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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Double Feature (1932/1941)

Warner Home Video

Starring: (1932) Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart,
(1941) Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner

Written by: (1932) Samuel Hoffenstein, Percy Heath,
(1941) John Lee Mahin, from the Hoffenstein and Heath screenplay

Based on the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson

Directed by: (1932) Rouben Mamoulian,
(1941) Victor Fleming


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Review by Mark Bourne                    


Like Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, a thriller about a scientist's quest to cleave apart his twin "good" and "evil" natures, is an oft-filmed tale. Like Phantom it has even inspired a stage musical (starring David Hasselhoff, which should conjure thoughts of unrestrained evil all by itself). On this double-feature disc, we get two of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde's more notable screen adaptations. The first, from 1932, is one of the most entertaining classics from the heyday of Hollywood horror icons. The second, from 1941, is not nearly as much fun, but it comes with a director and cast of glossy fan mag caliber, and there's something to be said for the sheer pleasure of watching Ingrid Bergman just one year before she'd always have Paris.

These two iterations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde could hardly be more different, yet they bear some similarities worth noting (and that go beyond the fact that the 1941 film filched the screenplay from the '32).

For all of Stevenson's probings into mankind's Janus-faced composition, in neither of these cinematic versions does Dr. Henry Jekyll come off as completely innocent of his own questionable surface-level motives and characteristics. In Fredric March's 1932 interpretation, Jekyll strives to release our virtuous higher selves from the bestial hedonists we all hide (get it?) within the high walls of civilized humanity. The product of his dabbling in Things Man Was Not Meant To Know is the loathsome Mr. Hyde, the personification of Jekyll's repressed dark nature. Yet while March's doctor is a kindly altruist, he is also shown to be innately cowardly and irresponsible. And he may be willfully naive. He claims that his goal is to release the Evil side so that it can sate itself and no longer weigh down the Good, which would be freed up to aspire to higher noble achievements; a lofty notion, but just how the hell did he expect that split to manifest? Then take Spencer Tracy's miscast approach to the role — it so muddles the Jekyll/Hyde duality that we can, based on the screen evidence, wonder if his potion merely serves as a placebo with which the doctor gives himself permission to let loose the thuggish misogynist that's barely contained even on good days.

*          *          *

Russian-born director Rouben Mamoulian started his career as a theater director in London and New York. When Paramount lured him to cinema in the early sound era, he brought an eye for innovation and a taste for engaging an audience that were honed on unforgiving live stages. Mamoulian's drive to make audiences willing participants in the drama, in this case through inventive camerawork and startling subjective point-of-view lensing, contributed to making his 1932 production of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde still the most successful screen treatment of Stevenson's novel. Benefiting from his tendency toward show-offyness with this young medium, the director's vigorous approach energized the material with such brio that his film leaves its horror-movie contemporaries (such as Tod Browning's stiff and stagy Dracula) eating Mamoulian's dust. Abetting Mamoulian was Karl Struss, whose striking cinematography was nominated for an Oscar and who had already achieved acclaim for his work on F.W. Murnau's Sunrise.

Also helping the production were two of the era's strongest genre-film performances. First, Fredric March plays both eponymous characters. This dual role, most memorably his remarkable turn as the diminutive, simian Hyde, earned March the Best Actor Academy Award. March's Jekyll is a respectable gentleman in every Victorian meaning of the term. In this explicitly sexual film made before the Hays Office's infamous Production Code enforced Hollywood self-censorship, what's chained within Jekyll is his "indecent" desire for an early marriage to (read: consummation with) his fiancée (Rose Hobart).

So his ferocious Hyde personifies not just an abstract "evil" — he is a natural embodiment of Jekyll's closeted desires. This Hyde is, in fact, completely self-aware of what/who he is. March's pointy-skulled Neanderthaloid revels in his newfound escape ("I'm free! I'm free!" he exults while examining himself in a mirror), and when the ebullient, zestful brute dons evening finery to go slumming and slake his cravings, it feels like an all-knowing middle finger flip to the restrictive social conventions that have restrained and frustrated Jekyll his entire life. The film's essential transformation scenes were achieved through an ingenious convergence of lighting, makeup, and color filters, and they are as effective as any modern CGI gimmickry. March's metamorphoses of physicality and personality fully differentiate the doctor and the monster even as the screenplay keeps them intimately bound, and the resulting tension keeps the screws tightened as the story propels to its inevitable tragic conclusion.

The second standout performance here is Miriam Hopkins' dance hall singer/prostitute "Champagne Ivy," the trigger for Jekyll's release of Hyde and the chief victim of Hyde's sexually driven debasement and cruelty. While a likable and sympathetic character, Hopkins' saucy strumpet displays the busty, leggy, licentious wantonness that helped usher in the Code, and in what would pass as a "PG"-rated film today Hopkins and Ivy still raise eyebrows (at least). Once the Code choked the film industry in 1934, Ivy was considered so bold and risqué that much of her footage — particularly a screen-filling garter-belt striptease for Jekyll while she sits on her pulled-down bed, followed by the good doctor giving the garter a Freudian poke with his cane — was removed for the 1935 reissue and remained all but lost before this DVD restoration. (Short snippets of footage are still missing, and on this disc's outstanding commentary track film historian Greg Mank points out what's "new" and where the few gaps remain.) It's a shame that the Academy didn't give out Best Supporting Actress awards until later in the decade. Hopkins might have taken the prize, following March to the Oscar stage, where (we're given to believe from Mank's commentary) the temperamental actress might have done her best to upstage her costar.

Mamoulian's film has aged quite well. It crackles along and its occasional dated period components — such as moments of melodrama dialogue and Mamoulian's hefty deployment of POV shots (the entire opening scene places us solely in Jekyll's perspective) as well as extreme close-ups that must have pressed contemporary audiences into the backs of their seats — help season the film's flavor. It went unseen for years after MGM bought the rights to it (as well as the John Barrymore silent version from 1920) and kept it out of circulation in favor of their own 1941 release. Moreover, if you saw it at all, chances were that you got a trimmed-down print that deleted the opening POV tracking shot and the overtly sexual content snipped by the Hays Office. (The irony of such restrictive Victorianism applied to this story deserves a nod.) Now this DVD edition delivers the most complete version released on home video, so it's extra nice that Mamoulian's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde finally gets an audience again.

(A point of clarification: In its original theatrical distribution, this film premiered on December 31, 1931, with its New York engagement beginning on January 2, 1932. That explains why different sources record this as either a 1931 or 1932 production. The DVD box lists it as '32, so that's what we're going by too.)

*          *          *

Double-billing on this disc is 1941's less impressive, though still interesting on its own, retelling of Mamoulian's film (not Stevenson's novel). This neutered remake showboats an unlikely A-list cast: Spencer Tracy as Jekyll/Hyde, Lana Turner as Jekyll's "good girl" fiancée, and Ingrid Bergman as the "bad girl" Ivy. Directed by Victor Fleming, who had already helmed The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, this is certainly a good-looking, well-made MGM product. But watering the wine is the studio's reputation as a maker of slick prestige productions, plus the ongoing influence wrought by the God-botherers behind the Hays Office. So you bet this is a movie that's plush and polished and handsomely appointed to within an inch of its life. It's also a turgid and buttoned-down and artless melodrama that tries too hard to be respectable and not at all to be thrilling.

Compared to the '32 version, Fleming's is more naturalistic and pious, which downplays the fantasy/thriller elements to no one's advantage except perhaps the lighting designer's. Mamoulian's sexual (sub)text is pushed so far to the back that it's hardly worth mentioning, though a crinkling of the brow is occasioned when, in one of this film's over-the-top transformation delirium sequences, Jekyll imagines both Bergman and Turner as charging carriage horses in a "nude" head-and-shoulders shot with himself as the whipmaster driving them thundering on. Any Freudacious symbolism intended by these overlays is fairly undercut by the explosive giggles they inspire as we watch them.

It's said that the studio pressganged Tracy into a role that he didn't want, and afterward he did his best to distance himself from it. Evidence comes in his unenthusiastic performance as Jekyll and his eschewing extensive makeup as Hyde. This renders the "monster" as not an incredible hulking Id but as little more than mussed hair and a gruff disposition. Hyde's rather tepid "evil" comes mostly as hints of offscreen badness. Unlike March's performance, Tracy's Jekyll and Hyde so obviously look like each other that it's ridiculous nobody recognizes the doctor when he's in his alternate mode. The adjustments to the earlier film's screenplay provide no help. Now Jekyll ambiguously seeks to cure "insanity" rather than unchain human potential. And this time around we see him experimenting on rabbits and rats who then snap and snarl, scenes that coldcock any deep thinking into the nature of humanity's evolved "good" and "evil" selves. After all, most people don't need bubbling drafts in beakers to become pissy and unpleasant. Enough cheap scotch does the trick just fine. Reviewers at the time — without the need for cheap scotch — gave Tracy's turn in this film one of his few critical roastings. Said Howard Thomas in The New York Times, "Mr. Tracy's portrait of Hyde is not so much evil incarnate as it is the ham rampant. When his eyes roll in a fine frenzy like loose marbles in his head he is more ludicrous than dreadful. When he blows grapeskins upon the fair cheek of Miss Bergman, the enchantress of his evil dreams, it is an affront to good taste rather than a serious, and thereby acceptable, study in sadism."

Lana Turner is such a generic love interest that she barely registers. She may be the woman Jekyll hopes to marry, but the absence of chemistry between Turner and Tracy makes her reason for being here utterly forgettable. Granted, her role is vapid and void of interest as written, but still.

Instead, director Fleming's attention is on the person who really makes the movie worth a look. It's Ingrid Bergman as Ivy, now a barmaid instead of a prostitute. In this year before she appeared in Casablanca, Bergman is so luminous that she must be viewed in naught but soft-focus and shot with her every close-up composed like portraiture bound for the Louvre. Her role as Hyde's Cockney mistress isn't at all a perfect fit for the Swedish actress, but she gives a fine full-on performance that's the film's primary pleasure. It can be argued that she was just too beautiful for the role of Ivy, but that's a forgivable casting choice for those of us who consider Bergman in Casablanca too beautiful for planet Earth. The Feb. 17, 1955 issue of Daily Variety reported that the city of Memphis, Tennessee's "film censor czar" Lloyd T. Binford banned the film because "Miss Bergman is an immoral woman," referring to the public hullabaloo about her relationship with Italian director Roberto Rossellini.

The '41 Jekyll/Hyde lacks its predecessor's visceral dynamism and undercurrent of sexual energy. It's all surface and sluggishly paced to boot, but it's an interesting MGM surface with a fine Franz Waxman score, and given who's involved this one's a welcome extra on a disc that's really about the Mamoulian/March version.

*          *          *

Warner's 2003 "Classic Double Feature" DVD offers one surprisingly good print (the '32 version) and one excellent print (the '41).

A thorough digital restoration would remove flecks and blemishes from Mamoulian's film, but the source print is plenty vivid and in very good shape. Blacks are deep and solid, with black-and-white contrast and smooth grayscale that's as good as we could ask for and better than we might expect. Its audio isn't robust, of course, though it would be churlish to complain about this clear Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural presentation. Expect a little hiss, but if you've already decided that this is a film for you then it's nothing you haven't encountered before.

Fleming's version comes from a terrific source master that looks brand new. Its DD monaural audio is just fine.

The chief extra is Greg Mank's entertaining and informative audio commentary for the '32 film. Mank is a fan as well as a film scholar/writer, dishing up a track that's three parts fannish effervescence and three parts expert testimony. He gives us extensive background on the production, on Mamoulian, the cast (lovelorn fans of Miriam Hopkins might be aghast at the tales Mank tells of her petty on-set bitcheries), the camera work (such as how the seamless transformations were achieved), the content that was cut post-Code, and the footage reinserted for this edition. Unpretentious and bearing a sense of humor with the scholarship, here's one of the best commentary tracks on the vintage genre shelves, as anyone who has heard Mank's delightful track for Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein would suppose.

Also here is the 1955 Bugs Bunny Looney Tunes cartoon "Hyde and Hare," directed by Friz Freleng. It's not one of the greats, but why carp when Warner has been so good about adding theme-appropriate toons to its releases of classic films? (The 1946 cartoon "Hare Remover" also isn't one of our favorites of the Warner Bros. toons, but it does include a bit where Elmer Fudd undergoes the Hyde-like after-effects of a potion he invented, then Bugs turns to the audience and quips, "I think Spencer Tracy did it better, don't you, folks?" We don't, but never argue with the rabbit.)

—Mark Bourne



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