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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Double Feature) (1931) (1941) Print E-mail
Tuesday, 06 January 2004

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (2 Disc Set)

-Paramount (DVD release by Warner Home Video)
-MGM (DVD release by Warners Home Video)
MPAA rating: Unrated
starring: Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Holmes Herbert, Halliwell Hobbes, Edgar Norton
- Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Donald Crisp, Ian Hunter, Peter Godfrey, Sara Allgood
release year: -Dec. 31, 1931 in New York, 1932 elsewhere
film rating: Five stars
Three and a half stars
sound/picture: Four stars
Four stars (for the period)
reviewed by: Bill Warren

Warner Bros. has begun to change from one of the most disappointing distributors of DVDs to one of the most interesting. Certainly this reasonable but surprising combo package of the two best versions of Robert Louis Stevenson's "The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" wasn't something we could have expected from Warners just two years ago. Especially considering the work that has been done on the 1931 version, with many scenes cut over the years finally restored. (Including the one missing word that has irked film buffs for years.)

Rouben Mamoulian directed the 1931 version, which won an Oscar for Fredric March's performance as the dual doctor. The movie is stunningly cinematic, with Mamoulian employing many experimental techniques and stylistic touches that at times make the movie breathtaking to watch. It's easily one of the best horror movies of all time, and March's performance as Hyde has never been equaled, certainly not by a miscast Spencer Tracy in the 1941 version. (The story goes that after his film wrapped, Tracy called March to say "Your Oscar is safe.")

It's amazing, even revelatory, how fresh and modern the March-Mamoulian version seems even today, more than seventy years after it was made. What movies of 2003 will anyone still be watching seventy years hence? Mamoulian was an erratic movie director, but in the early thirties, he was a phenomenon, making "Applause," "City Streets" and "Love Me Tonight" in a few short years. He later directed "Becky Sharpe" (the first 3-strip Technicolor feature), "The Mark of Zorro" with Tyrone Power and "Blood and Sand." After that, he largely returned to the stage where his reputation was as great or even greater; he directed the Broadway debuts of "Porgy and Bess," "Oklahoma!" and "Carousel."

From literally the first shot onward, Mamoulian's direction seizes and holds the attention: the first few minutes of the film are shot with a "subjective" camera -- it takes the place of March, who isn't seen until Jekyll glances into a mirror. Still as Jekyll, the camera even boards a horse-drawn carriage and starts down a back-lot street. When Jekyll arrives at the medical school where he's to give a speech, there are a few closeups of audience members, then the camera turns to see March giving the speech. During the first transformation scene, the camera again becomes subjective, and our first sight of Mr. Hyde is also in a mirror.

Mamoulian uses carefully-timed dissolves, angled wipes and artificial and altered sound with immense creativity -- this is one of the few studio movies of the 1930s that's exciting to watch just because of the way it is made.
The script by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath only roughly follows Stevenson's original story, but it's full of invention and imagination anyway. Jekyll is convinced that there are two sides to man's nature, the noble, human side, and the baser, animal side. (Most versions feature the division as Stevenson did, between good and evil. Not so here; Hyde is less evil than a rampaging, heedless animal.) His friend, Dr. Lanyon (Holmes Herbert), urges him to try other approaches. Jekyll is eager to marry his fiancee, Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart), but her staid, proper father, Gen. Danvers Carew (Halliwell Hobbes), wants them to wait for eight months.

One night, Jekyll completes his experiment -- the lab scenes here are more convincing than in the 1941 remake -- and downs his potion. Mamoulian and his brilliant cinematographer, Karl Struss, used an idea that Struss originated in the silent "King of Kings." March was made up as Hyde with red makeup, then shot through a red filter, making the red on his face invisible. While the camera rolled, the red filter was gradually replaced with a green one, and the Hyde makeup appears like magic. There's then a cut, and the full makeup (by Wally Westmore) is applied. Each time Hyde appears, he looks worse, more animalistic; in his last two transformations, he doesn't even seem able to talk.

In this scene, Mamoulian also experimented with sound; the ring of a gong was played backward with the strike removed, Mamoulian rushed up and down stairs and recorded his own heartbeat, and some sounds were invented by flashing light onto the soundtrack. It's all of a piece, here, swirling and hypnotic, as the Neanderthal-like Hyde makes his appearance.

Jekyll tended to roughed-up prostitute Ivy (Miriam Hopkins), who's attracted to the handsome doctor (and few actors have been as handsome as the young Fredric March). There's a dissolve of her swinging leg, naked but for a garter, over the following shot of March and Herbert, the idea of Ivy lingering in both their minds.

When Jekyll again becomes Hyde, he goes out into the rain, exultantly turning his face upward, and then finds Ivy singing in a pub....

Hyde's later brutal treatment of Ivy is shocking and disturbing, one of the few areas in which the 1941 movie is the equal of this one. Hyde loves having power over her, loves terrifying her. Jekyll is submerged, but we know he's there, and he's enjoying it, too. Here, Jekyll and Hyde are not two different people, but two aspects of the same person, controlled and uncontrolled. Hyde is so uncontrolled, so heedless of what anyone might think, that he's often very funny, but he'd just as soon cut the throat of anyone who laughs. At the apartment he's set up for Ivy, he stuffs a whole muffin into his mouth, and later preens in front of a mirror, combing his hair over his pointed head.

It's one of the most courageous performances any actor has ever given -- and at times damned near impossible to believe that March plays both roles. His Jekyll is a bit much, rather too virtuous, too enraptured with his love for Ivy, but it's an appropriate performance for the period. His Hyde is something else altogether; not only does March change everything about himself, his face, his stance, even the way he moves, but the technique is timeless. It may be the greatest performance in horror movie history, rivaling Boris Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster.

Miriam Hopkins as the randy but sweet Ivy is also astonishing, with instantaneous changes of expression, and a haunting, quaking terror of Hyde. It's almost painful to watch her as he torments her.

Like a lot of films from the very early days of sound, "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" does not really have a musical score; it opens as March plays Bach's Toccata and Fugue on Jekyll's pipe organ, and source music is heard occasionally. Only in the scene in which Jekyll, at last horrified by Hyde, gives up his love for the stunned Muriel, does any music creep in. It's from an earlier, happier scene with the two of them.

The sets are well-designed, particularly those in the slum where Ivy lives, and there's a creative use of shadows, and light and dark. The movie is practically a course in filmmaking.

The 1941 version is a true remake; it was not based on Stevenson's novella but on the script for the 1931 movie. (To me, a remake is based on another movie; a new version is based on the property an earlier movie was based on. But your mileage may vary.)

This wasn't intended as a horror movie, really, but one of MGM's long series of plush, lavish adaptations of classic novels. The sets are even more extensive than in the 1931 movie; there's a lot of fog, and a huge cast full of talented character actors. It was directed by Victor Fleming of "Gone with the Wind" and "Wizard of Oz" fame. Fleming was a good, but staid, director, handling actors well but not showing a mastery of inventive film technique.

Spencer Tracy was a big star at the time, and regarded as one of the best actors in movies (which was true). But while his performance as Hyde here is inventive, it's also essentially uninteresting. The transformation is not extreme; Somerset Maugham visited the set, and after watching a scene being shot, asked, "Which one is he playing now?" In the 1931 version, it's easy to see why no one recognized Hyde as Jekyll; in the 1941 version, is hard do understand why anyone DOESN'T. Also, Hyde here isn't like March's vigorous, lusty, brutal young animal; Tracy's Hyde is a libertine and a brute rather than an animal or an embodiment of evil. Aside from his sneering torment of Ingrid Bergman's Ivy, about the worst thing he does is to spit grape skins at her.

The cast is excellent, and Bergman gives one of her best performances of the period as the tender, ignorant Ivy, tortured by the sadistic Hyde. Lana Turner makes a rather mild "good girl" (here called Beatrix), but Donald Crisp is authoritarian as usual as her conservative father. The script, from that of the 1931 version, is credited to John Lee Mahin, and the handsome cinematography is by Joseph Ruttenberg. It's excellent, but doesn't measure up to the creativity of Struss' work on the earlier film.

The 1941 "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde" is a good movie, but oddly a minor one, especially when compared to the daring and exciting Rouben Mamoulain-Fredric March classic. Still, it's very good to have them both in such good shape on this two-movie (but one disc) DVD. The March version was unavailable for 25 years, then turned up in a print that had been heavily censored. Most of what was cut has been restored, hallelujah, and is now available to everyone.

The earlier film has an excellent commentary track by film historian Greg Mank. He fills us in on the careers of Mamoulian, March and Hopkins, talks about the inventive makeup, the striking photography and other aspects. However, he can't quite bring himself to pronounce "Jekyll" as "jee-k'll," as it is said in the 1931 version -- and evidently by Stevenson himself. In the 1941 version it's the usual "jeck-k'l." However you pronounce it, this DVD is one of the best packages Warners has released to date. A classic and a near miss, major movies from Hollywood in its prime. If you like older films, this DVD is one you really must purchase.

more details
sound format:
Dolby Digital 5.1 sound; says surround but both movies predate that
aspect ratio(s):
special features: includes trailer for the 1941 movie and a commentary track for the 1931 movie by film historian Greg Mank
comments: email us here...
reference system
DVD player: Kenwood DV-403
receiver: Kenwood VR-407
main speakers: Paradigm Atom
center speaker: Paradigm CC-170
rear speakers: Paradigm ADP-70
subwoofer: Paradigm PDR-10
monitor: 36-inch Sony XBR

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