The Son of Dr. Jekyll (1951) ***Ĺ
I wonder how much of this unjustly ignored movieís obscurity stems from the fact that it delivers an experience completely unlike that which most viewers will be expecting. The Son of Dr. Jekyll uses the familiar story only to set the stage for something quite different. The underlying intellectual enterprise remains the same-- like Robert Louis Stevensonís novel, the movie is at some level an exploration of the mechanics of evil-- but it goes looking for evil in places that would have been more relevant to a world that was still experiencing the lingering hangover of World War II than to Stevensonís Victorian England.
The film begins with Mr. Hyde fleeing down the street with a mob at his back. As a title card helpfully tells us, ďMr. Hyde, the monster, the terror of London, climaxed his brutality by murdering his wife in their Soho flat...Ē (If youíre a bit puzzled by the mention of Hydeís wife, youíre not alone. Donít worry about it though; this Hyde has a wife essentially because the story wouldnít work otherwise. Besides, the main body of the movie takes place a generation later, so this will rapidly be reduced to a background issue.) The mob catches up to Hyde at a mansion which nobody seems to notice belongs to a certain Henry Jekyll, and sets the place ablaze. The flames drive Hyde up to the top floor of the house, and ultimately force him to leap to the ground in what proves to be a self-defeating attempt to reach safety-- Hyde does not survive the fall, and upon dying, he reverts to his natural identity as Jekyll.
In the aftermath, Jekyllís lawyer, a Mr. John Utterson (Lester Matthews, from The Raven and Man in the Attic), and his colleague, Dr. Curt Lanyon (Alexander Knox, of Crack in the World and Holocaust 2000), must make arrangements for the care of Jekyllís infant, and now orphaned son. Ultimately, Utterson agrees to adopt him. He and his wife have always wanted a child, but have apparently had no success in their endeavors to produce one of their own. Everyone agrees that it would be best for all concerned if the childís true origin were kept a secret until the furor over Jekyllís crimes in the guise of Mr. Hyde blows over.
Thirty years later, Edward Utterson (as the Jekyll child has been known ever since) is a scientist like his father. Maybe a little too much like his father, as Edward (Terror in the Wax Museumís Louis Hayward) has just been expelled from the Royal Academy of Sciences because of the ďunnaturalĒ character of his experiments, which certain of his peers say are little short of witchcraft. But Edward is not concerned. He is a man who believes in himself, and he concludes that if the Royal Academy is not ready for his ideas, then he must simply find patrons who are-- perhaps somewhere in continental Europe. His girlfriend (Jody Lawrance) is rather less than impressed with this idea at first, but when Edward suggests that she marry him and accompany him on his travels, she changes her tune.
But a blissful, easy-going honeymoon simply isnít in the cards for these two. You see, Dr. Lanyonís trusteeship of the Jekyll estate is about to expire, at which point Edwardís true identity is bound to come to light. Lanyon and Utterson meet to discuss the issue, and conclude that the best thing to do would be to have Lanyon tell Edward who he really is, and then to counsel him to extend the doctorís trusteeship in the hope that the further passage of time will take some of the edge off the legend of Dr. Jekyll. Edward is not so optimistic when he hears the news. He knows that legends never weaken with the passage of time, at least not with the passage of such short amounts of time as a single man has at his disposal. Edward instead decides to come out of the closet, as it were, to be forthright and up front about his parentage, and hopefully, by meeting the legend head-on, to dispel its force by the virtue of his own conduct.
I guess it sounded like a good idea at the time, but frankly, it seems as though Lanyon and Utterson may have had the right idea, at least from the standpoint of short-term pragmatism. From the moment Edward begins the restoration of his fatherís mansion, with the intention of moving in once it has been rendered livable, the harassment starts. The contractors working on his house are all afraid of him, his neighbors treat him as a pariah, and worst of all, the press practically camps out at his front door, waiting for opportunities to manufacture sensational incidents with which to paint him as a monster like his father is said to have been.
Eventually, Edward is driven to revive his fatherís experiments in an effort to clear the old manís name, and by extension, his own. Initially, Edward seems to be hoping to demonstrate that his fatherís drug was worthless, and thus that it was the ignorant distrust of those around him that eventually drove him to madness. Later on, though, Edward begins to believe in the efficacy of his fatherís formula, which, if heís right, offers the even more satisfying prospect of proving that the elder Jekyll hadnít been mad at all. He secures a copy of his fatherís notes from Lanyon, hires his fatherís old assistant, and sets to work, with no success at first. One night, though, somebody sneaks into Edwardís lab and tampers with his current batch of the drug. This somebody turns out to be Lanyon, and the next day, when Edward tests the concoction, it does in fact transform him into a Hyde-like persona. It also knocks him flat-on-his-ass unconscious, however, making it impossible for him to be sure exactly what happened.
The next day, Edward calls something like a press conference, at which he intends to demonstrate the drug, proving the validity of his fatherís work, and with it, he hopes, his sanity. But of course, Edward doesnít realize that his success earlier was due to Lanyonís machinations, so he succeeds only in making a fool of himself, actually undermining his position in the public eye further. And itís about this time that the assaults begin. Somebody with a face that resembles the popular image of Mr. Hyde starts attacking people late at night in the vicinity of Edwardís home, and despite the fact that Edward is sure it isnít him, despite the fact that he has what he believes is an air-tight alibi, he nevertheless finds himself arrested and charged with the first of the crimes. Edward gets a rude awakening at the trial. The people with whom he had been visiting at the time of the first attack, a conspicuously working-class family of itinerant actors who knew his mother, rat him out, claiming that he left their company a full hour before he did, leaving his movements unaccounted for during the crucial hour when the attack took place. Edward is duly convicted and sentenced to confinement in Dr. Lanyonís sanitarium.
The rest of the movie follows Edwardís efforts to clear his name, efforts which are thwarted at every step of the way by some mysterious person committing Hyde-like crimes wherever Edward goes. Meanwhile, bits and pieces of the conspiracy against Edward are revealed to the audience, if not to the movieís characters, until it becomes clear that someone close to Edward is using the pressís and the publicís prejudices against him to orchestrate a massive smear campaign with the objective of getting his or her hands on the Jekyll fortune.
The neat thing about this movie, and the thing that may have helped consign it to eternal obscurity, is the fact that the traditional aspects of the Jekyll and Hyde story are just a red herring here. Edward only becomes Hyde once, and even then, he spends the entire duration of his transformation passed out on the floor of his lab. What The Son of Dr. Jekyll is really about is the power that the prejudices of the ignorant place in the hands of those unscrupulous people who would seek to profit from persecuting the objects of those prejudices. This was potentially a powerful message for the generation that had ten years before seen much of the world laid to waste in an effort to contain that very process. So the question becomes: what happened to this movie? Was 1951 already too late to tap into this current of unease? Had those fears been rendered obsolete by the even more appalling prospect of nuclear war? Or was the opposite true, that the memories were still fresh enough that people didnít want to have the idea waved in their faces now that the immediate threat had been put down? My gut feeling is that it was probably a bit of both, helped along perhaps by the rise of a younger generation for whom the filmís message could have little or no meaning, and who probably just wanted to see a guy turn into a monkey and menace women with hazardously low-cut decolletage. God knows that was what I was expecting initially.