Biography of a Movie Monster: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Today, I'm writing about the old Hollywood versions of Robert Louis Stevenson's classic tale, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The photo above shows Fredric March as a gruesome Mr. Hyde in the 1931 film.

This article is part of the Movie Scientist Blogathon hosted by Christina Wehner and Silver Screenings.

 Author Robert Louis Stevenson's chilling novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been brought to the stage and screen more than 120 times, including five memorable old Hollywood film versions. In this article, I'll give details about those films and where you can watch them and some background on the origins of the classic tale.

Victorian physician Dr. Henry Jekyll and his gruesome doppelganger Mr. Edward Hyde sprang from the fertile mind of Scottish writer Stevenson, who is familiar to old Hollywood fans thanks to the many adaptations of his swashbucklers Treasure Island, Kidnapped, and The Master of Ballantrae. Although the prolific Stevenson is best known today for his children's stories, he had a deep interest in human psychology, especially the duality of human nature. 

Stevenson often referred to his own mercurial personality as "myself and the other fellow," and he took a great interest in the many sensational murder cases that were covered by the Victorian press. In fact, Jekyll and Hyde may have been inspired by the case of Edinburgh teacher Eugene Chantrelle, who claimed to have no memory of drawing out a large life insurance policy on his wife and then poisoning her (he was either a great actor or someone who suffered from dissociative identity disorder).

Whatever Stevenson's real life inspiration for Jekyll and Hyde, the plot, including the all-important transformation scene, came to him during a particularly vivid nightmare. He then wrote the story rather quickly, according to his stepson and wife in about two or three days. The novella was an immediate bestseller when it was published in 1886, selling around 40,000 copies. It inspired several successful stage adaptations in the U.S. and Great Britain, including a hit London production that was shut down after the Hyde-like serial killer Jack the Ripper began stalking women in the city's Whitechapel district.

An 1887 U.S. stage adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde starring Richard Mansfield.
Film producers also couldn't resist the lure of Stevenson's chilling tale. There are a total of eight silent versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, including a 1912 version that was based on a popular stage version (watch here) and a 1913 movie from future Universal Pictures horrormeister Carl Laemmle (watch here).

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), dir. John S. Robertson

The most important silent version of Jekyll and Hyde is the landmark 1920 silent film starring John Barrymore. The actor was already a Broadway legend, but his double performance as the suave Jekyll and the sinister Hyde made him a bona fide movie star. Barrymore is particularly impressive in the famous transformation scene, which he accomplished in two takes with minimal makeup. In fact, this movie set the template for all future screen Jekyll/Hydes in that it ditches the book's surprise ending (readers did not know that Jekyll and Hyde were the same person until the end) in favor of having one actor play the dual role. The film also established the convention of having Jekyll romance a demure English rose (Martha Mansfield) while Hyde lusts after a lady with a shady reputation (Nita Naldi). Available on DVD, Blu-ray, and video on demand.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), dir. Rouben Mamoulian

After Barrymore's definitive portrayal of the bad doctor, there were no more film versions of Jekyll and Hyde until 1931, when Paramount Pictures decided to cash in on the early thirties horror craze by making a sound version of Stevenson's tale. Director Rouben Mamoulian wanted but couldn't get Barrymore to reprise his famous performance, so he cast the relatively unknown Fredric March in the title role (ironically, March had played a comic version of Barrymore in the 1930 film, The Royal Family of Broadway). The result was a smash hit that won March a best actor Academy Award. The movie also received a nomination for Karl Struss' pioneering cinematography, which used makeup and lens filters to achieve Jekyll's transformation into Hyde. At 6 a.m. Nov. 7 on TCM. DVD and video on demand.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), dir Victor Fleming

The enforcement of The Motion Picture Production Code in 1934 effectively squashed any further adaptations of Jekyll and Hyde until a mini-horror revival in the early 1940s led MGM to buy the rights to Stevenson's novella for leading man Spencer Tracy. The all-American actor  known for his down-to-earth characters had to be forced into taking the role by director Victor Fleming, and while the film features sensational performances from both Lana Turner as Jekyll's fiancee and Ingrid Bergman as Hyde's love interest, Tracy struggled to effectively portray the dual nature of Jekyll/Hyde.  He hated wearing the heavy makeup required for the character (I think he looks just like James Whitmore when made up as Hyde), and he struggled with the role's physical demands, even dropping an amused Bergman in a scene where he was supposed to carry her up a flight of stairs. Available on DVD and video on demand.

Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), dir. Charles Lamont

After World War II, Universal Pictures made a bundle at the box-office by pairing comic duo Bud Abbott and Lou Costello with famous movie monsters. Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a mostly unmemorable outing in the series that has Bud and Lou playing American cops working in London who bumble their way into the laboratory of Dr. Henry Jekyll (a suavely sinister Boris Karloff). FYI: although Karloff is billed as playing both Jekyll and Hyde most of Hyde's scenes were done by stuntman Eddie Parker. Available in a DVD collection with other Abbott and Costello monster movies.

The Nutty Professor (1963), dir. Jerry Lewis

During the 1950s and 1960s,  the Jekyll and Hyde story became drive-in movie fare with offerings like the low-budget The Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957) and the Hammer horror film The Two Faces of Dr. Jekyll (1960).  Actor and director Jerry Lewis resurrected Stevenson's theme of dual personalities for his 1963 comedy The Nutty Professor. In my opinion, The Nutty Professor is Lewis' best screen work; in fact, the film works really well on several levels. It's a laugh-out-loud slapstick comedy, a loving homage to thirties horror films, and a blistering takedown of show-business egos. You can read my full review of The Nutty Professor from last year's Movie Scientist Blogathon here. Available on DVD and video on demand.


  1. Wonderful summary of all the Jekyll and Hyde films! It's impressive how many good films and how much money as been made with that short novel. I wonder if Stevenson would have been surprised at how much his story has become a part of culture.

    I always forget to include Jerry Lewis' film (which I still need to see!!) as a part of the Jekyll and Hyde filmography, but it sounds like a worthy, clever adaptation of the original novel. Now that Jerry Lewis has passed on, I've been wanted to watch a few of his films in memory of him. This will have to be at the top of the list!

    So very glad you could join!

    1. Even for those who don't like Jerry Lewis, The Nutty Professor is a great, very funny movie.

      Thanks for hosting

  2. "41 version still underrated/misunderstood. Tracy's Hyde not a caveman but rather the screen's first sexual sadist. You're supposed to see Jeckyl enjoying Hyde's deprivations.His scenes with Bergman have a ritualistic dominance/submission quality so uncomfortable to watch that David Lynch redid them for Blue Velvet. With Bergman's daughter.

    1. I agree regarding the deviance. Bergman pulls it off on her end, but Tracy is such a typed actor that he just doesn't work in the role for me.

    2. Tracy tapped into something with Hyde. His hatred is palpable - you can almost feel the spittle come off the screen. And his wet dream still a shocker, coming from MGM.

  3. I don't imagine we are done with versions of Stevenson's brilliant story. You'll be updating this fine article in a few years.

    1. They are making a female version according to IMDB

  4. An excellent overview of the Dr J & Mr H films, although I confess I've only ever seen the Fredric March version, which I absolutely love. I didn't realize Spencer Tracy had to be forced into taking the role in the 1941 version.

    I always forget about the Jerry Lewis version too, like Christina said above, but it is is a clever twist on the story.

    Thanks for joining the blogathon, and for sharing this well-written and thoughtful essay with us. :)

  5. What wonderfully detailed essay on Robert Louis Stevenson's immortal tale via Hollywood! I remember liking a TV adaptation, with Jack Palance (1970s?). It was pretty good.

  6. According to IMDB it was a 1968 TV movie. It has a lot of great reviews for the Victorian atmosphere and Palance so I'll have to check it out.

  7. This is an interesting article. You wrote it excellently. I appreciate all the information you gave about the numerous versions of the "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" story. You are a grand writer.

    By the way, I would like to invite you to join my first blogathon, "The Great Breening Blogathon:" I hope you will join. We could really use your talent!

    Yours Hopefully,

    Tiffany Brannan

  8. Palance;s physicality immensely adds to the role, as it did his Dracula. Make-up artist Dick Smith (Exorcist) extended Palance's natural features to make him look like a satyr - a sex demon. Unfortunately shot on tape.

  9. Great post, Amanda! I only watched the 1931 version and also The Nutty Professor, but I mean to watch the others in the future. And I had NO idea that in the original story the reader only finds out that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person in the end! Wow.


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