Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" (first published as a novella in 1886) is one of the most popular and enduring of all horror stories and it's easy to see why. The central theme is a timeless one of good vs. evil or, more specifically, the potential of evil and cruelty within us all once that civil, moral barrier is somehow eroded and we can no longer suppress our deepest, darkest urges. The fact science and drugs are typically the catalysts for the altered behavior of the central character open the tale up to a whole world of possibilities. There's simply a lot to play around with using the basics of this story; hence why it's been a favorite source material for film adaptations going back to the infancy of cinema. Technically, the story was first adapted as a stage play, which debuted in Boston in 1887 and became so popular it ran for over twenty years and toured internationally. The play's long-running star, famous stage actor Richard Mansfield, even became a suspect in the 1888 Jack the Ripper slayings when the play was touring London!
The first filmed version of the story came in 1908 (a 16-minute-long, now-missing short) and nearly twenty more followed in the silent era alone. Some of the most famous of the early adaptations were John F. Robertson's 1920 version starring John Barrymore and F.W. Murnau's Der Januskopf (also from 1920), which starred Conrad Veidt, featured Bela Lugosi in a supporting role and is unfortunately a lost film, with no known prints known to still exist, though enticing film stills and a poster do. Moving into the sound era, Paramount's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), directed by Rouben Mamoulian, became a huge hit with both critics and audiences. In the lead role, Fredric March made history by becoming the first (and still one of the only) actors to win a Best Actor Academy Award for a horror film. MGM decided to adapt the story a decade later with a lavish A-list production directed by Victor Fleming and starring Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, which itself was a hit and received three Oscar nominations. There were other early versions, made for both theaters and TV, plus a 52-segment radio drama in 1932, and just as many uncredited derivations and offshoots, which is where The Son of Dr. Jekyll (a Columbia production) comes in.
Things open in 1860 with murderous Mr. Hyde (Louis Hayward) being chased through the streets of London by a torch-carrying mob. He scales rooftops, jumps onto the top of a moving carriage and leaps through a window in a desperate attempt to get back to his lab, drink his serum and transform back to his more subdued self. The mob fling a torch inside, setting his lab and home ablaze, and lock the doors. Now turned back into Henry Jekyll, he has no choice but to make his way to a third-story ledge and eventually falls to his death. The city can sleep easy now, right? Well, maybe. Henry and his actress wife (who became one of Hyde's last victims) have left a little something behind... an infant son. Dr. Curtis Lanyon (Alexander Knox), Jekyll's best friend and benefactor of his will, is a bachelor and doesn't think he has any business trying to raise a baby. Thankfully, Jekyll's lawyer Sir John Utterson (Lester Matthews) and his wife has always wanted a son but have been unable to have children. John takes the baby home to raise, under agreement with Lanyon that no one tell the boy of his origins until he's old enough to handle the shock.
Thirty years later in 1890, the now-grown Edward (Hayward again) is a brilliant and outspoken medical student who's just disgraced the family name by getting kicked out of the prestigious Royal Academy of Science for performing experiments the tabloid press claim were "bordering on witchcraft." Edward shrugs it off and figures he can find a smaller college to study at. In the meantime, he's fallen in love with John's niece Lynn (Jody Lawrance) and the two hope to be married. Because of the impending nuptials and a still-uncollected inheritance from his late father resting in limbo, Curtis breaks the news to Edward about his birth parents. He gives him the key to his father's long-abandoned home, but urges him to forget about the past. Eager to prove the press' insinuations of 'like father like son," Edward decides to move into the home for three months. He's hoping that after no incidents the newspapers will get off his back, he can move out with his reputation intact, marry Lynn and live happily ever after. Naturally, things don't work out how he has planned.
It doesn't take long for Edward to be overwhelmed with the desire to clear the family by replicating his father's formula found in a set of papers titled "An Experiment in Changing Human Personality." He gets to work, grows increasingly more paranoid (mostly due to external factors) and starts having a difficult time controlling his temper. He's hounded and mocked by both the townspeople and persistent newspaperman Richard Daniels (Gavin Muir) and becomes acquainted with Lotte Sorelle (Doris Lloyd), an drunkard actress friend of his late mother's, Lotte's husband Joe (Patrick O'Moore) and their daughter Hazel (Claire Carleton). Someone Edward trusts is secretly trying to sabotage his experiments and then decides to get the local witch hunters riled up by attacking and beating a young boy and pinning the blame on him. There's betrayal, blackmail, one murder, a stint in an asylum, lots of running around, falsified formulas and even courtroom drama. Most viewers will understandably be wondering just what they got themselves into.
Tis true the horror elements are few and far between in this one. In many ways, this is a classic case of bait-and-switch (at least as far as the poster is concerned) that's likely to disappoint many who watch it. Those expecting chills are going to be disappointed and, most especially, those expecting to see Jekyll and Hyde as they know it will be disappointed. There is just one brief transformation scene here and, while the time lapse effect is expertly pulled off and the make-up used is OK, all Jekyll does after being transformed into the monstrous Hyde is lie on the floor and close his eyes! This is much more of a suspense thriller about a man out to prove his innocence when all the cards - and all of the evidence - are stacked against him. However, if you can accept this on its own terms and deal with your expectations being dashed, this imperfect film does have some other good things to offer.
Photography, art direction, costumes and overall production values are quite good, most of the acting is fine and great use is made of moody, shadowy noir lighting throughout. Where this film is unexpectedly strongest however is in its depiction of a judgmental society unwilling to let go of the past. A full thirty years after the original Hyde murders, the gossipy townsfolk just can't let it go and have no issue persecuting an innocent man simply for moving into his late father's home. They gather around outside and gawk, point fingers and whisper, throw rocks through the windows and even break in so they can get a closer look at the town boogeyman's offspring. The press feed the fire by trying to incite negative and violent behavior out of Edward simply to give everyone what they want (affirmation that the apple doesn't fall far from the tree), little caring about the repercussions or the psychological toll it is taking on him. The idea that mob mentality has a hand in creating society's monsters is put at the forefront here and is well-supported throughout.
I see almost universally negative comments about this film, but in a way there's delicious irony in all that when it comes to pre-judgment, unfair expectations and all that jazz. Interestingly, neither Robert Louis Stevenson nor his novella are acknowledged anywhere in the credits, though they certainly should be. At one point Edward even recites a long passage taken directly from the source story when he reads from his father's "notes." It's probably no coincidence no one is credited with the screenplay, though Mortimer Braus and Jack Pollexfen are both given a story credit. The cast also includes Rhys Williams as a butler, Paul Cavanagh as an inspector, Hamilton Camp and Joyce Jameson. This have never been released to DVD or VHS, but plays occasionally on Turner Classic Movies.