MGM pulls out all the stops in this high-profile 1941 horror remake. Star director Victor Fleming, however, is out of his element, as is Spencer Tracy in the lead. Still, the movie’s depiction of domestic psychological abuse makes it genuinely unsettling and Ingrid Bergman is sublime. (7/10)
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 1941, USA. Directed by Victor Fleming. Written by John Lee Mahin, based on screenplay by Percy Heath & Samuel Hoffenstein, based on play by Thomas Russell Sullivan et. al., based on novel by Robert Louis Stevenson. Starring: Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Produced by Victor Fleming and Victor Saville. IMDb: 6.8/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 65% Fresh. Metacritic: N/A.
I think this is the sixth instalment of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde I’m reviewing, so I won’t go into the details of the basic story and the development of the film versions brought to the screen. For more on that, please see my review of the 1920 version. Suffice to say, as most people know, the film is based on the 1886 novella of the same name by Robert Louis Stevenson, and concerns a Dr. Jekyll who concocts a potion that both distorts his appearance and his mind – bringing out the evil and the animal lust inherent in all men.
The story got its first feature-length treatment in 1920 with the master actor John Barrymore in the lead, and it remains my favourite version. Nevertheless, the 1931 version starring Frederic March (review) is perhaps the best known today, and overall it is better directed than its predecessor, and earned March an Oscar – it also brought about a stunning transformation scene with he aid of tinted filters and very good jump-cut editing. In this third feature film version it is yet again a new studio about, this time it is MGM who made the film, and the company pulled out all the stops. Not only is it directed by Victor Fleming, who in 1939 had released both The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, it starred three of the silver screen’s greatest stars: Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner. And despite all of this – or perhaps because of it – it still doesn’t quite meet expectations.
There has never been a a cinematic adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde that has been true to the book, even remotely. One of the reasons to this is that in the novella, nothing much happens. Most of the short story concerns Jekyll’s friends pondering the fate of the disappeared Dr. Jekyll and the strange circumstances regarding the death of his protegé, the murderer Mr. Hyde. The action, such as it stands, is mostly told in brief flashbacks, and mostly regards the strange comings and goings of Mr. Hyde. The actual plot itself is mainly contained in a short introductory letter from Jekyll and a short confessory explanation by him given to his friend. All transgressions made by Hyde, apart from a murder, are merely hinted at, although we are let to understand that they are mostly of sexual nature. Even the final scene of Hyde killing himself is told as a flashback.
The movies, on the other hand, focus on a love triangle between a fiancée, Jekyll/Hyde and a prostitute. None of these women are even mentioned in the book. In the films, Jekyll always sets out on his deadly journey with some noble intent in mind, be it the elimination of evil in man, or the good of science. In the book, Jekyll simply concocts the potions so he can go on with his frivolities without them reflecting poorly on his career and standing. The reason why most films don’t follow the book’s storyline is, of course, that it would make for a pretty bad mainstream movie. The reason so many films retain the same plotlines that weren’t present in the book is that they are all ultimately based on two different plays released just a year after the book’s publishing.
In the 1920 version it remains a bit hazy why Jekyll begins his experiment, but it is hinted that it would be of great consequence to mankind. The reason he returns to Hyde seems to be the the simple allure of being naughty. The film does, though, more than the others, play on the motif of a good man hiding his darker sides, like in the book. In the 1931 version Jekyll’s noble intent is to try to separate the good and evil in man, and then find a way to destroy the evil side altogether. The reason he returns seems to be a combination of the sheer joy and freedom of his physical transformation, and the fact that his girlfriend’s father forbids them from rolling in the hay until marriage, so he instead finds other girls to roll around with as Hyde. And also, his girlfriend seems to be an insufferable bore. Instead his lusts are awakened by a raunchy prostitute. In the 1941 version Spencer Tracy is very happily engaged to Lana Turner, with the best of blessings (eventually) from the father-in-law to be, played by Donald Crisp. Here again, the experiment seems to be brought on by some higher ideal to science – it seems Jekyll wants to find a cure for violent madmen. Even though his interest seems to be a bit piqued by the prostitute (sorry, barmaid, since the Hays code was in effect) played by Ingrid Bergman, he seems to have a most gentlemanly restraint towards her and nothing suggests any problems with the Missus to be. Rather, the relapses seem to be more a nuisance than anything else.
But: the film gets a bit interesting – because of the Hays code, much of the sexual content and the violence is removed in this version, that is basically a rewrite of the 1931 script. This prompts screenwriter John Lee Mahin to adopt a more psychological terror. This has been seen as major flaw with many reviewers, who lament the fact that the film isn’t really a horror movie. What all of them seem to miss, is that the scenes between Bergman and Hyde basically become a pondering on domestic violence and psychological abuse. Rather than playing the violent animal that Frederic March did, Spencer Tracy turns his Hyde into a domineering husband, locking Ivy (that’s her name) in a posh apartment and teases her with hopes of a bit of freedom, just so he can see the light fade in her eyes. Instead of actual violence, he uses the threat of violence to slowly grind her to the ground.
The psychological horror is enhanced by Fleming’s frequent, long close-ups of the actors’ faces. Ingrid Bergman’s performance is sublime. Her ability to go through a rollercoaster of emotions in a single shot was used by many directors, perhaps best remembered from her five minute long shot in Sidney Lumet’s Murder on the Orient Express, but the scene near the of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde where Hyde completely destroys Ivy is not far away from that brilliance. The aforementioned thematic change and Ingrid Bergman, along with the stunt work, are the film’s greatest assets.
This film was made by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, and seems to have been suggested by the studio’s number one star, Spencer Tracy. Tracy originally wanted to do a modernisation of the story, and forego the science fiction elements. He saw Jekyll/Hyde as one and the same, and wanted to play the film without the physical transformation. His idea was to have Hyde emerge through the use of drugs and alcohol. Of course, drug use was a no-no for the Production Code, and MGM instead opted for buying the rights to Paramount’s 1931 script. As soon as they acquired the rights, MGM immediately set out destroying all of the prints of the old movie they could get their hands on – it had been such a tremendous success, and the direction of Rouben Mamoulian and March’s performance was so highly praised that MGM wanted to make sure the film had time to wane from the audience’s memories.
Probably at the request of Tracy, the makeup for Hyde was kept pretty subtle, making Hyde look like a bloated version of Jekyll, and this is one of the film’s major flaws. Although I admit that I never liked the March makeup, which made Hyde look like the ape man, such a subtle makeup would require the facial contortionist talents of John Barrymore, which Tracy sadly lacks. It is utterly improbable that Jekyll’s friends would not recognise Spencer Tracy immediately, since he basically looks like a puffed-up version of Spencer Tracy. Despite this, Tracy is said to have hated the makeup process. The up side of the subtle makeup is that it brings a certain humanity to Hyde, in essence making him all the more scarier for it, in my opinion more so than the over-the-top makeup of March.
The transformation scenes lack all the physical brilliance of John Barrymore’s. In his first famous transformation scene, done in a single take, he becomes completely unrecognisable simply by changing his facial features (although makeup and prosthetics are added later in the film – I could have lived without the egg-shaped head). March’s first transformation must have seemed equally ominous when first scene: the painted-on makeup simply appears in one magic shot. For years Paramount refused to divulge how it was done – but it was later revealed – as many guessed, that the makeup was always there, but invisible because lighting with filters the same colour as the makeup. It was only when the filters where removed, that the facepaint became visible on the black and white film. In comparison, Tracy’s transformations seem rather dull, completed with the age-old trick of jump-cuts and dissolves, unfortunately a bit too many of them are featured for too long stretches in the film.
Tracy isn’t bad in this film, and I especially like his performance as Dr. Jekyll. But as many have pointed out, he really never gets a grip of Mr. Hyde, and not knowing exactly what to do with the role, he turns to hamming. He lacks the laid-back knowing slyness of Barrymore, and the childlike mischievous glee of March. As pointed out, this was not the Hyde he had wanted to play, but when the fact dawned, it was too late for him to back out. After the reviews came out after the premiere, Frederic March wrote Tracy a telegram thanking him for his greatest career boost ever, since all reviewers compared March’s performance favourably against Tracy’s. Most of the other actors speak with British accents, but Tracy couldn’t manage it, so he speaks American through the film, although it is never mentioned that he is American, as it certainly would have been in England in 1886, when American visitors where still rarities, not to mention acclimatised American doctors. Tracy later said this was his least favourite roles of all time.
In a sense, this critique is a bit unfair towards Tracy: had he done the same role, in say, a Universal B movie, it would probably have been much less maligned. But Victor Fleming’s direction is much too glossy and classy for Tracy’s scenery-chewing antics, and he has the disadvantage of playing against one of cinema history’s greatest actresses of all time, Ingrid Bergman.
In fact, Ingrid Bergman was supposed to play Jekyll’s girlfriend, as she was usually cast as more timid characters. On paper, the role of Ivy was much better suited for famed femme fatale Lana Turner. But as Bergman was afraid of becoming typecast (this was before she became the mythical legend she is today) as the good girl, she requested the roles be switched – and the film is almost certainly better for it. Lana Turner would probably have played the half-raunchy barmaid in her typical manner, but the sensitive, bubbling Bergman gives the character a lot more depth than is present in the script. She is absolutely magical to look at, seldom has the screen seen such an immediate and open actress, Bergman always seems to leave her soul open for everyone to see on screen. One readily forgives the fact that her attempted cockney accent wanders quite a bit during the movie.
Lana Turner isn’t bad at all, but her role is pretty inconsequential, and she quickly fades from memory.
Spencer Tracy was one of the biggest male stars of Hollywood in the late thirties and early forties, and her won two Oscars, a Golden Globe, a Cannes award and lots more. Swedish Ingrid Bergman acted fluently in five different languages and won pretty much everything an actress can win, including three Oscars, four Golden Globes, two Emmys, a Tony and numerous other awards in a number of countries. Lana Turner was nominated for an Oscar and five Laurel awards, and won a number of film festival awards. Spencer Tracy is listed as number nine on AFI:s list of all-time greatest male film stars. Ingrid Bergman takes fourth place among female actresses, just beating country-woman Greta Garbo by one spot.
The rest of the cast range from excellent to competent, without anyone standing out in particular.
This being an MGM A-lister, the crew is also naturally top-notch. Screewriter Mahin contributed to films like Scarface (1932) and Quo Vadis (1951), and was nominated for two Oscars. He earned a lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild of America. The music was created by legendary composer Franz Waxman, whose soundtrack for Sunset Boulevard (1950) was named by AFI as the 16th best score in Hollywood history, and who won two Academy awards and received another whopping 10 (!) nominations. He also scored The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review), The Devil-Doll (review) and The Invisible Ray (review, both 1936), among others. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was one of the films that earned him a nomination.
Helping Fleming create the surprisingly bright and clean world of the film was cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg, who won four Oscars during his career. The filming is extremely competent, and there are very striking images in the film. One of the most famous scenes is a montage dream sequence where Hyde sees himself frantically flogging two horses, that turn into bare-shouldered Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, after he first sees them both with bed-face in a water-lily pond. A good part of the scene was reportedly cut by the censors, and it would be really interesting to see the rest of the scene. The shots are always meticulously set up, and there are stints with great atmosphere, but all in all, the filming is a bit too sophisticated and high-brow for what is basically an exploitation film with a large budget. But nevertheless, Ruttenberg was nominated for an Oscar for his work on the movie.
Another man who was nominated for an Oscar for the film was editor Harold F. Kress, best known for editing the disaster movies The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and The Towering Inferno (1974). He won an Oscar for the latter, as well as for How the West was Won (1962). He also edited the post-apocalyptic film The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959) and The Swarm (1978). Set decorator Cedric Gibbons won incredible 14 Oscars, and I won’t even try to count the nominations. Even more outrageous is his track record which lists over 1 000 films, including The Wizard of Oz and Singing in the Rain (1952). He also created the iconic sets of Forbidden Planet (1956, review) and did work on The Devil-Doll. On all of the above-mentioned films, including this one, he worked with set decorator Edwin B. Willis, who unfortunately only has 8 Oscars to his name.
Not to be left out of the Oscar battle, sound recorder Douglas Shearer has 7 of them. Special effect creator Warren Newcombe only got two, and he also created the much talked-about effects for Forbidden Planet, alongside Disney.
As mentioned earlier, one of the most impressive aspects of the film is the stunt work. Basically whenever action ensues, Tracy gets replaced with legendary stunt man and actor Gil Perkins, who, among other things, doubled star Bruce Cabot throughout King Kong (1933, review) and replaced Bela Lugosi as the Monster in the climactic battle sequence of Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, review). Perkins also played Bluebeard in Batman: the Movie in 1966. He was one of the co-founders of The Stuntmen’s Association of Motion Pictures. The Australian athlete leaps like a panther in staircases, through windows and over railings, creating the illusion of Hyde’s superhuman agility and strength. The film is worth watching for the stunts alone, and credit must also be given to Fleming for knowing how to film them.
So to sum it all up; it’s a mixed bag. Victor Fleming creates a rich and fluid film, but the clean sets and images and the overall lightness and brightness of the film are a bit out of place in this context. The script has highlights, but as a whole the film drags a bit too long at just over 80 minutes, and much of it seems like a rehash of the 1931 movie. Nevertheless, it is a very enjoyable movie with some stunning acting, mostly from Bergman, but Tracy also has his moments. Technically the film is flawless, but despite multiple Oscar-winning director and cinematographer, the movie isn’t as bold and visually inventive as the 1931 version. I do without doubt call this a good film, even a very good one, but there’s a feeling that a great film was squandered on an occasionally weak script, a miscast male lead and a director who didn’t quite understand the genre. Although panned by critics, the film was nonetheless very successful at the box office worldwide, and took home over 2 million dollars, easily winning back the production cost and then some.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. 1941, USA. Directed by Victor Fleming. Written by John Lee Mahin, based on the screenplay by Percy Heath and Samuel Hoffenstein, in turn based on the play by Thomas Russell Sullivan, based on the novel Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson. Starring: Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Donald Crisp, Ian Hunter, Barton MacLane, C. Aubrey Smith, Peter Godfrey, Sara Allgood, Frederick Worlock, William Tannen, Frances Robinson, Denis Green, Billy Bevan, Forrester Harvey, Lumsden Hare, Lawrence Grant, John Barclay. Music: Franz Waxman. Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg. Editing: Harold Kress. Art direction: Cedric Gibbons. Set decoration: Edwin B. Willis. Gowns: Adrian. Makeup: Jack Dawn. Production management: Keith Weeks. Assistant director: Tom Andre. Sound: Douglas Shearer. Men’s wardrobe: Gile Steele. Produced by Victor Fleming and Victor Saville for MGM.