Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Viewing Two Sides of the Same Hyde

The Egyptian Theater was in a “Halloweenish” mood last Sunday night, offering an interesting double feature of the 1931 and 1941 screen adaptations of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Robert Louis Stevenson’s ingenious, unnerving tale of good and evil, which has held the public’s fascination for over 100 years. The original Paramount Rouben Mamoulian-directed version holds the greater reputation, putting a Best Actor Academy Award on Fredric March’s mantle, while MGM’s Victor Fleming-helmed remake is viewed as inferior, due to a miscast (but only partially, IMO) Spencer Tracy. However, back-to-back viewings of the films illustrate both movies have major assets to behold among any shortcomings.

1941’s take on the story was shown first. Tracy is definitely more at ease as the noble (if overly curious) good doctor, and his nashing teeth and bulging eyes raise a few chuckles when Hyde takes over- unwisely, during the first couple of transformations, little make-up is used to detail the switch, and in some shots the scruffy Hyde actually looks more attractive than Jekyll (Somerset Maugham visited the set and, watching Tracy's work, infamously remarked, "which one is he now, Jekyll or Hyde?"). However, Tracy is subdued enough in his enthralling scenes with the wisely-showcased Ingrid Bergman to be convincingly menacing (as Ivy, the seductive barmaid Hyde takes up with, a sensational Bergman does most of the enthralling). Tracy does a great job conveying the strong physical attraction Jekyll has towards Ivy during their first meeting, wherein he saves the girl from an attacker before taking her back to her room. Later, the perverse eroticism apparent in the twisted Hyde/Ivy relationship is made more shocking due to the rigid production code existing in Hollywood at the time. It’s largely left to the audience’s imagination to determine just how diabolical the carnal Hyde’s sexual nature is, but with Bergman vividly depicting Ivy’s Hyde-induced torment, the mind reels while pondering this unhealthy alliance. However, Fleming does manage to get a couple of astounding “dream-sequence” shots pass the censors: in the first, a troubled Jekyll imagines himself whipping his “mares” (Ivy and Beatrice, Jekyll’s sweet young fiancee) into a frenzy; later, a joyful Ivy is seen being ‘uncorked’ from a champagne bottle, after Hyde meets Ivy over a glass of the bubbly.

The luscious young Lana Turner switched roles with Bergman to play what is generally considered the less colorful character of Beatrice. However, Turner is irresistible in the part, and she holds the screen with a baby-doll magnetism that serves as a terrific counterpoint to Bergman’s more ‘mature’ persona as Ivy. Watching Turner on a big screen for the first time illustrated what remarkable star quality she possessed at this early stage of her career. Her acting’s also spot-on throughout the film (there’s no hint of the polished diva sometimes seen in Turner’s later roles), and Turner handles her big, emotionally demanding final scene with verve. Along with her talented costars and adept director, Turner does a lot to ensure this compelling entertainment lingers in the memory.

Tracy’s work stands comparison to March’s more heralded turn of a decade earlier. Whereas the somber Tracy may be too grounded an actor to completely carry off the flamboyant aspects of Hyde’s nature, his sensibility is a good fit for the practical Dr. Jekyll. In contrast, the handsome March often comes across as overly theatrical as both Hyde and Jekyll. However, aided by hideously over-the-top makeup (Hyde is given a set of choppers only a profit-maximizing dentist could love) March has an eerie magnetism, and flamboyancy is no problem for this actor as March spends a considerable amount of screen time leaping about sets before, during, and after Hyde’s series of devious escapades.

As in the later version, Hyde’s dirty dealings with Ivy comprise the film’s most memorable sequences. Miriam Hopkins, at the time busy shimmering her way through lighter fare for Ernst Lubitsch (including The Smiling Lieutenant and Trouble in Paradise), did a drastic change-of-pace as Ivy and, giving possibly her best dramatic performance, she accomplishes the difficult feat of matching March's overwhelming presence as Hyde. Hopkins makes an impression similar to the impact Bergman has in the remake, and she is especially moving as Ivy pleads for Jekyll’s assistance in escaping Hyde’s ominous clutches. The production code had not yet become stringent in the wake of Mae West’s bawdy romps, and therefore a freer reign is given in the depiction of Ivy’s come-hither overtures to Dr. Jekyll (she does a lot more with her garters than Bergman was permitted to do, and Ivy is clearly nude underneath the sheets as she seductively beckons the doctor to “come back, soon”), as well as in her later downfall at the hands of Hyde.

The talents of Rouben Mamoulian, one year shy of his masterpiece, the sparkling, inventive Love Me Tonight, are evident throughout the film. The early years of sound films had no better friend than this underrated, creative director, and nearly 80 years after its release his film holds up remarkably well. He starts the film in daring fashion, using the camera for the first minute to show point-of-view shots from Jekyll’s perspective, before the audience finally glimpses the title character via his mirror image. Close-ups are effectively incorporated throughout the movie, and Mamoulian moves the story along smoothly by transitioning from scene-to-scene via the frequent use of 'wipe' shots. Most importantly, the director masterfully stages the Jekyll/Hyde transformation scenes- at the current showing of the film, gasps of the “How did they do that?” type were audible during these scenes, high praise from an audience consisting of people used to viewing the current high-tech, multi-million dollar special-effects sagas that regularly invade the cinema multiplexes.

An excellent 'twofer' DVD is available for those interested in comparing and contrasting the divergent temperaments of the screen’s most famously conflicted multi-tasking doctor, as portrayed by two of classic cinema’s foremost actors. And for detailed behind-the-scenes information on both versions, scroll down over here at Greenbriar's for an outstanding post on the films.