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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
Warner Home Video
1931 & 1941 versions / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / Street Date January 6 2004 / 19.98
Rouben Mamoulian's early-talkie Jekyll and Hyde has been frequently celebrated for its pioneering experiments with audio, camera movement and subjective technique. It has a sense of humor and sophistication that only could be attempted in the pre- Hays Code era; this (partially) restored version has a provocative scene of semi-nudity as well as most of the film's racy dialogue.
Fredric March's Dr. Jekyll is a surrealist's dream character, a dissatisfied Victorian wandering off the beaten path to discover the really interesting things in life. He's a virtuous healer but also an experimenter into dangerous territory. His aim is to divide the human psyche into what he believes are its two components - flesh and soul.
Hoffenstein and Heath's script emphasizes sex as the key motivator, giving the film a giddy sense of danger. Stage versions of Stevenson's tale added standard love interests to the stew, good & bad girl characters that Mamoulian retains. Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart) begs her stuffy father let her marry Jekyll immediately; the performances emphasize the couple's impatience to become a physical man and wife. All around Jekyll are friends and counselors telling him he's impetuous and indecent. This Dr. Jekyll is 'Young and Healthy', as the song goes, and his real goal is to be free of society's restraints.
The bad girl tempts Jekyll as well. Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins) is a tart young tart eager to seduce the handsome doctor. Some of the dialogue is stilted but their encounter is very sexy. Ivy rocks one naked leg back and forth - rhythmically - a suggestive motion that Mamoulian retains as a superimposition over the next scene.
Mr. Hyde appears with a burst of impressive makeup and camera effects, and we're confronted with a caveman-like primitive liberated from intellectual concerns. Hyde begins as a lowbrow, animalistic free spirit, chanting "I'm free! Free!" in exultation. He's all instinct, ego and selfish desires. It begins as an intentionally comic performance. Reacting like a cartoon character to the shocked looks of waiters and showgirls, Hyde is amused by his own wicked behavior and reminds both of Paul Muni's similarly simian Scarface, and the infantile characters played much later by Jerry Lewis.
Hyde is a monster, but Jekyll remains sympathetic in his struggle against Victorian mores. Muriel's father is cruelly unforgiving and Jekyll's best friend damns him without mercy. Step out of line in this society and you're finished.
The film is heavy on visual allusions and refreshingly light on moral judgments. Erotic statues and paintings comment on Hyde's sexual domination of Ivy, and Jekyll is confronted with images of skeletons and fiery cauldrons. The visuals relate the story to other pre-Freudian literary examinations of split personalities and psychotic enigmas, such as The Picture of Dorian Gray. It's hard to find horror films as good as this one.
Warner's DVD has a good transfer of a print that has some grain and splices here and there, but basically is in fine shape. It is longer than the 1990 MGM VHS cassette often criticized for missing pieces of scenes intact in older versions. The picture was cut to bits before being tossed into a bottomless vault by MGM for twenty-five years; I saw it on a screen in 1976 with a similar restoration of Freaks and I know this version is longer than that print.
The best feature is Greg Mank's entertaining commentary, which dispenses many insights on Stevenson's tale, the various film versions and their actors. Mank's sense of humor is sharp (he calls two actresses plump, and then apologizes to them should they happen to be watching) and his grasp of the film is acute. He points out once-censored scenes and parts still missing, such as a bit of dialogue where Ivy Pearson is described as having 'customers.' I remember an issue of Video Watchdog from several years back that catalogued a litany of flaws in the VHS that it hoped would be corrected - I can't say if they are or aren't here. Scenes like the subjective opening and the extra transformation have been reinstated for so long that they don't really count any more. In a couple of cases Mank refers to individual words that have been restored.
Some writers find the theatrical gestures and ape-like makeup in this version to be laughable, but I think they're magnificent. The film has technical and artistic merits far advanced for 1931.
On the flip side is MGM's interesting but decidedly lesser 1941 version. Greg Mank explains that Spencer Tracy's original idea was to portray the Jekyll/Hyde split without a monster. The tale would literalize the film's theme: Hyde is the wild side that prim Dr. Jekyll unleashes to enjoy suppressed pleasures of the flesh. Tracy's Jekyll would have used drugs and alcohol to accomplish this; the Hyde name would just be an assumed identity for his sordid activities.
Naturally MGM kaiboshed that approach - drug use was a Code no-no, just for starters - and went for a straight remake, purchasing the Paramount version along with the rights. Paramount must have been strapped for cash - who ever heard of a studio selling an Oscar winning show outright?1
Savant's never had much affection for the 1941 version. It's a watered-down replay of Mamoulian's, copying many camera angles and replacing the earlier's erotic detail with sexless MGM production values. Worse, the themes are approached from a much more high-toned perspective. The film begins and ends with prayers in a church, as if Louis B. Mayer wished to neutralize the story's blasphemous aspects. Tracy's Jekyll wants to cure madmen, not liberate the wild man inside himself. The social strait-jacket of Victorian society is soft-peddled here. The irate father who won't permit an early marriage (Donald Crisp this time) goes mushy and relents, encouraging the young couple to embrace in a public place. Mustn't criticize society, you know.
The new script follows the old one carefully and adds some nicely-researched bits about approaching comets and the need for social and hygenic reform. Stevenson's story took place in the same squalid slums that Jack London wrote about, the same neighborhoods where Jack the Ripper would soon go into business.
Buried in MGM gloss, the remake replaces earlier stagey dialogue with smoother lines, making the tale less Gothic and remote. Tracy's subtle transformation is okay but unremarkable; he just turns into a madman with puffy features and wild eyes. In the March version, other characters don't seem sufficently shocked by Hyde's monstrous appearance. Here it seems odd that Jekyll's friends don't recognize him immediately.
The remake also has almost no action. Whenever Tracy has to do more than a brisk walk he's replaced by a stunt man with a much thinner face. Following the letter of the Code, Hyde kills Ivy almost entirely off-screen. Tracy's roughest act against Ingrid is to straight-arm her onto a sofa, as he and James Cagney had done in old Warners gangster movies. I guess there were no grapefruits available to squirsh into her face!
This brings us to the women. Pauline Kael remarked that MGM got its casting backwards, that Lana Turner should have been the bad girl and Ingrid Bergman the good one. I think Bergman is sensational, giving a perceptive performance with nuances and shades that raise both the quality and temperature of every scene she's in. Recast as a cockney barmaid (but with a Scandinavian-ized name change from Pearson to Peterson) she's no longer a prostitute, just plenty frisky when first meeting the doltishly restrained Jekyll. Bergman is so sensual, any real Jekyll would have done the sensible Victorian thing: Hire her as an upstairs maid without work duties, and forget all about Lana Turner. Turner's not bad, but she immediately fades in the memory. Bergman's Ivy makes us realize that hot sex was still hot sex, even back in 1887 London.
This version's visual finesse is limited to a short dream sequence wherein Jekyll fantasizes about the two women in his life. The visuals are arresting - huge explosions superimposed over female bodies - but cluttered and unclear. Whirlpools and bottles dissolve randomly over posed shots of Bergman and Turner with come-hither looks - someone like Slavko Vorkapich would have given it more structure. The sequence is actually a remnant of a longer, more sensual original. All that remains of the edgy material are a couple of shots of Hyde driving a pair of coach horses with a whip - horses that transform into Ingrid and Lana, bare-shouldered and running nose and nose together. So where's the behind-the-scenes footage from that shoot ... wow!
Warners' DVD of the 1941 MGM Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is in almost flawless condition, with only a little grain here and there. This flipper side has a trailer and a Bugs Bunny cartoon with a Hyde parody.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde double bill rates:
1. When MGM remade Mamoulian's
film it had the nerve to re-use the first script without crediting its writers (unless both versions are
from some earlier play, I suppose). The studio apparently bought the negative from Paramount and then hid
it away so as not to compete with their Tracy version, suppressing one of the best films of the 30s - one
that won its leading man an Oscar. Horror got pretty shabby treatment at MGM - they reportedly cut and
scrapped huge sections of Freaks and Mad Love.