DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1931)
****/**** Image B Sound B Extras A+
starring Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Holmes Herbert
screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
directed by Rouben Mamoulian
DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941)
**½/**** Image A Sound B Extras A+
starring Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Donald Crisp
screenplay by John Lee Mahin, based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson
directed by Victor Fleming
by Walter Chaw Owing a tremendous debt to German Expressionism and the silent era that the cinema had only recently left behind, Rouben Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a surprisingly disturbing and enduring take on Robert Louis Stevenson's dark tale of the id. Opening with a point-of-view shot, something that the director referred to as a first in the American cinema, the prologue's build to a medical amphitheatre reveals the connection between this film and Mel Brooks's classic satire Young Frankenstein, illustrating that it's as important a headwater of the horror genre as the Universal monster features. Mamoulian and veteran cinematographer Karl Struss (the DP on F.W. Murnau's Sunrise) themselves owe a great debt to Robert Weine's The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, indulging in claustrophobic, expressionistic sets, long wipes, slow dissolves (in one case, extremely slow), extended floating takes, and matching shots that use statuary and illness to offset love and ecstasy. This Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is fever delirium; it's stagy, no question, exhibiting a distinct discomfort with dialogue as well, but its images, including Jekyll's transformation into Hyde (the first stage of which resembles Conrad Veidt from Caligari), remain powerful seven decades later.
Pre-Hays Code, there's a certain vertiginous feel to the piece, the sense that we're forever teetering on the edge of forbidden territory. Long shots of garters, a moment in which a cane "penetrates" a recently discarded garment, and a lingering view of a swinging leg used as metronomic counterpoint in a dream of sexual deviance all suggest that Mamoulian initially had in mind the idea that the rigidity of Victorian codes of behaviour cause unfortunate explosions of the shadow. A scene where Jekyll "explodes" with anxiety in time with a kettle boiling over is canny--ironic is the extent to which censors subsequently tried to sanitize this piece about the dangers of repression.
Fredric March has a dashing quality as Jekyll and an energetic, animalistic one as Hyde. Well cast, in other words, March brings Stevenson's idea of a man no longer able to control his lizard brain to jittery life against Mamoulian's nightmare backdrops. Rose Hobart does her best with the thankless high society would-be bride role and Miriam Hopkins (later reunited with March in Ernst Lubitsch's Design for Living and James Flood's All of Me) is remarkably titillating as doomed hooker Ivy (a character nonexistent in Stevenson's book but a fixture of its cinematic adaptations), especially during a coy striptease. Her performance demonstrates a little of the strident diva persona that would follow her on- and offscreen for the rest of her career, yet Hopkins lobbied for the role of wet blanket Muriel, whom she found more sympathetic than Ivy--an interesting segue in that a young Ingrid Bergman, ten years later, would be offered the role of "Muriel" (renamed "Beatrix") and lobby for the far more interesting dancehall Ivy. Someone's been reading her "Paradise Lost."
Victor Fleming's 1941 take on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde honours Stevenson's own lament that his work had become perceived as something supernatural rather than psychological (with the introduction of horror elements like the potion and grotesque transformation) and so removes the spectre of elaborate make-up, trusting mainly in Spencer Tracy's talent. Tracy's original concept, in fact, was to have liquor and drugs the "potion" that transforms--prescient of Tracy's own demons, perhaps, but also ahead of its time in terms of what could be shown, thus MGM presents the tale as almost a straight rehash of Mamoulian's film (to which MGM had acquired the rights and promptly suppressed in order to inhibit comparisons upon release of their inferior remake, making MGM the Miramax of its day), sans most of the interesting cinematography and almost all of the visceral punch. Fleming, fresh off Gone with the Wind, directs the picture like a costume epic, making this two-hour film feel, at times, longer by a good hour.
Saving graces: Bergman's earthy performance, and that enduring element to Tracy's persona that always suggested to me something like insurmountable regret. A fantasy sequence during the first transformation that finds Bergman and Lana Turner (cast "against type" as the good girl) harnessed to a carriage and being whipped by a maniacal Hyde (I've had that fantasy, come to think of it) gives a glimpse to what woulda/coulda/shoulda, but in the end, Fleming's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is surprisingly arid, despite its twin fertile sources.
Warner, current proprietor of the MGM catalogue, offers both pictures in black-and-white, fullscreen transfers on a double-feature DVD indispensable to film historians as a one-stop opportunity to assess how values change under restrictive watchdog regimes. Jack Valenti, take note--and at least partial blame--for the watered-down gruel passing for the majority of mainstream entertainment nowadays. The source print of the 1931 film, for what it's worth, has seen better days (there's a line bisecting the image for much of the running time down the left side of the screen), but it looks and sounds as fine, I suspect, as it possibly can, and Warner has seen fit to restore approximately seventeen minutes of footage lost to post-Code reissues. An audio commentary by author/historian Greg Mank is extremely informative, exhaustively researched, and entertaining to boot. Warner Bros.' classic Hyde and Hare Bugs Bunny cartoon accompanies the film, as does a trailer for the 1941 version. The flipside in more ways than literally, the 1941 film shines unreservedly, with nary a flaw to distract from the sharpness and clarity. Arguably, that clarity is a detriment to the piece's artificiality: less expressionistic than staid this time around. The centre-channel mono audio is fine, if unspectacular. There are no supplements specific to the companion feature. Originally published: February 16, 2004.