mamoulian is hiding his protagonist in order to suggest that Jekyll himself is hiding things about himself, including the complexity of his nature. Finally, and what a coup this is, the subjective technique implies that whatever is true about Jekyll is also, somehow, true about us. Mamoulian begins his film by forging a connection between us and Jekyll by requiring us to see through Jekyll’s eyes as if they were our own.
Mamoulian does not entirely abandon the technique. One of the most virtuous aspects of the virtuous Dr. Jekyll is his commitment to charity work. But human nature being what it is, Jekyll cannot help but draw a draught of pride from his helping the poor. (Unselfishness is not the same as selflessness.) Thus in a scene when he is encouraging a young charity patient to walk towards him without her crutches, the objective camera shifts to Jekyll’s point of view. The anxious child is facing Jekyll and, inspired by his encouragement, jubilant as she takes steps towards him. We thus acutely feel Jekyll’s pride in what he has accomplished here. Again, he is acting, or rather feeling, Godlike. But the very fact that the brief subjective shot interrupts an otherwise objective scene applies to Jekyll’s magnanimous pose and this feeling of his ironic undercutting. Elsewhere, the screen is diagonally divided into two mirroring shards of glass each of which reflects a different scene, suggesting Jekyll’s divided nature, his fractured existence. Considerable visual intelligence, then, has gone into Mamoulian’s filmmaking here.
The film is, of course, based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s brilliant 1886 novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It is one of those stories that we more or less know whether or not we have read the book.** With its appearance countless ministers based sermons on it; in our own time the movies have repeatedly gone back to it, inevitably fabricating (tedious, blatantly stuck-in) love interest(s), but trying in the main to reproduce each shadow and shudder of the original.*** The tale began as Stevenson’s own real nightmare, quickly written up but as quickly vetoed by Stevenson’s wife, Fanny, who felt that the material required an allegorical rendering. We can never know the original literary form because Stevenson, capitulating to domestic harmony, burned the manuscript. But the second version—somewhere in our heads even if not on our bookshelves, the inspiration for “a Jekyll-and-Hyde,” the term that commonly describes a split personality—often seems indistinguishable from the Manichean interpretation that has become attached to it. Jekyll is Good, we seem to know, and Hyde is Evil. Combined, they illumine the whole contradictory truth of humanity’s contradictory moral nature. Yet no such reading is borne out by the story itself.
Indeed, as we have sometimes admitted, and as Mamoulian’s film reminds us, Jekyll can never be completely good since Hyde hides in him always, his existence being inseparable from that of the deformed, bestial brother whom his hidden, self-experimenting research unlocks from his (Jekyll’s) own ambiguous depths. Unstressed, the word kill ominously hides in the name Jekyll, along with a pun on his contemporary, Jack the Ripper. Nevertheless, twice in the story Jekyll is labeled “good”—once, by himself, after he sees Hyde’s appearance in a mirror for the first time:
The evil side of my nature, to which I had now transferred the stamping efficacy, was less robust and less developed than the good which I had just deposed. Again, in the course of my life, which had been, after all, nine-tenths a life of effort, virtue and control, it had been much less exercised and much less exhausted. And hence, as I think, it came about that Edward Hyde was so much smaller, slighter and younger than Henry Jekyll. Even as good shone upon the countenance of the one, evil was written broadly and plainly on the face of the other. . . .
Yet Jekyll, a paragon of decidedly Victorian virtue, confesses to having “looked upon that ugly idol” whose body bore “an imprint of deformity and decay” with “a leap of welcome”; for this, too, was himself. The one time that Jekyll is called “good” by someone else the remark seems oddly, interestingly equivocal. Telling Utterson about Hyde’s trampling the little girl, Enfield discreetly withholds the name of the eminent man whose signed check the culprit produced as bail, referring instead to “one of your fellows who do what they call good.” The phrase suggests not a decent man but, rather, a respectable member of Victorian society in the 1880s. Throughout the story, goodness is a clouded issue because ethical ideals had long since been supplanted, in Stevenson’s time and place, by notions of utility. Not the moral or holy person in imitation of Jesus, but instead someone acting in the omnipresent name of progress or science had become the prototype of the good man, a new New Adam more like the old one, that is to say, the presumptuous Adam in the Garden of Eden, than like Christ. While his extreme experiments behind locked doors hardly qualify as model scientific practice (no peer review!), Jekyll’s pursuits test, for Stevenson and for us, the broad assumption of the time that science always contributes to humanity’s betterment.
In an absolute moral sense, neither Jekyll nor Hyde is actually good or evil because, each being inseparable from the other, both reflect the same confusion into which a modern age has plunged rigid moral distinctions. While Hyde at times is described as evil or Satanic, these references do not carry the weight of Stevenson’s own objective pronoucements; instead, they show the need of other characters to impose on Hyde an allegorical value which can make him that much easier to condemn. When Jekyll categorizes Hyde as “alone, among mankind, pure evil,” he is defending an ideal self-image.
Stevenson’s irony prods the word alone here; for when is Hyde ever alone without Jekyll? Enfield’s account of the “horrible” incident he witnessed, where Hyde, “like some damned Juggernaut,” “trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground,” even suggests that evil is not Hyde’s most characteristic attribute. Enfield tells us, “I . . . took to my heels, collared my gentleman, and brought him back to where there was already quite a group about the screaming child.” That others took care of the little girl, to his mind at least, relieves Enfield of responsibility for her outcome. That Hyde caught the center of his attention is at best, however, disconcerting; like Hyde, Enfield left the eight- or ten-year-old victim screaming on the ground! (Hyde, it would appear, is hiding in Enfield as well as in Jekyll.) Certainly evil cannot be the attraction drawing Enfield’s pursuit of Hyde. Rather, when Enfield tells Utterson, “the man trampled calmly over the child’s body,” his choice of adverb betrays as much awe as outrage. This unchecked Id in action, the creature we call Hyde, provokes wishful identification as well as jealous antagonism in a society that gives obsessive priority to restriction, propriety and self-control. (The best film at portraying Hyde-as-Id is the finest Jekyll-and-Hyde film ever made: Jean Renoir’s 1959 The Testament of Dr. Cordelier, highlighted by Jean-Louis Barrault’s splendid performance.) Hyde, then, is a renegade acting outside the normal bounds which constrain us. We may despise him, at least in part, because, while we secretly wish to be him, we do not dare.
Certainly admiration mixes queerly with revulsion in Enfield’s account:
He was perfectly cool and made no resistance, but gave me one look, so ugly that it brought out the sweat on me . . . every time he looked at my prisoner, I saw that Sawbones turn sick and white with the desire to kill him. . . . And all the time, as we were pitching it in red hot [by threatening the captive], we were keeping the women off him as best we could, for they were as wild as harpies. I never saw a circle of such hateful faces; and there was the man in the middle, with a kind of black, sneering coolness—frightened too, I could see that—but carrying it off, sir, really like Satan.
Enfield’s notion that he and the others “pitched it in red hot” by threatening scandal and public disgrace, a Victorian gentleman’s ultimate weapon, is silly because Hyde, after all, had already set himself beyond society’s conventional bounds. Enfield is also betraying his own need to compensate (through self-inflating, self-delusive rhetoric) for the sheer impotence he must have felt in the presence of someone whom he insists was his prisoner. Not evil, but a fascination, a powerful calm, may be Hyde’s signature trait. In their human reduction, Hyde and Jekyll possibly suggest Jehovah and Jesus as much as anything else.
Thematically, Stevenson’s story treats our mythological moral beginnings, an origin as confused as Jekyll with Hyde. “I knew myself, as the first breath of this new life [as Hyde], to be more wicked, tenfold more wicked, sold a slave to my original evil,” says Jekyll, although only a few pages later he says, “I was slowly losing hold of my original and better self.” This confusion of fallen and unfallen man roots the tale in the Garden of Eden while underlining a modern irony as well. The good Dr. Jekyll—the scientist, the supreme rationalist—is responsible for unleashing the most irrational terror. Invoking Alfred Tennyson, England’s Poet Laureate at the time, we may say that Jekyll himself is reeling back into the beast.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is at bottom about humanity’s bestial descendency. Stevenson wrote his tale almost thirty years after Charles Darwin’s The Origin of Species and fifteen years after The Descent of Man; in the latter Darwin states that man “is descended from a hairy, tailed quadruped, probably arboreal in its habits, and an inhabitant of the Old World. This creature, if its whole structure had been examined by a naturalist, would have been classed amongst the Quadrumana, as surely as the still more ancient progenitor of the Old and New World monkeys.” After tracing our origin even farther back, Darwin adds with restrained prophecy: “. . . that man is descended from some lowly, organized form, will, I regret to think, be highly distasteful to many. But there can hardly be a doubt that we are descended from barbarians.” As film versions, including, especially Mamoulian’s, have made graphically and sometimes grippingly clear, it is just this descendency of ours that the character of Hyde, once he is broken out of Jekyll’s suppression of him, is intended to evoke. Although called Satanic, he is more suggestively likened to an ape; his spite, and the tricks he plays on Jekyll, for example, are called “apelike.” Fredric March’s makeup as Hyde in Mamoulian’s film, and also his movements, are also “apelike,” much as the abruptness of these movements, which charge Mamoulian’s frames, suggests an original form of humanity—grotesquely deformed, precisely because of the Edenic myth from which it brutally departs—that is bursting through the centuries of mostly ideological whitewash that have denied and mightily suppressed its existence.
On the other hand, a beast from way back, Satan is hardly irrelevant. In Darwin and the Darwinian Revolution, Gertrude Himmelfarb writes of Darwin’s earlier epochal book:
The basic religious quarrel provoked by the Origin was not between the theists who rejected it and the atheists who favored it . . . but rather between the reconcilers and the irreconcilables, those who believed the Origin to be compatible with Christianity and those who thought it was not. . . . for some . . . [, moreover,] the truly diabolical result of Darwinism [was] not the displacement of God entailed in the conventional loss of faith, but the substitution of Satan in the place of God, or even the Satanization of God himself. . . . Natural selection, it was said, by making creation a consequence of destruction, made of God the supreme destroyer.
Therefore, Stevenson’s Hyde may be read, rather than as Satan per se, as God Satanized—God as a callous, powerful brute. Certainly the idea of power is at the story’s heart, with Hyde and Jekyll forming a dynamic interdependence of master and slave rather than a polarity of moral absolutes: “The powers of Hyde seemed to have grown with the sickliness of Jekyll.” Their relationship, rather than by good and evil, is structured by will and power—an insight into the text that, among the numerous film adaptations, perhaps Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor (1963) most strikingly makes. (There, the Hyde character, Buddy Love, is a parody of Dean Martin, the whole film being a consideration of the dynamic of Martin & Lewis’s professional and personal relationship.) Jekyll envies Hyde, just as Enfield and others do, for he is what Jekyll wishes himself to be; Hyde embodies the fulfillment of power that Jekyll wishes for himself: man’s agelong desire to consider himself God, to be God.
Moreover, Hyde is also the perversion of power that science has forged and let loose, what in effect Jekyll has made of Hyde and God. We can hardly avoid invoking the image of a Satanized God when Hyde is described as a Juggernaut trampling the child, for Death is the role where the God of Light and the Prince of Darkness have most familiarly and ambiguously converged. This wonderful passage—my goodness, Stevenson could write!—even suggests that this idea haunted the author’s imagination:
Some two months before the murder of Sir Danvers[, says Jekyll,] I had been out for one of my adventures, had returned at a late hour, and woke the next day in bed with somewhat odd sensations. It was in vain I looked about me; in vain I saw the decent furniture and tall proportions of my room in the square; in vain that I recognised the pattern of the bed curtains and the design of the mahogany frame; something kept insisting that I was not where I was, that I had not wakened where I seemed to be, but in the little room in Soho where I was accustomed to sleep in the body of Edward Hyde. I smiled to myself, and, in my psychological way, began lazily to inquire into the elements of this illusion, occasionally, even as I did so, dropping back into a comfortable morning doze. I was still so engaged when, in one of my more wakeful moments, my eyes fell upon my hand. Now the hand of Henry Jekyll . . . was professional in shape and size: it was large, firm, white and comely. But the hand which I now saw, clearly enough, in the yellow light of a mid-London morning, lying half shut on the bed clothes, was lean, corded, knuckly, of a dusky pallor and thickly shaded with a swart growth of hair. It was the hand of Edward Hyde.
Stevenson thus slowly builds up a mock portentousness and then parodically puns the hand of God.
Whatever his scientific rationale, we might as well consider the outcome of Jekyll’s experiments their real object. Jekyll dares call forth Hyde from himself in order to prove himself a kind of God. But attempting to prove himself the master, he ends up the slave; Hyde-God comes back at him and punishes by enslaving him for his investigative transgression. Like Dr. Frankenstein, Jekyll is a modern Adam who devours too much fruit of knowledge for God not to rumble; so God strikes back like a beast—the beast perhaps he has always been.
Darwin’s statement of man’s kinship with the ape upset people so, at least in part, because it seemed to discount the flattering, reassuring idea in Genesis that God had created man in his own image. Indeed, Darwinism had the effect of rewriting that book by recasting Adam as an ape. More upsetting still is the same substitution taken back a bit—as far as it can go. For if God created man in his own image, and if Adam, the first man, was an ape, what does that make of God in whose image Adam had been created? Stevenson’s story very nearly exposes the one possible reconciliation of Darwin’s and the other, earlier Genesis—a reconciliation that proved inescapable, however unconsciously, we will never know to how many minds. In this context, the confusion of fallen and unfallen man makes shocking sense. It had long been explained that the beast in man acted contrary to man’s spiritual nature, as a consequence of the Fall. Adam, along with his fratricidal son, could always be dependably alluded to. By implicitly equating God and beast, however, Darwinism also implied that our bestiality springs as much, if not more so, from our original as our fallen condition.
Hyde, therefore, can be seen as punishing Jekyll with the horrific truth of his descendency. By becoming Hyde and acting out Hyde’s vicious crimes, Jekyll is forced to confront his own original ancestry. This is the price he (and we) must pay for his successful experiment; this is the atavistic “progress” he achieves. The then-popular notion of humanity’s perfectability—a scientific road repaved by Darwin’s theory of natural selection and, later, by unscientific political notions of racial purity—is morally undermined by the true nature of its now hideous goal: total power, total knowledge, that is to say, God.
Besides being a submerged Faustian fable about Charles Darwin himself (keep in mind he was but a star in the Victorian constellation of evolutionism), as well as (like Darwin’s Origin and Descent) a rear-end view of the Romantic ideal of oneness between man and Nature, Stevenson’s story is perhaps the ultimate Gothic fiction, where its haunted castle is our planet; its family, humankind; its curse or closet skeleton, the fact that we are—like the heavenly father we take after—beasts to our very souls. It may be, then, that Original Sin is only the dogmatic cover-up for the real curse that is upon us.
Stevenson’s Strange Case, not merely an individual nightmare but the nightmare of an age (and this is why the novella is great), is in fact his troubled, even despairing attempt to reconcile Darwinism and Christianity, which he can accomplish only in the darkest way imaginable, by excavating a gargantuan moral fear. More recently, this God-ape equation has repeatedly, fully resurfaced; almost fifty years ago, for example, it was even treated with open humor in writer-director Richard Brooks’s popular movie Elmer Gantry (1960). In a scene that owes nothing to the 1927 satirical novel by Sinclair Lewis upon which the film is based, evangelist Gantry asks an agnostic reporter, modeled on H. L. Mencken, whether he really believes all that “nonsense” about evolution. “Devoutly,” the reporter replies! “Then you must believe God is a gorilla,” Gantry suggests. Reporter: “How do you figure that?” Gantry: “Because it says in the Bible that man was made in the image of God.” At this both evangelist and skeptic heartily laugh.
Others, of course, have embodied God and ape in the same figure. Like Jekyll, Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Tarzan—the first Tarzan book was titled Tarzan, the Ape Man (1914)—is a gentleman-turned-primitive, although one fleeing rather than attempting to consummate progress. An even more memorable example is King Kong. In the awe-inspiring 1933 film by Ernest B. Schoedsack and Merian C. Cooper (Edgar Wallace contributed to the original story), the gentle African jungle gorilla-God is crucified by our commercial, technological society. Though Jesus was sent to Earth ro redeem us from the old Adamic beast in each of us, notions of Original Sin and Christ’s distinctive immunity from it obscure the humanity that we share with the New Adam; as a result, in a civilized world God must always be seen as a primitive Kong. Only then can we “handle” him. In effect, Kong represents God in an objectified form, desanctified and commercialized into what Tom Robbins might call “another roadside attraction.” Kong, you see, is merely the eighth wonder of the world. This turns him into a beast, chained for his New York audience to see. The flashing cameras rape his virgin eyes and threaten his human beloved, the tiny golden idol whom he has worshipfully saved on many occasions, but who has not reciprocated his love—indeed, has not even responded with gratitude.
If Stevenson’s story exposes the bestiality of God that we have tried to evade, then King Kong reveals our giddy modern need to spotlight God’s bestiality—but as something from mythic Africa, something other than any part of ourselves. Yet again we hope to deny our own bestiality, whatever the evidence of bombings, assassinations, commercial vampirism, the U.S. rape and slaughter of Iraq. Having denied Darwin’s and Stevenson’s revelations of our ancestry, we have disavowed our connection with God entirely and replaced him with ourselves as our most exalted ideal.
* All in all, Fredric March may be cinema’s finest U.S.-born actor, and I am therefore glad he won two Oscars; but he is terrible in this film—crude, unconvincing, at times laughable. He is fine, however, in his second Oscar-winning role, as the banker back home from war in The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946).
** I have corrected and revised—condensing here, expanding there—an old essay of mine: “Hyde’s Horror,” Iowa English Bulletin (fall 1977), pp. 3-6. While I have eliminated here all documentation, this can be found in the essay’s original published form.
*** Victor Fleming’s lavish M-G-M version is the Gone with the Wind of Jekyll-and-Hyde movies, and it is terrible (apart from costumes and special effects). Spencer Tracy is even less adept at playing the part than is March in Mamoulian’s film. Fleming’s London, like God’s, is thick with fog; interestingly, refreshingly, Mamoulian’s London’s visibility is much clearer.
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