Best Actress: Miriam Hopkins (Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde).
Other Noteworthy Performances: Miriam Hopkins (The Smiling Lieutenant), Barbara Stanwyck (The Miracle Woman)
Though the year 1931 didn’t produce a significant number of female performances, I don’t feel like Miriam Hopkins wins because there was so little competition. I think her performance in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde would have been a strong contender any year. Hopkins, a woefully underrated actress, compiled a strong resume in the 1930s and like all great actors, she could effortlessly move between drama and comedy. She plays Ivy Pearson, the tormented victim of Mr. Hyde’s lust and cruelty. She begins the picture as a free spirited flirt (well, a prostitute actually) who is tended to by Dr. Jekyll after being assaulted. He is immediately attracted to her and, always looking to snag a new client, she comes on strong. But because he is a proper Victorian gentleman, Dr. Jekyll demurs. Once Jekyll’s formula unleashes Mr. Hyde, he is free to pursue his passions and goes after Ivy. He bullies and threatens her, forcing her into a relationship and transforming her into a cowering slave. The way Hopkins’ Ivy evolves over the course of the picture is chilling. By the end, when she comes to Jekyll to ask for his help, she is a shell of the woman she began the picture as. Fear has consumed her and her mannerisms, eyes, and physical appearance are all affected by it. Unfortunately she doesn’t know what we know (that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person) and coming to him for help is the worst thing she could do. When Hyde confronts her about her visit to Jekyll she is visibly stunned, unsure how he could know about it but sure of the consequences. This is one of the great overlooked movie performances and, especially since Fredric March won an Oscar for his part, Miriam Hopkins certainly deserved at least a nomination for the award.
Best Actor: Boris Karloff (Frankenstein).
Other Noteworthy Performances: Charles Chaplin (City Lights), Walter Huston (The Criminal Code), Michel Simon (La Chienne), James Cagney (The Public Enemy), Jackie Cooper (The Champ), Edward G. Robinson (Little Caesar), Lionel Barrymore (A Free Soul)
While Bela Lugosi was hamming it up across the Universal lot as Dracula the same year, Boris Karloff delivered a sensitive and terrifying performance as Frankenstein’s Monster, one of the truly great horror movie performances. What’s so impressive about Karloff here is he conveys all the humanity of the Monster through the now iconic makeup using grunts and groans. A lesser actor would have let the makeup do all the work and played the Monster with less humanity, but Karloff doesn’t cut corners. His eyes are so expressive: we can see the inquisitiveness when he sits with the girl on the shore of the lake and the joy as they toss flowers into the water. But we also see the fear after he accidently kills her and the rage when he is attacked and pursued. Lugosi had originally been tapped to play the Monster and I’m glad he didn’t work out in the part. It is not clear why he left the project (along with the original director Robert Florey) but I think it was best for the movie. Lugosi’s melodramatic style, better suited for the stage, would have stifled the character. The Monster needed subtlety and humanity, traits that Karloff succeeded in giving the character but I’m not sure Lugosi would have been able to achieve the same effects. Karloff pulled off a quietly masterful performance.