Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Good Woman! A Bad Woman - Who Needed The Love Of Both!

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde(1941)
Director: Victor Fleming
Cast: Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner

This film is like the 1943 version of The Phantom of the Opera for me. It's a good movie, but appears too unsure of it's horror origins. This version of the classic story was made as a prestige production, complete with Gone With The Wind director Fleming and an A-list cast. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a lovely looking movie, with unquestionably beautiful cinematography and some wonderful acting, but it's also a near carbon copy of the Rouben Mamoulian version that was made barely ten years before!

The plot is virtually the same with a few alterations, many a result of the Production Code, which was not evident in the 1931 original. The film begins in a church as a sermon is being held and a man(played by Warners Bros heavy, Barton Maclane) makes a scene and inspires Jekyll(Spencer Tracy) to develop a formula to seperate the evil of man from his good nature. He proposes his idea at a dinner party and it does not go over so well, brushing rather badly with his fiance's father(Donald Crisp, who is far more understanding than Haliwell Hobbes, but ultimately leaves less of an impact). Jekyll is doing pretty well for himself, considering he's engaged to  Lana Turner (who is now called Beatrice in this version, rather than Muriel) but is restrained by the father. Like in the 31' original, Jekyll comes upon a woman in distress named Ivy(Ingrid Bergman, who is now a barmaid in this version, rather than a prostitute) and his id briefly takes control, as he lusts after her. Bergman was always beautiful, but rarely has she ever looked so stunning than she does in this film. At times her swedish accent seems a bit out of place, but her natural warmth and skills as an actress carry the role.

Jekyll experiments on himself and after a very Freudian montage, complete with images of Turner and Bergman being whipped as horses(!), Jekyll reveals himself as Mr. Hyde. The makeup is minimal, but somewhat effective and like in the previous version, appears to get slightly more horrible as the film progresses. Jekyll reverts back to his regular self, but upon learning about his fiance and her father's extended holiday, he takes the drug again and goes out into the night as Hyde. He finds Ivy and starts a riot, which he uses to get her fired and into his arms. Keeping her locked up in her apartment, Hyde takes sadistic pleasure in tormenting her. While not as disturbing as what occured in the 1931 version, Tracy's whispering and quiet menace as he mentally assaults Bergman, make these scenes equal to the earlier film, as they are the standouts here as well. Beatrice and her father return home and Jekyll and her are quickly engaged. However, shadows of his past return to haunt him as Ivy arrives and begs for help, showing her scars and revealing Hyde's cruelty. Jekyll vows never to take the drug again and burns the key to the outer door to his home that Hyde had used. However, one day while strolling in the park, he reverts back to Hyde and goes back to Ivy, where he promptly murders her. Now on the run, he cannot get back to his home and makes a letter to send to his best friend, Dr. Lanyon(Ian Hunter, who has a more warm friendship than in the previous film) to get the appropiate chemicals. Lanyon is unsure of Hyde and hodls him at gunpoint, and watches as he becomes Jekyll. He has sympathy with his friend, and tells him to call off the wedding. Jekyll agrees and goes to Beatrice and tells her what he must do. Leaving her home, he once more becomes Hyde and attacks her, which causes her father to come to her aid, which Hyde beats over the head and murders. Racing back home through the foggy streets, he is cornered in his laboratory. He turns back into Jekyll, but Lanyon arrives and reveals the truth and Hyde emerges and fights the police, before being gunned down by Lanyon. As he dies, he becomes Jekyll one last time, as his butler, Poole(Peter Godfrey) says a prayer over his body.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is perhaps an unjustly maligned film, both in it's time and even now. It's chief liability is that it happened to be a remake of an icnic classic. This version was not even just an adaption of the Stevenson story, but actually was based on the 31' screenplay. MGM bought the rights to it and kept the Paramount version out of circulation for decades. Fleming's film has several wonderful directorial flourishes, including a few that appear to be lifted from the 31' version(compare the scene where Jekyll is sitting alone after hearing about the news of Beatrice's holiday) and the black and white photography is first rate. Notice the gorgeous use of shadows as Hyde runs through the foggy London streets. It's pure German expressionism and reminds one of John Braham's later work on The Lodger(1944).
The approach of this film was supposed to be more psychological, hence the more subtle Hyde makeup, but that dosen't make it a more complex a story. In some instances, this version's more religious oriented imagery, while at times being poignant and effective(note that powerful conclusion) it also can be at times, very heavy handed. Some of the script changes lessen the impact as well, as the previous film was a much meaner and livelier film in all it's pre-code glory.
Tracy is one of the best Jekyll and Hydes in cinema history and while he does not triumph over Fredric March's portrayal, Tracy was too good an actor to just dog the part. Tracy wanted the film to actually be even more psychological and wished to dispense with the period setting and have the film be a metaphor for drug and alcohol addiction. The front office beleived it would not sell and opted for the more traditional. Tracy was not fond of the part and did not enjoy the makeup at all, however light it was. Tracy was more of a naturalistic actor and was not prone to such theatrical roles(Tracy and March both appeared together in Inherit the Wind(1960) and it's fun to compare both performer's different, but both excellent, acting styles.)
His Hyde is a much more subtle menace than was March's spastic and unpredictable characterization. There's real perversion in the way he speaks to Bergman and taunts her, particularly when he gives that teethy grin of his, highlighted by his dark eyes. The horror is downplayed, but the character is still effective nonetheless, and he does look appropiately terrifying by film's conclusion, especially when he stalks Lanyon with a knife!

Ingrid Bergman is simply gorgeous in this as the tragic and vulnerable Ivy and has probably never been lovelier. You really feel sorry for her as Hyde torments and abuses her and it's fascinating to watch her character's energy slowly expire through all the stress and mistreatment as the film progresses. She's like a dying flame, fatally extingushed by Hyde snuffing the life out of her in the film's supreme horror moment. Bergman had some great performances in the decade, including Casablanca(1942), Gaslight(1944) and Notorious(1946), but this may be her best performance on film.
Lana Turner, mostly known for playing voluptuous sexpots, is actually very good in the role of innocent girl and is charming and effective as Jekyll's fiance. Her wide-eyed innocence and tearful pleas towards film's end are genuinely moving and strike the right chord. Donald Crisp is less stuffy as the father and brings a warm likeability to the part of Turner's father, but ultimately by softening the character, it lightens Hyde's revenge on him as well. Ian Hunter is excellent as Jekyll's best friend, Lanyon and is more developed than in the earlier version, showing more compassion towards his wayward friend, even if he does not condone his methods. It's also more poignant that he is the one that must ultimately shoot Jekyll in the end and kneel sadly over his corpse, the look on his face proving that there were more victims of Hyde than Jekyll could have imagined. Peter Godfrey has a small role as Poole, but is very good and is practically the quintessential english butler, showing a rapport with his master that makes the ending more powerful.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a finely acted and crafted film, but ultimately loses that touch of horror and dread that made the original so powerful. Despite the bizarre dream sequence, the film's sexual undercurrents are decidely restrained in comparsion to the perversity of the original. Still, this film is undeserved of the knocks it generally recieves and certainly did not deserve to be the commercial disapointment and blot on Tracy's career, that the star purported it to be. It's one of the finest versions of the classic novel and if not being the best, than it can certainly lay claim to being a pretty terrific runner-up.

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