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Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)
Tonight's Feature Presentation

DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941)

Starring: Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Donald Crisp, Ian Hunter, Barton MacLane

Written By: John Lee Mayhin, Robert Louis Stevenson (novel) Directed By: Victor Fleming

The Short Version

The cast alone should draw any cinephile’s attention.

The production is very clean… too clean for a back alley horror story.

Even Spencer Tracy thought so; Hyde is more sick clown than ghoul.

High on a list of problems most men wish they had: Ingrid Bergman or Lana Turner?

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is worth one look, but there are far better versions out there.


The Long Version

What Kind Of Cheese Is It?

HAM & CHEESE.

Or, Spencer Tracy as Mr. Hyde.


Pairs Well With...

TEQUILA ROSE.

Rumored to be its own “Jekyll and Hyde” formula when taken in doses exceeding three shots.

“If you had a balloon that could carry a man to Mars, and the pilot you had picked suddenly disappeared, would you get in the balloon yourself and cast off?”


In an ideal world, this version of the oft-told story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde should have been one for the ages; perhaps even definitive.  Instead, it has come to be widely dismissed as a poor knockoff, disliked even by the Hollywood A-Listers whose presence should have made it great. 

As our story begins, Dr. Harry Jekyll (Spencer Tracy, Boys Town) is trying to enjoy a peaceful church service (really) with his lovely fiancée, Beatrix (Lana Turner, The Postman Always Rings Twice), when another parishioner (Barton MacLane, The Maltese Falcon) begins to spout off a long stream of blasphemies.  After some fuss, Jekyll has the man admitted to his hospital, convinced that he’s suffering from a post-traumatic medical condition that has caused the “evil” side of his personality to come forward.  Jekyll believes that the formula has been experimenting with could cure the man and bring his “good” side forward again, but before he can conduct his tests, the man dies.

Meanwhile, his fiancée’s father, Sir Charles (Donald Crisp, The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse), chooses to express his displeasure with his future son-in-law’s chosen field of research by taking Beatrix on an unscheduled tour of the Continent for an undetermined number of weeks.  This maneuver backfires, however, since Jekyll’s newfound excess of free time gives him the final excuse he needs to begin human testing of his new formula… on himself…

Spencer Tracy.  Ingrid Bergman.  Lana Turner.  Just look at those names.  Given a marquee like that, who wouldn’t be excited about seeing this film when it first came out in 1941?

Before filming started, all three were just as excited about the prospect of this new Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as everyone else was. 

Spencer Tracy was so anxious to start work on the project (which certainly would have waited for an actor of his stature) that he actually turned down the lead in The Philadelphia Story.  The thought of playing the evil Mr. Hyde wreaking havoc through the back alleys of London after first draining its drinking establishments dry struck him as a thrilling challenge.

Ingrid Bergman, originally cast as “good girl” Beatrix, convinced the producers to let her switch to the role of “bad girl” Ivy so that she could show off her range and prove that she didn’t always have to play the role of the angel.

Lana Turner’s star was on the rise at the time, and she, too, was happy to switch roles to show off her range, especially alongside a cast as strong as this one.

Unfortunately, everyone – cast and audience alike – would end up disappointed.

While any sane heterosexual male would certainly envy the dilemma faced by Spencer Tracy’s character – the choice of romancing either Ingrid Bergman or Lana Turner – savvy fans will note that neither a fiancée nor a “tart” appears in the original novella by Robert Louis Stevenson.  This is because this Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is not really based on Stevenson’s story, but instead is a rather blatant (nearly scene for scene) remake of a version that starred Frederic March in the title role ten years earlier.  A modern viewer who has become jaded by a film culture that is bogged down by remakes may be tempted to say “so what,” especially given a remake with a superior cast; and in an ideal world, as noted, this would be a fair dismissal.  Unfortunately, any “ideal world” scenario is quickly dashed by the rather large hammer of censorship.

Because of this, Mr. Hyde’s rampages of violent, drunken destruction were instead toned down to mean-spirited mischief-making, with any true horrors implied occurring very pointedly off camera.  (Even the resulting bruises are never seen.)  This dashed much of Spencer Tracy’s initial excitement about the role, and once he saw the “ridiculous” (his assessment) makeup that he would be made to wear as Hyde, things really hit the wall, and his lack of enthusiasm shows.  Though he makes a fine goody two shoes as Dr. Jekyll, his portrayal of Hyde really is quite dreadful: a bug-eyed, hammed-up imp with a cheap wig that even a man of Tracy’s prowess can’t save.  After seeing early reviews for the film, Tracy supposedly told a friend that he thought his career was over.  Fortunately, that didn’t come to pass, but Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde certainly does stand as one of the low points of his career.

Meanwhile, Ingrid Bergman suffers from the combined limits of what the producers/censors wanted to allow and the real boundaries of her range.  The character of Ivy was already watered down from being a prostitute to being a barmaid in the cleanest, most orderly bawdy bar in the history of London, so from the very start, the only sexy that was going to be wrung from this “bad girl” was going to have to come straight from the actress.  And Bergman succeeds – for one scene.  When Ivy first tries to seduce Jekyll in her apartment, there are some major vixen vibes going on.  But she just can’t hold it; her aura as an actress is just too dignified for her to succeed as a naughty tart, and her attempt to toss an Irish lilt over her Swedish accent is pretty awful.  Not that it matters much; once Hyde has a hold of her, she doesn’t have much real acting left to do anyway, and the muddled accent gets hidden by her character’s being perpetually stuck in “frightened bunny” mode.  As was the case for her co-star, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde stands as one of the more disappointing stops on Bergman’s resume.

As for Lana Turner, on the one hand, she gets off the lightest, for there’s really nothing wrong with her character.  On the other hand, that’s largely because there’s nothing for her character to do other than look pretty and occasionally pine for Jekyll.  If one doesn’t know in advance that this is Lana Turner, one could easily just say “oh, she’s nice looking” and think absolutely nothing of her again for the duration of the film.  Beatrix is a featherweight plot device, and nothing more.

With that said, one could argue that one of the reasons that Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is so disappointing as a whole is precisely because a savvy audience expects so much better from its three leading stars.  Turn them into no-names, and the performances get a slight boost to the level of “expected mediocrity from a genre picture like this.”  Hyde may be a horrid oaf, but he would be easier to take without the knowledge that he’s being played by one of the most highly respected actors of all time.  The same is true of Ivy and her incredible wandering accent.

But even then, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde still patrols the darker corners of mediocrity, and the over-the-top use of church imagery to bookend the movie only makes it that much more of a watered-down farce.

Except…

Somehow, in the middle of this brutally sanitized drowning of a classic horror story, director Victor Fleming (yes, the same guy who did The Wizard of Oz and Gone with the Wind) manages to throw in two very racy hallucination scenes to go along with Jekyll’s first two tastes of his formula, the first of which ends up featuring (an apparently nude) Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner taking the places of horses drawing a carriage being driven by Jekyll, and Jekyll gleefully whipping them both.  (Here’s the clip.)  Had the rest of the movie lived up to this… then I think “sad disappointment” could easily have become “incredibly epic.”  As it stands, given all of the whitewashing done to the rest of the picture, I’m amazed that the hallucinations were filmed at all, and even more so that they made the final cut.

Overall, though… yeah.  Disappointment.

Bottom line, for those who aren’t all that savvy when it comes to classic Hollywood, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde will prove to be an average, somewhat watered down take on the familiar horror story, maybe worth a look if it happens to come up in a convenient television or on-demand bracket.  For those who do know what to expect from names like Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, and Lana Turner, however, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a major letdown, at which point the “do you even want to see it once” advice is a very strong caveat emptor.

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- Reviewed by Ziggy Berkeley, August, 2012


You can email Ziggy at ziggy@cinemaontherocks.com. You can also find us on Facebook.


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