This piece is MovieFanFare’s contribution to the Contrary to Popular Opinion Blogathon, where popular consensus is set on its head with the defense of maligned films, performers, or directors, or the toppling of beloved ones! Co-hosted by Sister Celluloid and Movies Silently.
Ask ardent movie fans (and horror movie fans in particular) about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) starring Spencer Tracy, Lana Turner, and Ingrid Bergman, and you’ll see the transformation take place before your eyes: The brow will wrinkle, the scowl will take shape, and a shrug of dismissive indifference or a heap of cruel mockery will soon be unleashed: Tracy’s awful. The makeup stinks. It’s preachy. It’s boring. It’s not nearly as good as the Fredric March version.
Don’t be frightened, or react harshly. You see, long ago they drank the potion convincing them that MGM’s Victor Fleming-directed film is vastly inferior to Paramount Pictures’ 1932 take on the Robert Louis Stevenson novella, directed by Rouben Mamoulian. They’ve ingested the common wisdom that because the earlier film was a pre-Code production, it was far more daring while the Tracy film was hamstrung by the Hays Office, and worse, elected to saddle the story with preachy religiosity; they’ve swilled the sarcasm famously directed at Tracy’s performance by author W. Somerset Maugham, who mocked the actor’s choice to use more subtle makeup in his appearances as Hyde by visiting the set one day and asking, “Which one is he now, Jekyll or Hyde?”; they’ve fully digested the decision to rank the ’41 film poorly thanks to the fact that the previous version won star Fredric March the Academy Award.
These opinions about both of these versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are so fully ingrained that, much in the same fashion that Henry Jekyll begins to transform into the villainous Edward Hyde without the trigger of his serum, movie fans almost by reflex, out of the accumulated input of so many others, are more than eager to declaim the Tracy film’s oh-so-many shortcomings.
Let’s face it: The movie flopped, right? (To set that record straight: It made a small box-office profit, but was indeed largely ripped apart by critics) Ingrid Bergman thought she was miscast. And if Spencer Tracy himself thought the film, and his performance in it, was bad—as he is known to have said in his later years—aren’t those the final nails in this film’s cinematic coffin?
Well, no. I’m here on a mission to rehabilitate the reputation of this wrongly maligned picture, at least by way of persuading fans long nursed on the unquestioned superiority of the Fredric March version to take a fresh look at the remake and consider how it may be a compelling film all on its own. Let’s waste not much time arguing over the merits of the makeup, which is perhaps the least interesting difference between the films; if you can believe that people are fooled by Clark Kent’s glasses, you should accept the conceit that people are fooled by Spencer Tracy’s Edward Hyde. It’s true, Tracy doesn’t transform into anything so drastic as makeup artist Wally Westmore’s simian monster of the 1932 version; in fact, at first it kind of seems as if we’ve seen Tracy change into Kirk Douglas:
But to re-emphasize the Superman example, he looks different enough; Jack Dawn’s makeup for Tracy also evolves through the film, making Hyde look subtly more grotesque with each transformation.
We may also dispense with the parlor game of arguing over which of the films is more faithful to Stevenson, since the 1941 movie is a direct remake of the 1932 production—their narrative structures identically different from the novella and the lead female characters not taken from Stevenson but from the original stage play adaptation by T.R. Sullivan. More substantially, let’s take a look at the remake’s fascinating connections to well-regarded classics of the past and the modern era, as well as how some of the negative comparisons of the 1941 version to the 1932 film fall on the wayside upon closer inspection.
The first measure of our reconsideration of the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde announces itself in the movie’s opening seconds; fans may not recall that the music was composed by Franz Waxman, whose unimpeachable status in the cinema of the macabre had already been assured by his unforgettable score to James Whale’s The Bride of Frankenstein. While music in the 1932 film is about as sparse a presence as it is in the Tod Browning Dracula—the opening titles for the March version employ Bach’s wondrous, if now entirely cliché, Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, and then the film restricts itself to the use of diegetic (that is, arising from realistic sources within the scene) and stock music—the score in the Tracy film is an ever-present character that enriches the drama throughout.
Waxman’s majestic seven-note fanfare as the title card comes up immediately distinguishes the remake’s intentions from its predecessor, signaling we are to regard this film’s approach to the Stevenson tale as grounded in romantic tragedy more than creaky spook-house thrills; it’s a strong choice that we can see reflected, decades later, in the work of Howard Shore when he was asked to musically embody director David Cronenberg’s new approach to The Fly.
(It’s no small irony that the artwork that accompanies this embed of a suite of the Waxman music is from the wrong version of the film. Tracy’s music, March’s image. An unintentional, I assume—if completely appropriate to my purposes here—slight)
Waxman’s use of choir singers in the latter part of the title sequence not only cues us in to the film’s exploration of Jekyll’s relationship to the purposes and powers of a Supreme Being, it also provides a link to the opening shot of the picture—a soaring “God’s-eye” flight to the London church where Jekyll is listening to a sermon about the triumph of good over evil. Visually now, the Fleming picture has broken as far away as possible from the approach famously taken by Rouben Mamoulian’s film, which began by putting the viewer inside Jekyll with its elaborate and tricky point-of-view shot.
Unlike the cautionary accusation hurled at the titular mad scientist at the outset of James Whale’s Frankenstein, it cannot be said at all here that “Harry” Jekyll proceeds with his experiments “without reckoning upon God”—since the film makes clear he will be required to “reckon” with this aspect of his research over and over again.
As much as both the March and Tracy versions of the lead character suggest that the “good of humanity” would be served by chemically separating our virtuous impulses from our sinful ones, the Jekyll of the March film can be seen as largely pursuing his work motivated by the abstract; the lofty goals articulated by his Jekyll are first spoken inside a lecture hall. It’s easier to see the March Jekyll as a close cousin to Colin Clive’s Henry Frankenstein, say—pursuing the discovery chiefly because “it’s there.” Contrast this to the Fleming version, where Tracy’s Jekyll is given more concrete imperatives for his work in the form of curing the sick: a disruptive churchgoer, who seems to be afflicted with something along the Tourette’s spectrum as he mocks the bishop’s sermon as prudery designed to “take the fun out of life.”
Later at the hospital, Tracy’s Jekyll affirms his dedication to trample over any small-minded, superstitious objections to his work with the kind of righteous indignation we would see four years later, when Henry Daniell’s Dr. MacFarlane condemned “stupid and unjust laws” in The Body Snatcher.
He’s bold enough to make a hash of the dinner party he’s late arriving to that night, by unnerving his fiancée Beatrix (Turner) and future father-in-law Sir Charles (Donald Crisp)—not to mention the bishop (C. Aubrey Smith) and several other well-to-do guests in attendance—with fresh and casual blasphemies about how there is obviously a “problem” with the soul that originates at the core of the Christian idea: As Christians, we admit that man has been created weak; that’s a perfectly honest problem, why don’t we face it?
If that weren’t enough, Tracy’s Jekyll goes on to provoke, in such delicately mixed company, by airing out an opinion about the “establishment” that many a cynic finds in fashion even today, suggesting that the resistance to “advanced theories” like his is based mainly on maintaining the status quo…
“…especially when there’s a comfortable profit in those (theories) already established.”
Wow. Dr. Jekyll. Why not tell us what you really think?
To be belatedly clear, as I feel I probably should be at this point since defending the Tracy film almost requires direct comparisons against the picture whose quality is so often used as a cudgel against it: I do more than enjoy the 1932 film and I do appreciate Fredric March’s justly-praised performance. Having reviewed both versions recently for the purposes of this piece, however, I have to admit that, by this point in the story, I’m far more engaged and galvanized by the Tracy film; an objective look at both should reveal to the attentive viewer that, however much fans may have been in love with March’s performance and offended by MGM’s attempt to supplant it (the studio’s efforts to squelch Mamoulian’s film after buying the rights are absolutely indefensible), it’s Tracy’s work that feels more natural and modern today, and less imprisoned by the more theatrical style of early film acting.
As movie acting may have begun to mature in the decade between these versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the same cannot be said for the oversight of motion picture content. Established a year before the release of the March film but not strictly enforced until 1934, the Hays Code clamped down on the degree to which any film could feature scenes that were risqué, violent, or blasphemous, with one of the most standard critiques of the 1941 J & H being that the irreverent aspects so crucial to the success and effect of the 1932 film were diluted or stamped out entirely by the Hays Gestapo in the remake, replaced by a kind of hifalutin’ moralizing that destroys the frisson of the Stevenson tale.
To successfully unpack this assertion, we can look at a few elements from both films. To begin with the component that plays to our baser interests (because why delay that any further?), let’s consider the character of Ivy—the “bad girl” who teases Jekyll astray, and is later “kept,” abused, and murdered by Hyde.
One aspect of the Spencer Tracy version that I think deserves an entirely new look is how much the film truly catches fire when Tracy’s Edward Hyde settles into his psychotic, abusive relationship with the barmaid (Bergman). There’s a real show-stopper of a scene that finds Tracy ever so gently luring Bergman into one emotional trap after another while spitting out fruit and serenading her at the piano, delivering nasty insults with hushed whispers that eventually turn into ear-splitting screams. This twisted triangle that plays out between Jekyll, Hyde, and Ivy as dramatized in the Fleming movie neatly predicts the kind of sexual sadism we see on display in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet; Tracy’s Hyde is shown to be a kind of Victorian-era Frank Booth, and Ivy’s desperate plea to Jekyll—“You used to like me once, didn’t you?”—is an eerie forecasting of how Ingrid Bergman’s daughter Isabella Rossellini would entreat Kyle MacLachlan’s “good” guy Jeffrey Beaumont:
Do you like me?
The first time we meet Ivy in both films is when Jekyll and his friend Lanyon (played by Holmes Herbert in the ’32 and Ian Hunter in the ’41) intercede when she is being assaulted in the street by one of her more ungentlemanly admirers. Immediately attracted to her valiant rescuer, Ivy feigns injuries she does not have so that Jekyll will escort her back to her shabby bedroom—whereupon she proceeds to remove her clothes bit by bit and tempt the spoken-for doctor while pleading for his caring touch.
Now, it’s true that in the Pre-Code film, Miriam Hopkins’ Ivy shows about as much skin as you could possibly get away with, apart from the occasional nude romps of Ecstasy or Tarzan and His Mate. In the 1932 film, we get lovingly slow camera tilts up and down Hopkins’ body as she raises her dress to bare her legs; Ivy mischievously draws Jekyll’s hand precariously close to her chest; and the film goes so far as to suggest that she gets completely naked before sliding under the covers and tricking Jekyll to her bedside, sweeping him down for a kiss before Lanyon bursts in and ends the tryst before it can really begin.
The Mamoulian film even rewards us next with a carefully choreographed glimpse of what we so amusingly refer to today as “sideboob.”
What does the 1941 version have to compare to that? Ingrid Bergman, that’s what.
Naturally, this is something that’s purely a matter of opinion, so we’ll get that out of the way first: There is no amount of flesh-baring that can produce the kind of sexual jolt that Bergman can energize with her head cast down and her eyes turned up. More to the point of which film actually delivers the truly “scandalous” content in this scene, I’d say it’s all a question of perspective. We’re afforded only the most modest looks at Bergman’s legs and cleavage in Fleming’s remake of this scene, but Bergman’s allure is electrifying; she and Tracy were world-class talents, and they give the scene so much more of a dangerously erotic charge.
The 1941 film also takes Jekyll’s weakness so much further; there’s the same kind of flirtatious verbal interplay between Jekyll and Ivy in both films, but whereas their kiss in the 1932 version is shown to catch the Fredric March Jekyll literally off-balance, in the remake, Tracy wraps his arms around Ivy and holds her tightly of his own accord. March’s Jekyll recovers with a schoolboy-ish roll of the eyes; Tracy is hunched and shamed as he leaves, realizing how much virtue he’s already sacrificed and how much more he might have transgressed, easily, if he weren’t pulled away by his friend. The 1932 film is racy on the surface of things; in spite of the limitations of the Code, here, the remake’s moral subversions go a lot deeper—and this understanding of how the later film is more provocative than the earlier is not restricted to this facet of the story.
Towards the end of the 1932 film, Fredric March’s Jekyll, no longer in control of his transformations and condemned by Lanyon for his blasphemous work, clutches a giant Bible in a moment of desperation and cries out for redemption:
Oh, God! This I did not intend. I saw a light, but I could not see where it was leading. I have trespassed on your domain. I have gone further than man should go. Forgive me. Help me…
Tracy’s Jekyll, while despairing and regretful in those same moments with Lanyon, allows himself only a resigned “I know…I know…” without making any kind of special pleading to the Almighty, then or later. In fact, the Fleming film takes the conflation of the good and evil within Jekyll a step further at the climax, after his murders of Ivy and his fiancée’s father bring the police into his lab.
Having secured the serum to banish Edward Hyde, however temporarily, both March and Tracy try to send their pursuers off the scent—but Lanyon’s knowledge of Jekyll’s secret keeps everyone there long enough for him to change back into Hyde one last time. March’s final rage is embodied by the concept of characterizing Hyde as a Neanderthal Man, what with his bounding about the room and leaping high onto his bookshelves like a monkey before being shot dead. With Tracy, that last transformation takes place over his repeated protests:
I’m Dr. Jekyll! I am Dr. Henry Jekyll! I’ve done nothing! I’m Dr. Henry Jekyll, I tell you! You’re looking for a man named Hyde! I’m Dr. Jekyll! I’m Dr. Henry Jekyll!
Even after the change is complete, when he is most physically Mr. Hyde, he keeps screaming I am Henry Jekyll, driving home the idea that the two are now inseparable once again, and that while the serum once cleanly bifurcated Jekyll’s good and evil sides, it has now left him with only an evil side, no matter what his physical appearance or what he believes in his mind. This encroaching victory of his “Hyde” personality is an idea the March film doesn’t dramatize quite so artfully.
Jekyll’s ultimate fate in both films is also something to behold when you consider how much the Tracy version is accused of being overly Christianist while the March film is celebrated for its irreverence in this regard. But think about this: At the end of the 1932 film, as Jekyll lies dead and his loyal butler and captors stand over him, Mamoulian’s camera drifts around the lab in a closing tracking shot to visually place Jekyll’s body in the midst of flames licking up around the boiling liquid in a black kettle. The message is none too subtle: This man is burning in Hell.
In Victor Fleming’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the moment of his death is dramatized in a very different way. Here, we linger on the peaceful countenance of the doctor, bathed in supernal light, as church bells sound and an angelic choir is heard; Jekyll’s butler Poole kneels and begins the incantation: The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want…
This message is fairly clear, too: Redemption is at hand.
The Spencer Tracy Jekyll, throughout, is never shown to be so very much a religious man. Yes, he was a churchgoer, as we see from the very beginning—but it seems he does this more out of societal obligation, and it’s clear he’s singing hymns by rote while his soul is elsewhere (thinking of his work). Here is the man who did not make any sort of attempt to seek direct forgiveness for sins against his Creator before his death. Unlike March’s character, this Dr. Jekyll never calls out to God for strength; he severs his ties with his fiancée by summoning the last shreds of his own nobility. He’s committed all the same crimes as Fredric March’s protagonist, who literally cried out for his personal salvation, but we’re to assume March is consigned to the flames while Tracy’s place in heaven seems secure.
What we see here is that both films offer the same don’t play God message. As to which ending is the more subversive, considering the status of each man’s overt religiosity measured against each man’s implied fate? Who’s really to say? I know this interpretation of the final scene I’m about to offer next wasn’t the original intent of the filmmakers, but it’s how I felt about it all the same, and it’s the moment that the Fleming movie sent a genuine chill right through me:
Poole’s recitation of the 23rd Psalm over Jekyll’s dead body struck me as the final insult to his friend and employer, the ultimate indignity of his tragedy, the last rejection of how strongly Tracy’s Jekyll tried to argue that man’s destiny for good or evil could—and should—be untethered from the prison of religious practice, by this implication of how those closest to him would now and forever remain in their own primitive cloud of unreason.
Love it or loathe it, Victor Fleming’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has a lot going on. With all due respect to the late, great Spencer Tracy’s opinion—his performance is richer than he would allow; the movie accomplishes the neat trick of remaking a classic and incorporating all the same major moments, but with stylish originality and a whole new set of ideas.
The Franz Waxman score is an underrated classic; the film’s generous budget no doubt contributed to director of photography Joseph Ruttenberg’s glossy cinematography, boasting silvery glows, swirling fog, and nightmarish shadows; the literate, challenging script and committed performances traffic in risk-taking intensity that now seems ahead of its time and almost directly connected to the transgressive cinema of later greats like Cronenberg and Lynch.
And, well—it has Ingrid Bergman. If you’ll excuse me now, I think it’s time for a drink.