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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

by Glenn Erickson May 14, 2022

In just her fourth American movie the Swedish import Ingrid Bergman proves herself the most sensual creature in Hollywood, running away with Spencer Tracy and Victor Fleming’s remake of Mamoulian’s pre-Code classic. The morals are cleaned up and the sex angle tamed down (except for Fröken Bergman) and the acting is less stylized — overall it’s a fine show. Ingrid learned quickly how things were done at MGM — she swiped the film’s plum role from Lana Turner.


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1941 / B&W / 1:37 Academy / 113 min. / Available at Amazon.com / General site WAC-Amazon / Street Date May 17, 2022 / 21.99
Starring: Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Donald Crisp, Ian Hunter, Barton MacLane, Sara Allgood.
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor: Harold F. Kress
Original Music: Franz Waxman
Written by John Lee Mahin from a novella by Robert Louis Stevenson
Produced and Directed by
Victor Fleming

In 1931 Paramount answered Universal’s astonishingly successful double dose of horror  Dracula and Frankenstein with a pair of adult shockers aimed to raise hackles. Both had roots in literature and pushed the limits of pre-Code tolerance. The Island of Lost Souls landed soon after the Darwin-Scopes Trial debate, and was instantly decried as blasphemous. England rejected it — they were especially touchy on the subject of vivisection — and when Production Code enforcement arrived Paramount shelved the show outright.

The second Paramount prestige horror production became a top title of its year yet suffered an even worse fate. Rouben Mamoulian’s version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an artistic and technical triumph that uses creative visual effects and astonishing makeup work to transform Fredric March into a savage degenerate. As was possible in the pre-Code era, Robert Louis Stevenson’s liberation of Jekyll’s inner self is expressed as unrestrained sexual license — this monstrous Hyde kills and rapes at will, and tortures poor Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) without mercy. The temptations placed before Jekyll were fairly explicit, with racy bedroom scenes. The superior show still impresses with its adult approach and Fredric March was rewarded with the Best Actor Oscar.

When UCLA began screening its holdings from the Paramount studio print collection, name critics and curious stars began showing up on campus to see them. These were original nitrate prints, and UCLA’s new Melnitz Hall Theater was equipped to project them legally. Island of Lost Souls hadn’t been shown in prime quality for 40 years (even though some 16mm was distributed on TV). Because it had been shelved since 1934, it was intact, perfect. Unfortunately, the Mamoulian Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde had been reissued in a cut version. Restorers have been putting it back together ever since, and we’re still not sure if it’s completely intact — were those hints of nudity even more explicit, or were critics’ memories not accurate?

 

Making things more difficult for Paramount’s Jekyll / Hyde ’31, that movie was later purchased outright by MGM for a remake with Spencer Tracy. The Oscar-winning original was locked up so as not to compete with the new film, and its ‘abandoned’ pre-Code version all but forgotten. Fewer fans criticize March’s theatrical gestures and exaggerated ape-like makeup, probably because expressionist filmmaking is now better appreciated. The entire production has technical and artistic merits far advanced for 1931.

Victor Fleming’s 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is also a prestige production, and it can be commended for not openly copying Mamoulian’s approach. Instead of expressionist imagery, grotesque makeup and erotic trimmings, Fleming concentrated on lush MGM production values and intense acting from the leads. The buzz was that Spencer Tracy became Hyde simply through his performance, which of course isn’t true. Some makeup effects are involved, just not the extreme facial appliances that changed Fredric March into a grinning, brutish simian. There was a time that we rejected the ’41 Jekyll/Hyde outright, for a number of reasons. It’s clearly not as ‘cinematic’ — Mamoulian’s show is a kaleidoscope of groundbreaking visual and editorial effects. The remake follows the ’31 version closely, but takes an entirely prudish, Code-embraced attitude toward sex. Fredric March’s Jekyll was sexually frustrated — if his fiancée and her family hadn’t put off the wedding, the doctor might not have seen the need to run amuck. The remake endorses prudence and prudery at every step, deflecting the blame back at Jekyll.

It’s actually not a good idea to see the films too closely together — Fleming’s version visits the exact same set of conflicts and frustrations, and responds with Sunday School moralizing. Jekyll/Hyde ’41 copies many camera angles and replaces the earlier’s erotic detail with sexless MGM production values. The film begins and ends with prayers in a church, as if Louis B. Mayer wished to neutralize the story’s blasphemous aspects. Overt sensual expression and life-affirming healthy LUST has been whacked down by a heavy mallet.

 

The ‘dangerous’ movie has been tamed. Spencer Tracy’s Jekyll only wants to cure madmen, not liberate the wild man inside himself. The social strait-jacket of Victorian society is not harshly criticized. The irate father (Donald Crisp) who won’t permit an early marriage goes mushy and relents, encouraging the young couple to embrace in a public place. By all means, let’s not say anything bad about Victorian society.

Taken on its own terms Victor Fleming’s remake has its own good qualities, mostly stemming from the more naturalistic star performances. An exceptional biography of Spencer Tracy by James Curtis includes many excerpts from the actor’s diary. Tracy had doubts about the show but Victor Fleming won him over with flattery and promises that the transition to Hyde could be done without makeup effects, purely through acting. Tracy thought this was a worthy challenge. They did try some effects described as ‘animation effects,’ but those were dropped — but ended up utilizing makeup effects and time-lapse tricks. Tracy wrote that he hated the effects and hated the film.

In a commentary on an earlier Warner DVD author Greg Mank concurred that Tracy put considerable thought into his Dr. Jekyll, and further explains the actor’s dissatisfaction. Mank says that Tracy’s own idea was to portray the Jekyll/Hyde split without a monster: Hyde would simply be an alias for the wild side that prim Dr. Jekyll unleashes to enjoy suppressed pleasures of the flesh. Tracy’s Jekyll would have used drugs and alcohol to accomplish this; the Hyde name would just be an assumed identity for his sordid activities.

 

MGM vetoed that idea right away. Just for starters, any kind of drug use was a Code no-no. They went for a straight remake of the Paramount version. This makes logical sense — unless they were going to copy the Mamoulian film, why purchase it?  The IMDB lists nine previous silent movie adaptations of the Stevenson book.

Tracy put considerable effort into the role — the actor never walked through a movie but he seldom stretched himself as he does here. Tracy wrote that he related to the character through his own drinking problem and saw Jekyll’s struggle in terms of trying to control his own inner demons. The Jekyll-Hyde contrast of personalities now has less to do with sex. Jekyll is a tame dog, and Hyde a really angry dog, a vicious character in general and only secondarily a perverted sadist. Victor Fleming gets in close and keeps the frenzy alive, and the performance works well.

Lana Turner was originally to play Ivy Peterson, the ‘bad’ girl. Pauline Kael revealed her catty critical bias by declaring that MGM got its casting backwards, that the roles should have been reversed. Turner is just fine as the virginal Beatrix, although she has less screen time and fewer attention-getting scenes.

 

Ingrid Bergman was still very much a Hollywood newcomer. She had been a hit in David O. Selznick’s remake of the Swedish Intermezzo, but two so-so films later she was surely itching to make some noise. Originally cast as Beatrix, Bergman fought with Selznick and Fleming to get the parts switched around. She had to test for it, but once the role was hers she showed everybody what sophisticated screen sensuality could be. It’s an unusually naturalistic and erotic performance for its time, especially Ivy’s seduction scene, and the scenes when she serves Hyde in the bar room.

Ivy is no longer a prostitute, just an extremely frisky barmaid, with a Scandinavian-ized name change from Pearson to Peterson. Yet Bergman raises the temperature of every scene she’s in. Bergman’s Ivy is so sensual, any real Jekyll would have done the sensible Victorian thing: not marry, and hire Ivy as an upstairs maid without work duties. He could send Lana Turner’s Beatrix a fruitcake every Christmas.

In her autobio Ingrid Bergman wrote that she had a crush on Victor Fleming during production, when her husband was still in Sweden. For the scene where Hyde taunts her into singing ‘You should see me dance the polka . . .’ Fleming shook her up by slapping her until she all but broke down. Ivy ends up attracting more attention than Spencer Tracy’s Hyde. Apparently Fleming reciprocated Bergman’s infatuation later on. After she’d made a hit on Broadway in Joan of Lorraine, Fleming became very involved with Bergman and poured all of his energies into making their ill-fated Joan of Arc. She later said that the tension led to Fleming’s sudden death.

 

The new script follows the old one closely and adds good research — details about the Victorian interest in an approaching comet, and the need for social and hygienic reform. Part of Stevenson’s story took place in the same squalid slums that Jack London wrote about, the same neighborhoods where Jack the Ripper would soon go into business. The remake has more natural dialogue, reducing the original’s somewhat Gothic, remote quality. Tracy’s subtle transformation is nowhere near as startling. He just becomes a madman with wild eyes and puffy features. In the older March version the supporting characters don’t seem as shocked by Hyde as they should be — he’s half ape-monster, half devil. In this Fleming version Hyde is so unchanged that Jekyll’s friends ought to recognize him immediately.

The remake also has less action and violence. Whenever Tracy has to do more than a brisk walk he’s replaced by a stunt man with a much thinner face. Following the letter of the Code, Hyde’s murders are kept almost entirely off-screen. Tracy’s roughest act against Ingrid is to straight-arm her onto a sofa, as he and James Cagney had done in old Warners gangster movies. At least they resisted having Hyde smush Ivy in the face with a grapefruit.

 

Paging Salvador Dalí.

Although the Production Code banned overt sexual violence the 1940s brought in a new kind of ‘psychological subtlety’ that really wasn’t very subtle. Occasional sub-Freudian dream sequences became kitschy montages blending avant-garde techniques with surreal visions. Salvador Dalí’s melting clocks were in vogue; the artist had had his own exhibit at the 1939 World’s Fair. Dalí had also enhanced his commercial prospects by breaking with the left immediately after Franco’s victory in Spain.

To replace the overt eroticism gutted from Mamoulian’s film MGM created a couple of dream sequences to enhance Jekyll’s transformation scenes. They do contain some S/M imagery. The women are also likened to lilies in a pond, and musical instruments — Ivy strokes her shoulder in concert with the bow of a cello, while a giant Jekyll eye takes in the spectacle. A superimposed hourglass presumably implies that Jekyll is obsessed with the female figure. The twin love interests Ivy and Beatrix become horses in harness whipped by the frenzied Jekyll (pointedly not Hyde). The bare-shouldered beauties run, visibly exhilarated-aroused. When Ivy looks back she sees a roaring lion. We’re meant to conclude that Ivy is thrilled to be raped by the ‘animal’ in Jekyll. She’s certainly not just frightened by the MGM mascot.

The specific montage imagery seems influenced by the dream visions in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis: the ever-present eyes, plus the visual overlays of water ripples and multiple impressions that look like Fresnel light patterns. The one truly weird, disturbingly interpretable part of this first montage is an image of what looks like a mud bath, but with a mass of hair in the center. Is it some kind of abstract / obscene representation of female flesh, or sex organs?   A hideous four-fingered claw enters and pulls the hair down into the mud — which we can all interpret for ourselves. Make no mistake, sex is DIRTY.

I’ve never seen this montage attributed to a particular editor. Montage expert Slavko Vorkapich still had MGM connections, and would later be an ‘associate director’ for Fleming’s Joan of Arc. He of course could have been involved, but the schematic storyboarded images and the lack of jarring cutting doesn’t immediately bring Vorkapich to mind. Somebody had a real brainstorm with that slimy claw in the mud — it looks like the abstracted dream image of a baby being born in David Lynch’s Dune.

We go overboard describing this brief dream scene because you won’t see it intact on the Warner Archive disc. There is also a shorter second hallucination montage, later in the picture. We’re told that the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde opened in a longer cut, as much as 14 minutes longer than this final version on the Blu-ray. The Tracy biographer reported that in its first engagements it got decent reviews and impressive business, but ‘worries about some laughs’ encouraged the studio to cut it down before general release.

A 2011 breakdown of Jekyll/Hyde ’41 on the Movie Censorship Page lists the cuts made to the hallucination montages, and accounts for most of the missing 14 minutes from the longer cut. The longer cut can be referenced because Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde appears to have been sent overseas for European distribution intact, and has been broadcast on German television in a longer form that brought attention to the uncut montage scene. ‘Frankie’ of the Movie Censorship Page did a good job of spelling out the altered scenes and deletions. Although we are quick to suspect censorship when scenes are cut, in this case we’re not so sure. MGM didn’t fight the Code Office and surely didn’t hide their plans from them. The cuts to the whipping-the-mares scene could very well have been made because the wrong MGM executive got cold feet, or got scared when some audiences laughed.

If you wish to see an uncut copy of the first Jekyll hallucination, a very clear extended hallucination scene has been easy to see on YouTube. Don’t be fooled into thinking that because it looks good there, that Warners could have restored it — slapping in a lower-quality sequence wouldn’t do the movie any favors. My research contact guesses that the original negative was lost, possibly in a fire at the Eastman House. The film was re-released in 1954, and it might have been trimmed at that point for television sales too. It’s been reported that some TV stations snipped the suggestive montage scene out entirely, anyway. The Warner Archive has gone to extraordinary lengths to restore films to original release versions, and in almost every case it’s because prime missing elements have been located.

 


 

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) appears to be identical in content to their DVD release of 2003, that came on a flipper disc with the 1931 Paramount version of the same story. The cut here may be the shorter general release version (?) but it is in terrific condition, with a silvery appearance and MGM’s polished, seemingly grain-free B&W sheen.

Franz Waxman’s score is highly regarded; a CD soundtrack has become a rarity. Waxman’s music gives added power to Spencer Tracy’s nighttime prowls, and of course those bizarre montage hallucination scenes.

The one extra is a trailer.

Once again we are racking our brains to remember films that ended up being sold to other studios, for remake rights. But how many studios sold an Oscar-winning title?  MGM apparently bought the 1931 negative from Paramount and then hid it away so as not to compete with their Tracy version, suppressing one of the best films of the ’30s. Was Paramount that down on horror pictures, or did they perhaps want to downplay their then- hidden library of pre-Code films that were suppressed, or censored?   The horror genre never got much respect over at MGM, either. They reportedly cut and scrapped big sections of Tod Browning’s Freaks and Karl Freund’s Mad Love.

Written with assistance from Michael Arick.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Trailer.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)

Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
May 11, 2022
(6727jeky)CINESAVANT

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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About Glenn Erickson

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Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.