Monday, 13 February 2017


Whilst Universal was busy reactivating their roster of horror monsters in 1941, across town another icon that they didn’t own was getting a make-over. Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde had last been remade by Paramount in 1931 and deservedly earned Frederick March an Academy Award (see my review of 18/2/2016) – even now a rare accolade for acting in this genre.

The 1941 version also had promising ingredients. It was made by M-G-M who, although usually the home of lavishly-budgeted glossy musicals, had already produced some interesting early horror films. Lon Chaney was contracted to them for his last five years which contained memorable fare like The Unknown (1927). In the next decade they dabbled further, continuing their association with Tod Browning’s circus obsession in the unforgettable Freaks (1932), and backing other horror-tinged dramas such as Mad Love (1935).

The studio’s second master-stroke was in having Spencer Tracey play the dual role of Henry Jekyll and his Mr Hyde alter-ego. By now, his beguilingly naturalistic acting style had bagged him two successive Oscars for Captains Courageous (1937) and 1938’s Boys Town (a feat only matched once since by Tom Hanks in the 1990s). His oft-quoted acting advice for fellow performers was “Never let them catch you at it”, a neat summation of his minimalistic approach. For the schizoid demands of this film, he combines the subtlety of the civilised doctor with an increasingly flambouyant style as Hyde’s primitive creature takes greater control of him.

Another crucial component for the film was the choice of Victor Fleming as director. With this remake he certainly gave the lie to an industry misconception about him. He was regarded as a man’s man in terms of his directing sensibilities - Clark Gable was reputedly happier when he replaced the more femininely-sensitive George Cukor on 1939’s Gone with the Wind) - and yet both Lana Turner and Ingrid Bergman deliver finely-shaded work under Fleming’s influence as the two vital female protagonists in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

Lana Turner is Henry’s English rose fiancĂ© Bea Emery, perfectly embodying a winsome femininity but hinting at what more is in store for Henry with a delightful flirtatiousness between them. “If you don’t stop looking at me like that, I won’t be responsible for my actions”, he tells her with charming restraint. She represents a publicly-concealed not repressed sexuality, very much there yet waiting for the societally-approved time of their wedding to be fully expressed. “Can this be evil then?” she asks Henry of their relationship’s tender love. She challenges his obsession with man’s latent murkiness and refuses to accept that such tendencies could ever dominate. If they attend the races, she will soon realise she has backed the wrong horse.

Bergman as the barmaid and prostitute Ivy has a role with more scope and colour than the delicate innocence required of Turner. Hers is a bold and provocative sexuality that is palpable in the private scene at her flat after Jekyll and his friend Dr John Lanyon (Ian Hunter) rescue her from a violent street customer. Hot innuendo radiates from Tracey and Bergman, enough to draw in the prudish moral guardians of Joseph Breen’s Production Code office who still held power over Hollywood depictions of celluloid sin. The script artfully skirts the shoals of sex though without ever frothing overboard. “Do you want to look at my side?” purrs Ivy coquettishly when Jekyll offers to examine any possible bruising to her. She even invites him to look at her ankle, peeling down her stocking in the full realisation of the temptation she gives him and bestowing on him a suggestive garter keepsake. No wonder Jekyll’s gentlemanly demeanour breaks and he goes in for a steamy, lingering kiss – awkwardly interrupted by Dr John. 

The glowing sexuality of Bergman in these scenes is even more powerful when we learn that originally Turner and Bergman’s roles were to be reversed. She became frustrated by her limited, virtuous typecasting and campaigned successfully with Fleming to be allowed to exhibit more range. Yes, she has an odd Swedish-Cockney accent, yet to be fair this wouldn’t be an inconceivable ethnic assimilation for working immigrants in a busy port city (Consider the varying nationalities of hopeful humanity sailing into New York for example) . Her bad-good girl is a scintillating performance, morphing from a haunting siren of sex into an abused, fatally vulnerable victim. Even when she encounters the newly-released Hyde in her seedy Palace of Frivolitites music-hall workplace, the top-hatted rake bores into her immediately with a fierce intensity that is almost a physical violation. She tells him to release his grip on her arm, and even after he does she murmurs “Let go” as if Hyde still has bruising possession of her.

A great supporting cast is on hand as well, most notably Peter Godfrey as the ideal warm and efficient butler Poole and Donald Crisp as Sir Charles Emery, the firm but decent father to Bea. (In a film featuring many Oscar-winners, Crisp would go on to richly merit his own statuette the following year in his moving portrayal of another family patriarch in How Green was my Valley).

John Lee Mahin’s screenplay, adapted from the 1931 version by Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein, is a literate gem that never lets us forget that this is the classic internal war between the commendably civilised and the uninhibited primitive within all of us. It is no coincidence that when we first meet Jekyll, it is inside a church, symbol of incorruptible good, where the congregation are distracted by the ugly heckling of a poor chap whose mind has lost its censoring capacity after an industrial explosion. Jekyll is solicitous with him and professionally fascinated by the erosion of public decency he is suffering. Has he been polluted with unnatural thoughts or did the damage reveal his true self?

 “Suppose we could break the chain – separate these two selves?” urges Henry. “Man is weak, has evil possibilities until the creator has solved it”. Choose your friend wisely folks, for this is a man of goodness virtually crying out for the crack-pipe of transgression and will not stop until he has wilfully crossed over in the name of scientific curiosity. The truly monstrous power of addiction is in its seductiveness and the heady possibilities of experiencing a new frontier. Ivy’s charms are not the cause of his downfall; she is a convenient catalyst for a voyager who is heading for mortal danger anyway.

Moving from the inward battle to the outward expression, fans and practitioners of horror film facial prosthetic effects will enjoy Tracey’s metamorphoses into Hyde and back. First, the early transformations are actually done off-camera; special mention is worthy here for Peter Ballbusch’s brilliantly suggestive montages, a cascade of potent images featuring Ivy and Bea, betraying Jekyll’s innermost torments. The resulting physical appearance of Mr Hyde is then mainly shown in medium and longer shot, keeping us at a slight distance while the monster self is rendered in a more understated way in his early outings. This is appropriate, not only to spare us the easy sabotage of over-the-top fright-wigs and goofy teeth, but because surely Hyde is the drawing out of Jekyll’s inner beast not a pasting-on of externals.

Jekyll’s later changes, which do become suitably more extreme, are undergone in lovingly detailed, static close-ups using dissolve photography where each applied layer by Warren Newcombe can be seen. Beneath his tousled hair, much emphasis is made around Tracey’s all-important eyes, amplifying his darkened soul within. Unruly bushy eyebrows sprout forth, his crow’s feet are accentuated and increasing bagginess is added under the sockets each time the bestial self emerges. The softness of the actor’s lips are neutralised, the top lip curled back to reveal gradually corrupted teeth that match Jekyll’s decaying humanity. Vocally as Hyde Tracey reduces his voice to a harsh, lower-toned, abrasive rasp to complement the roughness of his exterior.

As in the Frederick March version, it is rightfully uncomfortable to watch the later scenes where the enabler is crushed by the monster she helped to birth. This is not fifty shades of fey - each is progressively darker than the last. The relationship between Ivy and Hyde echoes that of many an understood domestic abuse case. His sick dominance of her, once complicit, is now full of dangerous sexual overtones: “You like a man who sees a girl and makes up his mind, don’t you?” he seethes at her with aggressive sexual power, daring her to be appalled and attracted, a ghastly reminder to us meanwhile of the sinful intentions she saw beneath his surface on first meeting (though she never realises he and Jekyll are the same man). His evil is more than just the warped brutality of superior strength, it is also stoked by the illogical fire of jealousy toward his outwardly purer alter-ego whom he detests “...from his lofty brim to the souls of his virtuous feet”. Hyde taunts Ivy with an unmistakable lewd caricature of submission: “He’s the kind of man you could get down on your knees to.”

 Although Hyde’s murder of Ivy is mercifully carried out off-screen, it is preceded by an awful earlier presentiment: “The world is yours, my darling. The moment is mine…” Hyde throttles her, at least sparing her any more of his hideous mockery of her dreamed future with Henry.
The set design by four-time Academy Award winning cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg is also deserving of mention. Whilst he cannot resist the Hollywood cliché version of Victorian London as fog-bound, there is atmospheric depth of perspective and detail in the streets.

Listen to Franz Waxman’s score for a lesson in sumptuous musicality that doesn’t swamp or neuter the darkness of the material whilst reminding us of the intended romance as well. From his beautiful opening theme to the soft tolling of funereal bells and a tastefully-cued heavenly choir as Jekyll dies into eternal peace, he becomes as valuable a partner for Fleming’s direction as he was to James Whale in scoring Bride of Frankenstein (1935). His career earned him seven Oscar nominations, winning a brace of them in successive years for Sunset Boulevard (1950) and A Place in the Sun (1951).

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a superb remake of Stevenson’s story which proves once again that if given serious studio support a horror film can transcend its unfair association with low-budget gutter connotations and rise to a level of artistry that places it well into the mainstream appreciation.

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