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April 18th, 2018 - Yew Erdri Ming

About April 18th, 2018

Jekyll versus Slapstick 10:30 am


For all the issues presented by the Jekyll and Hyde story, can we rely on Abbott and Costello for a solution? No. But 1953's Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is no waste of time though you'd be better off watching Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Their Jekyll and Hyde film is in many ways a less imaginative retread of that 1948 film. It's naturally a more simplistic take on Jekyll and Hyde but Boris Karloff in the role does manage to make it interesting and there are some weird undercurrents in the movie's commentary on women's rights.



The story, set in the Edwardian era, begins with a demonstration from women's suffragettes led by the film's lead female character, Vicky (Helen Westcott). Any thought that the film is putting forth a sincere feminist point of view is quickly dashed when the women segue into a can-can routine.



Like a lot of films featuring well known comedy teams from the period, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde feels obliged to include a foreground romance between two straight, in the comedic sense, leads. We're introduced to the male lead first, Bruce (Craig Stevens), who remarks off-handedly to an itinerant drunk that he doesn't believe women should get the vote, something that undercuts the sense of sincerity in his efforts to woo Vicky as he pledges his full support for her cause.



Is the film condemning his hypocrisy or is it slyly nodding and winking at the fellas in the audience, essentially telling them how to deceive women? The filmmakers likely didn't want the audience to be sure of the intention, more in the interest of attracting the widest audience possible than for any provoking ambiguity. But it's interesting how this dynamic is paralleled in Jekyll when we meet him.



Played by Boris Karloff, he's for the most part a much more obvious hypocrite in this film than in earlier incarnations. He rationalises murders--saying his first victim had to die because he was an obstacle to his research which would ultimately benefit humankind--and also washes his hands of them, insisting they were committed by Hyde, not Jekyll, even though he takes the potion with the clear motive of knocking off another such obstacle. This might have been just simplistically broad except, in a cab ride with Vicky and Bruce, Karloff really sells a soliloquy on sorting out human nature so there can be peace on Earth. There's a sadness and wistfulness in Karloff's delivery that suggests this was his real dream at one point and he himself doesn't consciously realise how far he's strayed.



He's Vicky's guardian and he becomes angry when she and Bruce begin their romance. We learn that he had cared for her always with the desire to make her his wife eventually. Karloff shows more wisdom as a storyteller than this silly film may require in that he makes his superficial support for their relationship utterly convincing. This has the effect of making the revelation of his true feelings very creepy as well as a possibly unintended but very pointed commentary on patriarchy.



But of course most of the film focuses on a couple of American doofuses trying to earn a living as cops in London. Bud Abbott and Lou Costello play Slim and Tubby, a couple of guys fired from the police force after their poor handling of a brawl that erupts at the suffragette demonstration. There are a series of slapstick routines as they endeavour to capture Hyde in the hopes it'll get them their jobs back. This version of Hyde hearkens back to the wolf monster of the 1912 or 1931 versions, apparently in this case played by a stunt man instead of by Karloff.



In one of the more effective sequences, Tubby, after being injected with Jekyll's formula, turns into a giant mouse, leading to some exquisitely absurd business when he and Slim walk into a pub. They waste no opportunity for "man or mouse" dialogue.



Otherwise, there's a wax museum routine which is basically a repeat of the one in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein and not a whole lot to remark on. But it's always nice to see Lou Costello.
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