DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE - DVD review

I have to admit I liked the earlier, more melodramatic account better. It offers more energy and more pure animal fervor, even if parts of it are, frankly, more corny.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.
Puccio

Why did Dr. Jekyll go to Florida?
To tan his Hyde.

That joke is probably older than either of the motion pictures on this disc, but it goes to show how universally recognizable the characters are. Robert Louis Stevenson's 1886 novella, "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," which tells of human nature's dark side, has been filmed a score or more times, but the two versions brought together here are among the very best. The first, a Paramount production, is from 1932, directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starring Fredric March and Miriam Hopkins. The second, an MGM feature, is from 1941, directed by Victor Fleming and starring Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman.

The nice thing about this double feature disc is that a viewer doesn't have to chose between the two renditions trying to decide which one is best. (Not that the viewer won't have a favorite.) They're both different enough from one another in tone and flavor for a person to find something of interest in each. In other words, it's a win-win situation.

1932 Version:
Director Rouben Mamoulian was a passionate and innovative filmmaker, and these qualities show up in his 1932 take on the Stevenson classic. The film actually premiered on New Year's Eve 1931, but who's to quibble. Mamoulian's account was a smash hit and is notable in four major areas: the acting, the makeup, the cinematic expression, and the censorship.

The kindly and celebrated physician Dr. Henry Jekyll is played by a very young and very handsome Fredric March, who won the Academy Award that year for his performance. (For those of you too young to remember, March was one of America's great actors, winning another Oscar in 1947 for "The Best Years of Our Lives" and being nominated for three more films in his long career.) Anyway, Dr. Jekyll's startling theory is that man's inner soul must somehow be freed of its evil self, an evil that will eventually wither and die if left on its own, if the potential for pure good in man can prevail. Consequently, he invents a potion that does that very thing; it releases the dark side of Man, turning him into a beast, literally lusting after the things his respectable Jekyll half had to try to repress.

March's portrayal of Jekyll is anything but remarkable--a mild-mannered, sophisticated man of even temperament, he would rather be spending his time treating charity patients than tending to his social obligations as a member of London's upper crust. But it is for Hyde, his alter ego, that March is remembered. His Hyde, a hideous yet not entirely repulsive character, is charming, happy-go-lucky, you could say, when he makes his first appearance. Hyde seems positively delighted with his newfound freedom from the propriety-bound Jekyll. But as the story goes on, Hyde loses all touch with all human decency, becoming more bestial and disintegrating into pure wickedness. March's delineation of this decline is a joy, the actor going over the top on occasion, to be sure, in the exaggerated manner of performances in early talking pictures but generally keeping the character grounded in a cinematic realism.

Playing the two female leads are Miriam Hopkins as Ivy Pearson, a dance-hall entertainer and lady of dubious reputation, and Rose Hobart as Muriel Carew, Dr. Jekyll's demure fiancée. Of the two women, it is Ms. Hopkins who gives the standout performance, as might be expected of the juicier role. It's a wonder, indeed, that she was not at least nominated for an Academy Award, but perhaps the sedate Academy thought her too earthy or too carnal to be considered. In any case, she is quite persuasive as the jauntily flirtatious and later extremely terrified Ivy.

March's makeup is equally to be credited for the film's success. Through a combination of camera filters and overlays, Jekyll's transformation is convincing even by today's standards of special effects. In the beginning, I thought the makeup too grotesque, the apelike hair and projected fangs making Hyde look almost comical, but March takes such joy in his new appearance, so do we. Then, as the picture goes on, each of Hyde's subsequent transformations make him ever more horrid, the final makeup job not only causing March much discomfort but putting him into the hospital for several weeks after the filming ended. The actor was fortunate not to have sustained permanent disfigurement.

In terms of its style, the film is well advanced for its time. Mamoulian wheels his camera in around his sets with uncanny ease, using a special enclosure to keep the sound of the mechanism quiet. He effectively uses light and shadows to create the proper eerie atmosphere for a thriller. And he indulges in a number of point-of-view shots, just becoming known as "subjective" photography, where we see things from the character's perspective. Apparently, this technique was so new that the studio, Paramount, didn't trust how audiences would react to it and cut some of it out of the opening scenes. Fortunately, Warner Bros. have restored as much lost footage as possible to present the film pretty much it looked on opening night.

Which brings up the final point: Censorship. Although the film was passed by the National Board of Review as well as studio bosses, the film contained so many objectionable scenes it was seldom shown in its original state after local censors around the world watched it. The very nature of Jekyll's predicament, his repressed sexual frustration over not being able to marry his fiancée until her father says so and the consequent release of this frustration as Hyde, must have itself been a pain for the censors to accept. Again, WB have restored everything that is still available, including some brief, discreet nudity, some admittedly steamy sexual innuendos, and some scenes of violence thought too intense for the day. The censorship problems only increased the film's box office appeal.

1941 Version:
MGM decided to remake "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" as a prestige production and lavished a good deal of money on it. They hired Victor Fleming, hot off "Gone With the Wind" and "The Wizard of Oz," to direct, and they signed prominent actor Spencer Tracy, relative newcomer to American films Ingrid Bergman, and screen siren Lana Turner to star. The film is less an outright horror film than its predecessor and more a straightforward psychological study, which may not please all viewers. Most of the earlier sex is replaced by a stubborn, straightlaced morality. Hollywood had apparently learned its lesson and didn't want any problems with the more rigid censorship of the early forties. Too bad.

Tracy himself insisted that this "Jekyll and Hyde" be no mere fright flick and that his character be fleshed out as a sadly disturbing human being. If anything, it tends to make the film look more old-fashioned than the 1931 release. Oddly, the studio cast Turner as Jekyll's sweet, prudish fiancée, this time called Beatrix Emery, and Bergman as the coy, temperamental barmaid, this time called Ivy Peterson. You'd have thought it would have been the other way around, but the results are fine, even if Bergman seems a bit too cultured for the street snipe she plays. Just as oddly, the studio allowed Tracy and Turner to retain their American accents while encouraging Bergman to effect a British Cockney dialect (to emphasize her character's lower class). This circumstance requires a dedicated suspension of disbelief on the viewer's part as Bergman slips back and forth between her own pronounced Swedish intonations and the Cockney inflections she's attempting to emulate. Oh, well. Her scenes with Tracy are far less torrid than the ones between March and Hopkins, so the censors saw little problem with the picture. Also too bad.

In this version, as I've said, the emphasis has been altered. Jekyll wants more than to release the evil in one's soul; he wants to find the good in the most wicked of men. It is a more noble ambition, but it makes for a far less interesting movie. Even Tracy's makeup is less intense than March's. Where March became a fanged monster, Tracy becomes merely a sinister brute. The latter is more realistic, to be sure, but less intriguing and a whole lot less fun.

I liked both versions, but I have to admit I liked the earlier, more melodramatic account better. It offers more energy and more pure animal fervor, even if parts of it are, frankly, more corny. Still, both movies are fascinating translations of a tale most of us know by heart, and for anyone interested in the art of filmmaking they represent two very different approaches to essentially the same subject matter.

Video:
Both versions come off pretty well visually, thanks to the care with which Warner transferred them to disc. A fairly high bit rate is used in both cases, less compression ensuring a cleaner image and deeper black-and-white contrasts. Using the best possible prints helped, too, and there are few age marks on either of them, except in the 1932 version near the ends of reels where film stock generally shows the greatest wear. The 1932 version looks very good for its date of origin; the 1941 version looks good for any date. In fact, the 1941 version is almost faultless, with the exception of some very minor halos, and fairly glistens with luster. There's a crystalline clarity to the black-and-white images that makes them seem almost three-dimensional.

Audio:
The 1932 version suffers the most sonically, even though Mamoulian must be credited for doing as much as he could with the early sound. The audio is reproduced in Dolby Digital 1.0 mono, and while it's quite limited in frequency and dynamic range, it's good for conveying dialogue at the very least. Overall, the 1932 version is a bit scratchy, but there is surprisingly little noise present, only a slight background sizzle. The 1941 version shows a marked improvement in sound quality over its earlier counterpart. It is still understandably constricted in its frequency and dynamic extremes, but it is smoother and more realistic in its tonal balance than the earlier issue and, consequently, easier on the ears.

Extras:
The disc's primary bonus is having two films on it, of course, but in addition we get an excellent audio commentary on the 1932 version by author and film historian Greg Mank. Mr. Mank is wonderfully informative and amusing, too, and anyone who buys the disc should be sure to give the 1932 version a second go-round with Mank's comments. Note that he points out all the more scandalous parts of the film, a definite plus. As another bonus we find the 1955 Bug Bunny Looney Tunes cartoon "Hyde and Hare," twenty-five and twenty-eight scene selections, and a theatrical trailer for the 1941 version. English is the only spoken language provided, but there are subtitles in English, French, and Spanish.

Parting Thoughts:
"I began to be tortured with throes and longings, as of Hyde struggling after freedom; and at last, in an hour of moral weakness, I once again compounded and swallowed the transforming draught.... My devil had been long caged. He came out roaring." --R.L. Stevenson

The 1932 version of "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" not only won an Academy Award for Fredric March, it was nominated in two other categories as well, Best Writing and Best Cinematography. The 1941 version is a more philosophical take on the story and a more lush production, and while it won no awards (though it was nominated for Best Music, Cinematography, and Editing), Tracy probably should have been at least nominated. Neither film is a classic, but having them together on a single disc makes for an attractive comparison.

Ratings

Video
8
Audio
6
Extras
6
Film Value
7