Recently, I watched a DVD which contained both the 1932 and 1941 versions of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I was familiar with the 1932 version (technically, it was released December 31st 1931, but is usually listed as a 1932 release), featuring the talents of Fredric March as Jekyll/Hyde and Miriam Hopkins as his mistress, the barmaid/chanteuse Ivy Pearson. This movie, which I hadn’t seen for years, impressed me so much upon revisitation. Over the years I had forgotten just how good this movie really is and almost developed a dismissive attitude about the decision to make a Hyde into a sort of monkey-man, a choice which was taken further 20 plus years later in 1953’s “Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in which Hyde is made to look like a sort of demonic ape in a top hat.
According to DVD commentator Greg Mank, director Rouben Mamoulian wanted to present Hyde as a representation of Jekyll’s baser primitive side. He was to represent the side of Jekyll that he suppressed so he could maintain his place in proper Victorian society. Robert Louis Stevenson, author of the original story “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” never really gives an in-depth description of Hyde, although he does say that he appears to be smaller and younger than Jekyll. In his analysis of the story for the “Essential Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”, Editor Leonard Wolf believes the reason for this difference in size and age is that Jekyll’s wild side had been repressed for so long that when it was finally set free, it was underdeveloped. This is emphasized in the scene in the story where Jekyll inadvertently begins to change into Hyde without the use of the potion, and Hyde is forced to wear Jekyll’s clothes, which are too big for him, while he tries to effect a reversal before he is discovered by Jekyll’s servant staff. There is also mention of his skin tone being a bit darker and his hands are hairy, possibly hinting at the Neanderthal in a top hat look sported by Fredric March.
Spencer Tracy’s Hyde, however, looks like the type of guy who hangs around grade-school playgrounds. He eschewed the ape-man look of the Mamoulian version for a creepy sweaty guy with a fright wig on his head and dark circles around his eyes. Apparently, director Victor Fleming opted for a more “realistic” looking Hyde, with minimal make up, but Tracey’s portrayal was so ineffective that, according to Michael Toole in his online review of the film on the Turner Classic Movies site “…Somerset Maugham, while visiting the set, whispered to Fleming while studying Tracy’s performance, “Which one is he now, Jekyll or Hyde?”
He then continues to opine that “Part of the problem lies with the fact that the Hays Code was already well established, imposing strict censorship on the material. It was also unfairly compared (just as Tracy feared) to Rouben Mamoulian’s stylish 1932, pre-Code version which many film historians consider the best production of this oft-filmed tale. Mamoulian’s interpretation has a sexual frankness that is crucial to an understanding of Dr. Jekyll’s conflicted character. In Fleming’s version, the foundation to explain the sexual violence that Jekyll exhibits once he transforms into Hyde is never fully developed.”
True that. March’s performance of Hyde is so nuanced, ranging from the almost comical childlike first steps as Hyde in the first transformation scene where the newborn Hyde skulks about the room in trepidation until he finds a mirror and realizes he is unbounded and shouts “Free! Free at last!”, to the truly frightening womanizer who abuses and taunts his mistress, actress Miriam Hopkins in her tragic portrayal of the hapless Ivy Pearson. Ingrid Bergman would play this role as Ivy Peterson, who is a little less of a trollop in the 1941 version, which of course is most likely due to the enforcement of the aforementioned decency codes of the day. The other female role in these movie versions is Jekyll’s bland fiancée; Muriel Carew in the 1931 version (played by actress Rose Hobart) and Beatrix Emery (played by Lana Turner) in the 1941 version. The character is uninteresting in either version and makes one marvel at just how much this pathetic woman is willing to put up with just to appease her mercurial suitor.
Oddly enough, neither woman exists in the original story. In fact, Sir Danvers Carew, who in the 1931 version is the uptight father of Jekyll’s fiancée Muriel, is only a passing victim in the story with no real dialog. He is seen by a charwoman to address Mr. Hyde in the street at night moments before Hyde falls upon him and beats him to death with his cane. Later, it is divined that he carried a letter on his person addressed to another character, Utterson, who is central to the original story, but is reduced to a peripheral role in these respective movie versions. Leonard Wolf puts forth the idea that since they were both walking the streets so late at night, Carew may have made the mistake of having propositioned Hyde, causing the man to assail him in such a manner.
All in all, the 1932 version is superior in every respect and arguably even trumps John Barrymore’s portrayal of the lead role in the 1920 version, which is saying a lot since Barrymore’s Hyde is quite a sinister character, but not quite as layered as March’s. When March’s Hyde taunts Ivy Pearson by repeating phrases he’s said to her when in the form of Jekyll, it really gave me goose-bumps and her terrified reaction is heart breaking.
He is the ultimate cad and in total contrast to the angelic Henry Jekyll who is cast as being a virtual saint, helping cripples and the needy until his experiment in splitting the human ego goes awry. In Stevenson’s story he is not quite so altruistic and really is only looking for a way to indulge his darker side without feeling guilt or getting caught.
There are many other film adaptations of Stevenson’s story as well as spin offs, featuring such horror luminaries as Boris Karloff, Christopher Lee, Jack Palance, Paul Naschy, Oliver Reed, et al. Why, Hammer films alone has several, including a “Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde”! But that’s another review…
Reference Links and Materials
“The Essential Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: the Definitive Annotated Edition” Edited by Leonard Wolf
“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Classic Double Feature” DVD MGM (2004)
Turner Classic movies Links:
Internet Movie Database Links