Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941) ***½
The 1941 remake of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is one of the stranger films of its kind. Despite the fact that it was made by a different studio from the 1931 version (MGM instead of Paramount), it uses almost exactly the same plot, and very nearly the same screenplay as its predecessor. The original novel was, of course, in the public domain by the early 1940’s, but the script for Rouben Mamoulian’s film version most assuredly was not, and in order for MGM to shoot the remake the way they did, it was necessary first to buy the earlier movie from Paramount. The most notable result of this (apart from the existence of the 1941 movie in the first place) was that Mamoulian’s version became very hard to come by until the advent of home video at the turn of the 80’s. That interpretation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was already regarded as something of a classic in its own right by the time MGM put director Victor Flemming and screenwriter John Lee Mahin to work on this one, and it made the studio heads nervous to imagine audiences being able to compare the two versions directly. In order to avoid this possibly disadvantageous eventuality, MGM kept the ‘31 film out of circulation except in a badly bowdlerized edit which they released for very limited engagements in revival houses or, later, on TV. The thing I find most puzzling about the whole situation is that Paramount’s leadership considered selling their rights to the older movie to be a good idea-- surely they must have noticed how much money the resurgence of interest in horror movies was pouring into the coffers at Universal, Monogram, and PRC? Whatever the rationale on either side, MGM needn’t have worried. The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Flemming and Mahin gave them is easily the equal of the Paramount film, and is even superior in some respects.
Dr. Henry Jekyll (Spencer Tracy) is a man with a bug up his ass. He is obsessed with the idea that man has a two-fold nature, that the human mind/soul/spirit/whatever is divided into good and evil aspects which act in constant opposition to each other. There is nothing either shocking or radical about this in and of itself, but Jekyll has taken the concept further than most people, and has begun using his considerable scientific expertise in an effort to find a technique whereby the two aspects can be separated, with the ultimate aim of banishing the evil side of the subject’s personality altogether. The doctor’s problem is that he doesn’t know how to keep his mouth shut. Talk about seeking technological means for overcoming evil in the human soul, and you’re going to attract a fair amount of unwelcome attention from people who believe either that you’re out of your damn mind pursuing the impossible, or that you’re verging on blasphemy by trying to muscle in on God’s racket-- Some Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, and all that. Case in point: a formal dinner at the home of your fiancee and her father, at which your boss, all of his colleagues, and the town bishop are in attendance is probably not the time or place to start spouting off about that sort of thing, and yet Jekyll does precisely that, setting off a minor scandal and losing himself years worth of kiss-ass points with Sir Charles Emery (Donald Crisp, of Svengali and The Uninvited), his future father in law. Even Beatrix (Lana Turner), his lovely, adoring, but slightly vapid girlfriend, is horrified. But Jekyll doesn’t even seem to notice. He just goes right on talking about what he hopes to do with his newest patient, a man who changed overnight from an upstanding, God-fearing, responsible citizen into an irreverent, belligerent drunk as the result of a mining accident. It is Jekyll’s opinion that the two halves of the miner’s personality were thrown out of their proper balance by the accident, and that the man could be cured if only a way could be found to restore the original balance by isolating and weakening the evil side. After dinner, it comes out in conversation between Jekyll and his friend Dr. John Lanyon (Ian Hunter, from Tower of London and Dr. Blood’s Coffin) that Jekyll believes he is very close to a breakthrough in his unorthodox line of research.
But the subject is soon dropped, because on the way home, Lanyon and Jekyll stumble upon a pretty young woman who is being attacked by a drunk. They drive off the would-be rapist, and offer the girl-- Ivy Peterson (Gaslight’s Ingrid Bergman) is her name-- a ride home with them in the carriage Lanyon is even then attempting to flag down. Ivy thinks that’s a wonderful idea, especially seeing as that brute who attacked her seems to have bruised her ribs and twisted her ankle (strange injuries, these-- their severity seems to vary in inverse proportion to the apparent likelihood of Ivy getting one or the other of the men to go home with her...), and Jekyll, ever the gentleman, is perfectly content to play along with her. Indeed, he even offers to take a look at her “wounds” after taking Ivy up to her flat. I speak as one who knows from personal experience when I say that attractive young women become far more persuasive if they take off half of their clothes, acquiring thereby the power to talk men into doing things they would never consider had a fully clothed woman suggested them, and it seems a safe bet to me that this encounter would have ended with Jekyll cheating on his bride-to-be had it not been for Lanyon’s impatience. The other doctor had been waiting down in the cab, and he heads upstairs to see what’s taking Jekyll so long at right about the time that Ivy starts turning up the heat on old Henry. Lanyon’s intrusion breaks the mood, and Jekyll regains enough of his composure to bid Ivy goodnight.
The Ivy incident has a big effect on Jekyll, though, and seems to be a factor in the highly reckless decision he makes in the wake of word that his patient/guinea pig, the miner, has died of unexplained causes. Jekyll now takes it upon himself to become his own experimental subject, trying his personality-separating drug on himself the moment he develops a formula that works without complication on his lab animals. The result of this tinkering with his psyche is Jekyll’s transformation into an entirely different person, a diabolically cruel man who calls himself Mr. Hyde. The initial transformation is a brief one, lasting only a few minutes-- just long enough to give Jekyll some idea of what being Mr. Hyde might be about. But something arguably even more significant happens to Jekyll that night, in that Beatrix is struck, at the moment Jekyll imbibes his drug, by a premonition that her lover is about to leave, never to return. Beatrix panics, and rushes over to Jekyll’s place to see for herself that everything is okay, and when she does, her father follows her. Sir Charles, being the father of a young woman, has concluded that Beatrix is simply unwilling to wait until she is decently married, and has snuck off to her boyfriend’s house for a taste of Jekyll’s beef bologna, and neither daughter nor doctor can persuade him otherwise. Sir Charles announces that he and Beatrix will be shipping out the next day for mainland Europe, and that they shall only return when Sir Charles is good and ready. Fucker.
As the days of Jekyll’s forced separation from Beatrix stretch into weeks, his mood increasingly sours, and he finds himself thinking more and more often of Ivy. Let’s face it, Ivy’s dad wouldn’t try to break up the relationship if, hypothetically speaking, one were to develop between her and Dr. Jekyll. No, Ivy’s dad would probably be thrilled that his little girl had landed herself a gentleman doctor for a boyfriend, and would probably start showing up at Jekyll’s place asking for favors. It is in this frame of mind that Jekyll’s thoughts turn back to his drug, and he begins to hear the little voice of Mr. Very Bad Idea whispering in his ear:
“Listen, doc,” Mr. Very Bad Idea says, “if you went down to the lab and had a swig of that potion of yours, you could go visit Ivy at the tavern where she tends bar, and nobody would know it was you.”
“Hmmm...” says Dr. Jekyll.
“For that matter,” Mr. Very Bad Idea elaborates, truly pleased with himself for having thought of this, “you could actually fuck Ivy, so long as you did it while you were Mr. Hyde. And you wouldn’t have to settle for some pissant one-night-stand either; remember, you’d be another person entirely, and that other person isn’t engaged to lily-white Beatrix, who’s stranded in fucking France anyway. You could become Ivy’s main man, and have that fine Cockney piece of ass any time you wanted, just so long as you did it while you were Mr. Hyde.”
“Hmmm...” says Jekyll again, really starting to like the sound of this. Before long, Mr. Very Bad Idea has completely sold Jekyll on his plan for the requisitioning of barmaid nookie, and the doctor steps out back to his laboratory, where he downs another beaker of his serum, becomes his evil alter ego once again, and goes out on the town to seek action.
In this version, Jekyll and Hyde have complete access to each other’s memories, so Hyde is able to find the bar where Ivy said she worked. Hyde gets himself a table, watches the burlesque show on the stage for a bit, and then flags down a waiter to order a bottle of champagne, which he wants brought to him by Ivy. This is contrary to the house rules, but the money Hyde waves in the face of the waiter’s boss convinces the higher-ranking man to make an exception in Hyde’s case, and moments later, Ivy is making her way through the crowd with a bottle of champagne and two glasses, singing along with the performers as she goes. She’s less than pleased when she reaches Hyde’s table, and it’s not hard to see why. Maybe it’s his bad teeth, maybe it’s his bushy eyebrows, maybe it’s the fact that his eyes are open far too wide-- maybe it’s something else altogether-- but wherever it’s written, even the dullest, least perceptive person on Earth could plainly read the message “Stay the hell away from this guy” on Hyde’s face. But Hyde won’t take no for an answer. He came here to have a drink and a grope with Ivy, and he’s not leaving ‘til he gets it, even if that means provoking a riot in the bar. Hyde gleefully watches from the sidelines as the brawl he sets off spreads like an infection through the whole crowd, and then collars the tavern manager to tell him it was Ivy who provoked the initial scuffle. Hyde’s story (and a couple pounds’ bribe) gets the girl fired, and then Hyde steps up again to offer her his services as a sugar-daddy. And thus is born a match made in Hell.
Hyde sets Ivy up in a lavish uptown apartment. He spends profligately on her upkeep, buying her expensive jewelry and fine clothes, but it does her little good, because he won’t let her leave the flat. He never takes her out anywhere, and one gets the impression that a typical evening for this couple involves Hyde forcing Ivy to sing for him, then raping and beating the shit out of her. The one-on-one scenes with Ivy and Hyde are far and away the best in the movie. Watching Tracy and Bergman play out Hyde’s psychological brutalization of Ivy is almost hypnotic, and is damn creepy on occasion. In fact, this part of the story is so compelling that Beatrix and her father’s return to England, and thus to direct involvement in the movie, comes almost as an annoyance.
During the entire six weeks that Beatrix was away, Jekyll spent nearly all his time as Mr. Hyde, living it up with Ivy. With his fiancee’s return, he must start to compartmentalize his double life more minutely. But the auspices for future success start looking bleak when Jekyll discovers that Hyde can now manifest himself spontaneously, without the aid of the drug. In that light, it may be too late even to swear off the pleasures of his alter ego’s life altogether. Indeed, it may also be too late for Jekyll to keep the promise he makes to Ivy when the girl pays him a visit in his office, beseeching his protection against the sadistic Hyde. There may be nothing at all for Jekyll to do at this point except stand up and take the bad end to which he is clearly coming like a man.
The biggest shortcoming of the MGM Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is that it fails to correct the main structural flaw of the Paramount version, the postponement of the climax for an extra reel or two after the scene in which Hyde comes back to Ivy with revenge on his mind. As in the older film, this has the effect of pulling the rug out from under the story, squandering most of the momentum that has been built up over the first hour and a half. But even so, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is a compelling, high-class horror flick, with a strong cast, a smart script, capable direction, and a first-rate villain. Of the cinematic interpretations of the story I’ve seen, this version comes closest to portraying the relationship between Jekyll and his alter ego as Stevenson wrote it. Here as in the novel, Jekyll’s descent into evil and madness has little to do with his misguided scientific quest, and everything to do with the fact that being bad is fun. Jekyll continues to imbibe his sinister drug after his initial experiment because deep down at the core of his psyche, he likes being Mr. Hyde. And Hyde, for his part, has the doctor’s number. As he tells Ivy when he confronts her after her visit to Jekyll, the good doctor is a spineless hypocrite who, for all his condemnation of other men’s misdeeds, secretly longs to behave just as badly as they do, and who, now that he has stumbled upon a way to indulge his every sordid whim without fear of the reprisals the Victorian era held in store for the deviant, behaves far worse than even the most corrupt of them. In fact, in the guise of Hyde, Jekyll behaves even more loathsomely than he had in Rouben Mamoulian’s take on the story ten years before. The 1931 Hyde could best be described as “mean;” the 1941 Hyde, however, exhibits a purer form of evil. He’s cruel, even sadistic. It isn’t impulse control or socialization that this Hyde lacks, but a conscience. When he torments Ivy, both physically and psychologically, it isn’t because she spurns his amorous advances, but rather because he simply enjoys her suffering.
The movie’s treatment of the subject is made even more powerful by the fact that Ingrid Bergman’s Ivy is far more attractive as a human being than the sweet but insipid Beatrix, and Jekyll’s reliance on the monstrous persona of Hyde in order to realize his desire for her therefore makes the doctor even more contemptible. Ivy, though she is charming, witty, loving, and vivacious, is not a “proper” girl (although the more muscular enforcement the Hays Code was receiving in the 40’s required her to be at least a little more proper than her counterpart in the 1931 version), and so for Jekyll to pursue her would mean not only hurting his loyal but dull fiancee, but standing tall in the face of social opprobrium as well. Rather than accept that fact and face the snobbish disapproval of his well-heeled friends and colleagues, Jekyll resorts to the repulsive moral cop-out of going after Ivy in the guise of Hyde, callously unconcerned for the damage he thereby does to the object of his affections. With all that going on in the first 90 minutes, the dithering of the final 23 can easily be forgiven.