The Three Faces of Dr. Jekyll: Movies

My novel Questionable Minds makes big use of Jekyll and Hyde, as I discuss in this blog-tour post. When I recently bought the 1931 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE on Blu-Ray, I decided to follow-up with two other adaptations, the 1941 remake with Spencer Tracy and 1960’s THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL.The 1931 version opens with Dr. Jekyll’s POV — his elegant house, his hands on the piano, his servants — after which the good doctor (Fredric March) lectures to a crowd of fascinated students and disgruntled old farts about how science will someday separate the human and the animal that intermingle with us, creating a superior person free of base instinct, able to rise to the heights of intellect and virtue. It’s a common Victorian view and expresses director Robert Mamoulian’s concept of Hyde as an evolutionary throwback, hence his brutish appearance in the still below with Miriam Hopkins.Jekyll isn’t all about the science though: he’s passionately in love with his fiancee Muriel (Rose Hobart) which is the root of all his troubles. He’s clearly ready to get it on with her but that’s not acceptable for an upper-class Victorian couple and her stuffy, overbearing father won’t allow them to speed up all rites, rituals and waiting periods that precede a Victorian marriage. When he meets sex worker/music-hall entertainer Ivy (Hopkins) she’s obviously up for relieving his sexual tension but though he likes the idea, he’s too good to stray from Muriel. But if he were to liberate the lower half of his nature, take on a persona that doesn’t care for convention, that couldn’t be recognized … And so Hyde is born.

Initially almost childlike — there’s a great scene where Hyde feels rain on his face for the first time and delights in it — Hyde stakes out his claim to Ivy fast. She’s intrigued to have a wealthy man to keep her, turned on some by his swagger … but before long the darker side of our buried self emerges. Hyde becomes an abusive gaslighter (if that sort of thing is at all triggering, neither this nor the 1941 film is the movie for you) and it’s obvious Ivy’s taking a long walk on a short pier. As for Jekyll, he’s ready to return to Muriel but Hyde is now too strong to restrain …

While this isn’t a faithful adaptation (which is good: Stevenson’s book is not cinematic), it captures the essential element that Jekyll wants to be Hyde; cutting free from respectability liberates him, though some of what gets free he’d prefer to keep caged. March, a Broadway leading man in light comic roles, wasn’t Paramount’s first choice for the role — they wanted John Barrymore, who played it in a 1920s version — but he’s marvelous, snagging the only Oscar acting award for horror until Silence of the Lambs. Hopkins is also very good as the tragic Ivy and the rest of the cast does solid work. Being a pre-code film, it’s also highly suggestive; this Blu-Ray restores several cuts made to please the censors on re-release, and also to trim it for length. “Do you want your eyes and your soul to be blasted by a sight that would stagger the devil himself?”


When Spencer Tracy took the role (according to the 1931 Blu-Ray’s commentary track) he wanted to play Jekyll as an ordinary man who succumbs to drink or drugs and starts living a wild life; that was too raw for MGM so they bought the rights to remake the 1931 version instead, then kept the earlier film from re-release for decades to avoid competition. The 1941 take is better than I remembered but still inferior to the March. The opening comes off almost like an attempt to refute its predecessor: rather than Spencer Tracy’s Jekyll giving a lecture, we have a clergyman (C. Aubrey Smith) celebrating Queen Victoria and how she’s helped England triumph over “gross sensuality.” Society’s prudery isn’t the problem, it’s Jekyll giving in to that gross sensuality that destroyed him.

This reflects the Production Code being in play but also MGM’s house style, which requires everything be classier and glossier than at other studios: where Ivy is a low-class woman in a low-class music hall, Ivy (Ingrid Bergman) here is a barmaid in a much more elegant venue. In any case, Jekyll’s initial issue is less sex than classic mad science complaints: nobody approves or supports his research into the boundaries between good and evil in our soul — the very fact he thinks science can tackle the soul is an outrage! His prospective father-in-law is an old-fashioned chap, shocked by the PDAs between Jekyll and his fiancee (Lana Turner, bland as usual), but he’s one of the good guys, not the stuffy, overbearing marplot of the first film. However, when Jekyll grows frustrated it occurs to him there’s one way he could become friends with Ivy without anyone knowing …

Unlike the first film, there’s no makeup change between Jekyll’s two identities. This is effective at times, such as Tracy’s facial expressions after his initial transformation, but the complete incredulity the two men are one and the same becomes baffling. However Tracy does deliver on a creepy, less overt abuser, constantly talking in a whisper when he’s Hyde but intimidating nonetheless. Bergman’s Ivy mostly doesn’t work: she can’t quite pull off the fun-loving working girl (her more tormented party girl in Notorious works better) and her accent is way off. However she’s amazing in the later scenes when a friend’s suggestion they go out for some fun is met by terror: what if Hyde sees me? What if he disapproves of what I’m doing? It conveys “abuse” without anything overt. Overall, though, not a patch on the 1931. “Your ideas are different than mine — it will be a charming experience to change them.”

Hammer took a shot at the story with THE TWO FACES OF DR. JEKYLL (1960), starring Paul Massie as a Jekyll so obsessed with his research into human behavior he’s neglecting his wife Kitty (Dawn Addams) who’s consoling herself with Jekyll’s spendthrift friend, Allen (Christopher Lee), who has no qualms with banging Jekyll’s wife while also begging Jekyll to cover Allen’s gambling losses. In the best traditions of mad science, Jekyll tests his personality altering drug on himself and becomes Hyde (his beard disappears, then reappears when he turns back). A smirking, self-indulgent prick, Hyde flirts with Kitty and becomes a friend to Allen, who initiates him into the wild side of London life. However Jekyll’s smoldering resentment when he realizes Allen is cuckolding him soon becomes Hyde’s plan for revenge …

Wolf Mankowicz wanted to write this as an indictment of Victorian hypocrisy (which he assumed was a new take on the material) but the director wanted a different take and the disagreement (according to the book The Hammer Story) tanked the film. Backstage conflicts aside, I think that having made the love triangle the core of the film, they don’t explore that angle: what if Hyde makes a serious play for Kitty? Was Kitty always a bad girl or did she hook up with Allen due to Jekyll’s neglect? Instead the triangle just makes a distraction from the story rather than enhancing it. “That’s what your kind of woman wants in a man, Kitty — complete and utter freedom from shame.”

#SFWApro. All rights to images remain with current holders. You can buy Questionable Minds as an ebook or paperback.  Here’s an excerpt with my protagonist confronting Edward Hyde.


Filed under Movies

2 responses to “The Three Faces of Dr. Jekyll: Movies

  1. Pingback: Jekyll’s maidservant in print and in film, plus pirates! | Fraser Sherman's Blog

  2. Pingback: Bad, bad, bad, bad girls, they make me feel so … uncomfortable? | Fraser Sherman's Blog

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