Friday, September 13, 2013


Victor Fleming, 1941
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner

This 1941 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an almost shot for shot remake of Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 film, which took some liberties with Stevenson’s story. Dr. Henry Jekyll, famous around London for his benevolence and brilliance, has been experimenting with a way to separate man’s bad and good natures, in order to liberate the positive aspect. Meanwhile, he is anxiously awaiting marriage to his beloved Beatrix, whose conservative father insists they wait. He rescues a lovely young barmaid, Ivy, from a man attacking her and she makes advances towards him. Beatrix’s father takes her away for a few months because he is uncomfortable with her growing closeness to Jekyll. 

In his agonized boredom, Jekyll experiments with a drug that splits his identity and transforms him into the grotesque Mr. Hyde, a man of many appetites. Hyde seeks out Ivy and convinces her to a partnership in exchange for financial support. She soon comes to regret this and sees the worst of Hyde’s violent, cruel nature. She seeks out Jekyll and begs him for help. He promises Hyde will never bother her again, but he doesn’t realize that he will now transform into Hyde without the aid of the drug. Beatrix returns and secures an earlier wedding date, but before they can announce it, Jekyll unexpectedly transforms into Hyde and murders Ivy. He runs from the police and reveals himself to Jekyll’s friend in order to get the potion to transform. Jekyll, horrified by himself, goes to break off his engagement with Beatrix. But with Hyde make a final appearance?

Instead of adapting Stevenson’s novel, this is a direct remake of the 1931 version of the film. This seems like a baffling choice, as there is almost no way it could compete with Mamoulian’s fantastic version starring Fredric March. Bafflingly, MGM seem to have known that, as they bought every available print of Mamoulian's film and tried to have them all destroyed. As a result, the earlier and far superior version was believed lost for years.

Director Victor Fleming, known for such landmark films as Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, sadly fails here and this is little more than a watered down, conservative film that strips nearly all the horror and sexual repression from the original. There is one excellent scene worth noting. When Jekyll first transforms into Hyde, Fleming tackles the scene by transforming it into one long, Freudian hallucination, ripe with symbolism. Jekyll whips two horses, though they soon transform into a naked Ivy and Beatrix, who he whips with an almost religious fervor. 

The real draw here is the impressive roster of names - Bergman, Tracy, Turner, and director Fleming - though I think their collective involvement makes the film even more disappointing. Though Bergman really shines in her first scene with Jekyll, she is hamstrung by a script that forces her to do nothing for much of the film. Her attempt at a cockney accent is also painful and she is simply too beautiful and elegant to really carry the role of a cheap London prostitute (though here Ivy is a barmaid). 

A lovely, young Lana Turner does her best, though she is also up against the script, which requires Beatrice to be little more than a stock love interest, the “good girl” role that was initially meant for Bergman. There are a number of other familiar faces, including Donald Crisp (The Uninvited) as Beatrice’s stuffy father and Ian Hunter (Tower of London) as Jekyll’s uptight friend, Lanyon.

Tracy is a major disappointment and simply cannot carry the role. He was clearly miscast and later regarded this as one of his biggest failures. And to think that he chose this project over The Philadelphia Story. As Jekyll, he lacks the obsessed conviction and almost painful sexual repression March conveyed. As Hyde, he looks ridiculously like Jekyll and it is amazing that no one noticed they were the same person earlier in the film. His Hyde is also not remotely frightening and is instead a slick charmer with malicious undertones. Characters react to his face with fear and revulsion, which is simply absurd.

Despite the fact that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde wasn’t particularly successful, it was nominated for a number of Academy Awards, including Best Cinematography and Best Music. There is some very lovely cinematography from Joseph Ruttenberg, though it only truly shines in a couple of fog drenched scenes where Hyde runs through Victorian London. It’s a shame that this adaptation fell so flat, as it had so much potential with the impressive cast and crew. 

I can’t recommend the film - though the 1931 version is a must see - but it will be interesting for Jekyll and Hyde fans, as well as Begman and Tracy fans. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is available for a streaming rental on Amazon or as a double feature with the 1931 Mamoulian version, though the disc is now out of print and is quite expensive. 

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