Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) Review

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) Director: Rouben Mamoulian


Shockingly to me, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an excellent film filled with unique and characteristic camera angles (most notably at the outset in which the audience is placed into the main character’s head as he walks around and even looks at himself in the mirror), as well as intentionally uncomfortable scenes that are dragged on much longer than the audience has the stomach for, in order to draw attention to Dr. Jekyll’s strange alter ego. The film is well made, compelling, and deserves to be considered by lovers of classic cinema.

This was the first and most famous adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novel, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. MGM remade the movie ten year later with Spencer Tracy as the lead, however the film was unsuccessful and March ironically sent a telegram to Tracy thanking him for the great boost of publicity.

It tells the story of the acclaimed Dr. Henry Jekyll (Frederic March who won his first Academy Award for this role) who is to be married to Muriel Carew. However, her father is delaying the marriage and is skeptical of Dr. Jekyll in his eccentric manner. Mr. Carew takes Muriel away for a month and in his down time Dr. Jekyll develops a potion that transforms him into a simian-like beastly creature that is rude and uncouth, wholly unlike Dr. Jekyll. He goes to visit a young lady of the night whom Dr. Jekyll had saved at one point, and he begins to control her and manipulate her in a series of lengthy and uncomfortable scenes. Eventually Muriel returns but Dr. Jekyll is still distant from her as he cannot control the transformations anymore and he goes to kill the young lady of the night by strangling her to death and escaping the police. Upon return Lanyon, a compatriot at the university, discovers Dr. Jekyll’s secret. Dr. Jekyll goes to try to break it off the marriage with Muriel but she tries to refuse his denial. He flees and suddenly transforms into Mr. Hyde while watching her cry over her piano. He enters her house and tries to grab her and he assaults several other men and the police chase him through London until arriving back at his laboratory where he frantically drinks his potion. Lanyon gives up Dr. Jekyll as the culprit and he suddenly turns back into Mr. Hyde in front of all the police and begins attacking them until he is shot and killed.

Image result for dr. jekyll and mr. hyde 1931

The film was a box office hit and received generally positive reviews, along with Frederic’s Oscar for Best Actor. Although, the plot of the film is entirely different, excluding the broad concept, from the Stevenson novel.

Oedipus and Greek Tragedy

Often in ancient Greek tragedy we find protagonists committing the sin of hubris (extreme pride or arrogance). Recall in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon that Agamemnon returns home with a stolen concubine from Ilium, and also he fails to foresee the extent to which Clytemnestra holds a grudge against his decision to sacrifice Iphigenia. In another case, consider the hubris of King Xerxes who was forced to return home to Susa after a spectacular failure against the Greeks at Salamis in Aeschylus’s Persians. Both men, Xerxes and Agamemnon, were raised high above the ordinary man in their splendor, but both fell to the lowest of depths, fueled by their excessive hubris.

However, in Sophocles’s “Theban” plays, the question is more nuanced. What transgression does Oedipus make? What sin of pride does Oedipus make? Is Oedipus the victim of a tragic fate or was it possible for him to escape his foreboding prophecy?

Oedipus has been called a representative study in classical repression, a favorite assessment by Freudian psychologists. The protagonist, Oedipus, is bound by his unrelenting inquiry, his need to discover his own origins, and thereby, to learn his own horrid circumstances so his blinded eyes can finally see the horrible truth of his existence. This is, of course, in spite of the constant pleading of Jocasta, his wife and also mother, who begs that he not inquire further into the matter. Perhaps she is aware of the grave circumstances, as well.

At any rate, Oedipus is unique in that he committed transgressions, without knowing they were despicable in the eyes of the gods -such as killing his own father and marrying his own mother. Both criminal acts were done unwittingly. In a word, he was a sinner without any awareness of his own own of sin. However, in the classical world, intentionality mattered little. It was Christianity, or the vulgarization of Platonism, that better demonstrated our yearning for intentionality, not merely an activity, as the primal concern in acts of justice or injustice. What was Oedipus’s intent? Clearly, he had no intent to marry his mother and kill his own father, in fact he was desperately trying to avoid this outcome. We, the audience, feel great sorrow for Oedipus, yet we also are demanding his destruction. We want to see the full extent of his ecstatic curse revealed. The audience demands it. In a different way, the audience feels a sense of tender pity for Jesus in the New Testament as he suffers a brutal death that he claims was all part of the divine plan from his father for the kingdom of heaven. An entirely different experience can be found in Greek tragedy.

Oedipus is a tragic hero because the audience feels a sense of redemption from his horrid self destruction, and, speaking broadly, Greek tragedy presents the antithesis of endless pity and suffering. It conveys both a sense of horror, as the audience sees the uncontrolled divine fate that befalls human beings no matter their status in life. Yet it also gives gratification and meaning to the reader or viewer when we see that all humans are subject to great suffering and punishment. Not every tragic hero is like Prometheus, a demigod who is punished by the gods, but rather some like Oedipus are doomed to a fate for which they are not being punished -there is no natural state of judicial retribution, as the fates and the furies clearly remind us. In this way, classical Greek tragedy reassures and reinforces the need for the polis as a bulwark against the horrifying truth of endless suffering. Additionally, in Oedipus the audience is exposed to a sense of chaos and terror which stands in opposition to the modern rational man. Recall Nietzsche’s famous distinction between the two, through “the last man”. In both cases, we find an absence of the gods, and instead in ancient Greek thought, the tragic hero faces divine retribution that is either earned or unearned, but is nonetheless his fate that must befall him. It is utterly irrational, which is perhaps why it is so terrifying. As another analogue, recall the Book of Job, wherein Job is brought horrible afflictions merely for a wager between God and the Adversary.

The most horrifying and tragic thing about Oedipus is that he is most certainly not a villain. He did not commit a crime for which he is being punished, such as committing a transgression against the gods. He is simply being forced, by his own fate -which he tries desperately to escape -to experience extraordinary suffering of the kind unknown to most men. However, the self destruction of Oedipus and his family is a kind of creative destruction that can lay the framework for a better Thebes in the future. Therefore, in Greek tragedy there is a sense of hope in building upon the ashes of a man who has been utterly and unfairly destroyed by his own lot.

Darius and the New Persian Regime

In Book III of Herodotus’s Inquiries, we encounter a problem among the Persians. The untimely death of the insane king Cambyses has led to a power vacuum filled by the corrupt Magi. When the Persians finally instill a revolt against the Magi, a conspiracy of seven men decides to storm the palace and regain power. However, the problem remains for the future of Persia: what form of government should be established? How will it be decided? What is the most just regime?

The first to declare the best means forward, Otanes, encourages the men to place the government in the hands of all Persians, a democracy. He says this in reaction to a monarchical form of government wherein the regime is neither “pleasant nor good,” and as justification he reminds the men of the terrible monarchs, Cambyses and the Magus, to demonstrate that a Monarchy is unnatural and short lived. Additionally, in presenting his case, Otanes asks: how could a monarchy be coherent and harmonious when the ruler is accountable to no one? Otanes seeks for accountability and a more pleasant regime. He makes the claim that even the “best of men” will go insane by the immense amount of power placed in him, which spawns envy and arrogance, in which all evil lies, and human nature is incapable of overcoming these in the position of a tyrant. However, the rule of the majority has the most “beautiful” name of all -Equality. All actions are drawn by lot and are held accountable by the many, everything is held to an audit. Nothing is left unseen. The masses can become like Gyges and see the truth. Therefore, Otanes proposes elevating the masses of men to a ruling position, because “in the many is the whole”. As is the nature of democracy, or a rule of the people, Otanes is concerned primarily with numbers. Like the shape of a square, he longs for a mathematical equality that can be apportioned to the “whole” so as to present a safe option that does not risk corruption.

Next, Megabyzos, defends an oligarchic regime. He agrees with Otanes’s criticism of a monarchy, however he states that nothing can be more worthless than an effectual mob, which is the natural tendency of democracy. In escaping the arrogance of a tyrant, the Persians must not seek salvation in the undisciplined and uneducated common people (here, Megabyzos employs the word demos meaning common people or demes, districts located outside the center of the polis, the Acropolis. Otanes had previously employed the use of plethos, meaning a majority or koinon meaning the authority of the public or the common people). Megabyzos accuses the masses of men of behaving like an undiscerning torrent -this is a good option for the enemies of the Persians but not for the best of men among the Persians. He ends his apologia stating that the present company will be included among the future oligarchs, in the rule of the few.

Finally, Darius comes forth in defense of a Monarchy. In his central argument, he asks the men to consider the best possible regime for each -democracy, oligarchy, and monarchy. Undoubtedly the perfect man, the best of all men, is the ideal ruler who rules justly, like a philosopher king. In the rule of the few, an oligarchy on the other hand, private men’s quarrels turn to public hostilities as power is grappled for and this naturally results in a monarchy. On the other hand, in a democracy, when the people rule, they will always do so incompetently, so that the people must form compacts or friendships with one another to keep the regime alive until the people elevate one man who they much admire, capable of keeping the regime from collapsing into anarchy. Therefore, democracy necessarily results in a monarchy as does an oligarchy. Both a democracy and an oligarchy must be forcibly instated by means of a revolution, however an oligarchy is the most naturally occurring regime. Darius concludes by providing justification for the regime in that freedom for the Persians came from one man, and they should therefore preserve this inheritance by preserving their own traditional cultural values.

As in the opening sequence of Plato’s Republic wherein Socrates encounters Polemarchus and returns to the house of Cephalus, we are presented with competing visions of a city in speech. The irony of the context in which the men discuss these three regimes, as in the case of the Republic, is that they embody the various regimes. Three of the best men present defenses, putting on trial the three forms of government, however ultimately the new monarchical regime is chosen by casting of lots, Otanes is outvoted. The result is a monarchy that comes under the rule of Darius in Persia, following the rumors of divine circumstances in which lightning breaks the moment his horse whinnies outside the city, as well as subtle lies by Darius and his comrades who rig the situation (as he had alluded to earlier in Book III, foreshadowing his Machiavellian tendencies). Persia, the best polis of the barbarians, has therefore also formed the best politeia.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.

The Empires of Croesus and Cyrus

The notion of imperial conquest, or the need to build a city that is enduring, is central to the inquiries of Herodotus. What is lasting human greatness? How can we inquire into our shared human past while preserving the question of enduring greatness? What is the just city? Is the just city also an enduring city? These and many other questions are integral to Herodotus’s work.

The first barbarian empire identified in the text is that of the Lydians, inherited from the actions of Gyges, a man who by fate acquired a vast empire. His descendants, Sadyattes and Alyattes, conquered the surrounding territories. When conquering Miletus, they laid siege to the city and nearly burned down every house in order to maintain a slave labor population, the fruits of which they could plunder. The empire of the Lydians comes to us as a tyrannical rule, one that is prone to frequent revolution and attack. A self-conscious rule that destroys the cultures of the people it conquers (see the burning of the temple of Athena, called ‘Asseos’ 1.19). Croesus, the son of Alyattes, inherited this vast kingdom and expanded it into Asia even further, and in his vast splendor, Croesus reclined comfortably in his riches until Solon, the lawmaker of Athens, arrived in his travels at Sardis. When Solon failed to affirm either Croesus’s wealth or his happiness, Croesus grew angry. Croesus asks Solon if he is nothing more than the “common man”. Solon’s advice is to look to the end of a man’s life to discover his true happiness and wealth, otherwise he is merely a lucky man. Thus, if we look to the ends of Croesus’s empire, we find it in decay -his son was killed in a boar hunting accident, and his empire was eventually conquered by Cyrus’s Persian empire. Croesus’s empire had desperately chased after prosperity and happiness at the same time, and tragiclly had found neither. Though Croesus was kept alive as a trusted advisor to Cyrus, it was only because of Croesus’s account of Solon’s visit which he delivered when nearly burned alive by Cyrus.

In contrast, the Persian Empire has its roots in rebellion as Cyrus once overthrew the Medes under Astyagas and claimed kingship. As a result of the war, the Empire lived under constant war and expansion in Cyrus’s 29 year rule from the Medes to the Lydians to Ionia and Babylon. However, unlike the Lydians, the Persians did not subjugate its conquered territories. Client cities were all allowed to adopt and maintain their cultural customs, and in fact, the Persians were liberal enough to assimilate and incorporate the habits and practices of their conquests, as well, unlike the Scythians -a nomadic tribe who ruthlessly ruled Asia for a brief two decades but collapsed as they did not integrate any new customs into their tribe and also failed to establish an enduring regime. However, Cyrus was often praised by his conquered peoples, earning him the moniker of “The Great”. Elsewhere in the Biblical Book of Isaiah, Cyrus is referred to by the subjugated Jews as the “Annointed One” (Isaiah 45:1). He was remembered for his empire that did not force Persian influence upon its conquered territories, but rather adopted the various cultures, unlike the forced subjugation of the Scythians wo were a nomadic group without a connection to place.

For this reading I used the impeccable Landmark edition of Herodotus’s Histories by businessman-turned classical scholar Robert B. Strassler.