April 6th, 2018

Blue Aside

A Well Hidden Hyde

Incoherence is what's brought to the table by the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, essentially a remake of the 1931 version but hampered by the enforcement of the Hays Code after 1934. The loss of explicit references to or portrayals of Hyde's worst antics isn't made up for by any effective suggestions. This would have been bad enough but on top of this is Spencer Tracy, a fine actor, completely miscast in the role of Jekyll/Hyde. The film's not without its virtues, most of which can be found in the extraordinary beauty of Lana Turner and Ingrid Bergman and in the fascinatingly bizarre hallucination sequences that accompany Jekyll's transformations into Hyde. But for the most part this movie never gets up on its feet.

A strong transformation sequence is essential, too, since the Hyde makeup in this version is so minimal I thought the first time Jekyll drank the potion and looked in the mirror his experiment had failed. I thought maybe he was going to go through a few false starts before finally hitting on the right formula but then I realised his hair was a bit darker and his eyebrows more prominent.

On the one hand, it's nice that the film goes back to the source novella's idea that Hyde looks human, but it does so without also adhering to the novella's idea that Hyde looks like a completely different person. It's ridiculous when people who encounter Hyde fail to recognise Dr. Jekyll.

Tracy comes off as a real jerk as Hyde--he trips people with his cane and he starts fights in the music hall--but there's no trampling of children. Ingrid Bergman takes on the role originated by Miriam Hopkins, Ivy, but it's only based on knowledge of that earlier film that you might think she works as a prostitute. At least she never has fainting spells like Hopkins but her being captive to Hyde's whims is even less explicable, especially when it becomes clear it's not because he's financially supporting her. Bergman does a great job, giving a performance of someone caught in a destructive relationship, but it's a performance not really supported by the dialogue. Hyde is definitely abusive to her but it's not really clear why she's with him since she seems to be repulsed by him from the beginning.

As Dr. Jekyll, Tracy seems affable and good natured but he's not devastatingly handsome like Fredric March or John Barrymore so when Ivy instantly falls for him at the sight of his face it's really not clear why. Maybe she's into pock marks.

Tracy seems to have some better chemistry with Lana Turner who plays his fiancee. She's so sweet and comes off as so in love with him I felt bad for her in a way I didn't feel for the same character in previous versions. Donald Crisp plays her father in this one, nowhere near as stern as his 1931 counterpart, and Jekyll is more gracious about the older man's insistence the marriage be held off a couple months. This seems more credible, maybe, but it also removes any sense of selfishness or impatience on Jekyll's part. There's no sense in this one that Jekyll and Hyde are related to each other at all in spite of the lacklustre makeup.

But, jeez, those transition scenes, particularly one that seems to show Jekyll whipping Bergman and Turner, the two women nude and harnessed like horses. I don't know how the hell the filmmakers got away with that. It's the only thing that suggests Jekyll is repressing scandalous urges but the hallucinations feel so disconnected from everything else they sadly never bring the movie up to where it needs to be.