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10th June 2004 07:00:00
Posted by Mike Sutton

Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde

DVD Video Review
There have been numerous film versions of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, many theatrical dramatisations, several adaptations for TV and even a long-running Broadway musical. It has to be said that most of them have been pretty disappointing, especially the more promising ones such as Hammer's The Two Faces of Dr Jekyll and the Amicus version with Christopher Lee, I Monster. The best remains the 1932 version made for Paramount. This overshadows all others as far as I'm concerned and makes the more expensive 1941 MGM adaptation look positively anaemic. Luckily, both versions are included on this disc so you can make up your own mind.

The 1932 Version 10/10

Rouben Mamoulian was one of the most ambitious of the early sound directors and his films are packed with visual and aural experimentation. A Mamoulain film will typically have a kind of vitality which was extraordinarily rare in American cinema of the early 1930s, something which can be seen in films ranging from Garbo’s brilliant Queen Christina to the vivacious musical Love Me Tonight. However, I think his best early film is Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde, a compelling and surprisingly explicit version of the novel by Robert Louis Stevenson which is still probably the best screen adaptation. Taking his cue from Stevenson’s daringly elliptical narrative style, Mamoulian takes all manner of chances with his telling of the fairly simple story and as a result, the film seems surprisingly modern, even though some of the dialogue and supporting performances do their best to remind you that the film was made 72 years ago.

This adaptation follows the basic story of the book. Dr Jekyll (March) is a respected and much loved doctor, engaged to be married to society heiress Muriel (Rose Hobart). His efforts to do his best for the poor in his community are derided by his colleagues. He believes passionately that man has a dual nature – everything that is positive and ‘good’ on the one hand and the complete negation of this on the other. Determined to find a way to conquer the negative side of man’s nature, he develops a formula that immediately transforms him into Mr Hyde, the embodiment of his own ‘dark side’. Jekyll’s natural instincts to do good are counterbalanced by Hyde’s instinctual evil and as Hyde begins to take over, Jekyll discovers that his own happiness – along with the lives of others – is under threat.

Mamoulian showcases his virtuosity right from the beginning. The first two minutes of the film use a revolutionary subjective camera style, showing Jekyll only in a mirror. Intended to place the audience in the position of the good Doctor, it contains some gloriously ambitious tracking shots that show complete disdain for the limitations placed on directors by intractable equipment and the need to record sound. The use of long takes and elaborate pans across sets is brilliant and typical of Mamoulain's decidedly sensual, flowing style. His use of composition is assured throughout, using extreme close-ups to impressive effect and I also love the use of wipes to contrast two particular images. The director is equally daring with his use of sound. It was a convention at the time that one should only have one microphone and one channel. Mamoulian defies this by having a scene in which Jekyll and Muriel talk while, in the background, we hear the sound of an orchestra playing through an open door. The use of heartbeats on the soundtrack is another effective touch which has since become a cliche but was first attempted here. But in praising Mamoulian, we shouldn't forget the contribution of Karl Struss. A brilliant cinematographer, Struss is as breathtakingly assured as you would expect from the man who worked on two silent cinema classics - Ben Hur and Sunrise. It's Struss who can, almost certainly, be credited with the brilliant special effects sequence of Jekyll's transformation into Hyde. For a long time, Paramount kept the secret behind this scene to themselves but it was eventually revealed that it was achieved by using different layers of red make up which were sensitive to different intensities of light through a red filter. This works beautifully well and is still impressive today - indeed, I find it rather more effective than the more elaborate transformation effected by John Malkovich in the 1995 film Mary Reilly.

All the special effects in the world wouldn't work without a good performance in the key dual role of Jekyll and Hyde. Luckily, Frederic March is quite remarkable, making the somewhat cumbersome make-up work to the advantage of the character. He differentiates the two sides of the character with the memorably simian gait and grimaces of Hyde and the upright, unbearably dull self-righteousness of Jekyll. He is believably obsessive as the daring scientist and truly menacing as the dark side of the doctor. He is well matched by the superb Miriam Hopkins who is genuinely touching as the sad, mistreated Ivy and their scenes together generate a genuinely perverse erotic heat.

In some respects, the film looks dated. The supporting actors frequently declaim in that early sound manner which was dominated by stage actors who tended to project unnecessarily. The script also suffers from some unintentionally amusing, over-expository speeches. But in another sense, it's the age of the film that makes it so interesting. The pre-Code period was a fascinating one in Hollywood, producing such unexpectedly explicit films as Mystery Of The Wax MuseumScarface. Mamoulian takes full advantage of this with scenes of brutality and sexuality which would have been immediately hacked out of the script by the Breen office five years later. The famous example is the scene in which Ivy flirts with Jekyll by slowly undressing. This is a lovely scene and disconcertingly sexy, not least when Jekyll puts his cane inside her garter. Later, some genuinely chilling moments really do keep you on the edge of your seat. My favourite is when Ivy, having been assured by Jekyll that Hyde will not bother her any more, is celebrating in her room and is suddenly accosted by Hyde who mocks her “cheap little dreams” and then exacts a horrible punishment as he “puts an end to all that... confusion”. Quite apart from its other merits as a film, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is one of the very few thirties horror films which is still really unnerving.

The 1941 Version 6/10

Victor Fleming’s 1941 adaptation of the novel works from, to a large extent , the same script as the earlier film – although this is, shamefully, uncredited. But the two movies are actually very different and both are clearly products of their time. While Mamoulian’s film is a brisk, edgy and daring thriller, Fleming’s is a glossy MGM melodrama, lavishly decked out with huge sets, a starry cast and plenty of moralising. Of course, Mamoulian made the most of the licence he was granted in the years immediately preceding the Production Code – and his was one of the movies which led to Joseph Breen’s success at imposing his own decidedly Victorian morality on a whole industry. By 1941, the Code was firmly implanted and enthusiastically supported by the Studios – most of them run by men whose own personal morality was as hypocritical as it was stern. In fact, at MGM itself, Louis B. Mayer’s penchant for screwing pretty young secretaries was well known around Hollywood but his public image remained one of the committed family man who was keen to keep a fatherly eye on the nation’s morals.

As a consequence, Fleming’s film is a heavily bowdlerised, not to mention considerably slower version of Mamoulian’s classic. The key change is the alteration of Ivy’s profession from prostitute to the rather coy ‘barmaid’. This instantly neuters the danger of Jekyll’s association with her and this is confirmed when the marvellous undressing scene from the 1932 version is halfway repeated but consists of above the waist shots of Bergman and Tracy talking. This hesitance continues throughout Hyde’s scenes with Ivy, none of which conjour up the perverse sexual threat of the ones in the earlier version. That brilliant moment when Hyde strangles Ivy while saying “Isn't Hyde a lover after your own heart?”, is completely lost. Nor do we see the sado-eroticism of their relationship in all its vivid ugliness.

This wouldn’t necessarily matter if the film was one of MGM’s best literary adaptations. Sadly, it isn’t and the sense of strain is evident from the opening scene which is set, to rather tediously verbose effect, in a church. MGM seems to have regarded the film as an improving melodrama, along the lines of The Good Earth , and the pulpy energy which, for example, makes their version of David Copperfield work so well (and makes it surprisingly Dickensian), is strangely absent. It looks stunning, thanks to the glistening monochrome lighting of Joseph Ruttenberg, but that’s no more than you would reasonably expect from MGM in the 1940s. But the gorgeous cinematography goes for little when it’s at the mercy of this kind of plodding direction. Scenes which were effectively vigorous in the 1932 film are repeated here but paced more slowly as if the film were trying to impress upon us the underlying spiritual meaning of the film. Victor Fleming was never a great director on his own account, his ‘triumphs’ with The Wizard Of Oz and Gone With The Wind being largely the result of competent hackwork at the service of visionary producers. But his early work, particularly the marvellous Red Dust has a kind of erotically charged machismo personified through strong male stars like Clark Gable and Gary Cooper, and you can see this coming through in some of the Rhett and Scarlet scenes in Gone With The Wind. By 1941, however, he was content to do whatever MGM demanded and he trudges through this padded screenplay without any obvious interest. The compositions lack imagination and the occasional good scenes, such as the wonderfully Freudian transformations which include the astonishingly perverse image of Jekyll riding a carriage which is being drawn by the two women in his life, would seem to owe more to the influence of Cedric Gibbons and Peter Ballbusch.

Nor is the acting really up to scratch. Spencer Tracy could be a great star in the right vehicle but this material is all wrong for him. His naturalistic playing of Jekyll is dull as ditchwater (and there doesn’t appear to be any irony in this) and his hammy portrayal of Hyde is disastrous. He declined to use heavy make-up or special effects, insisting instead on using facial and vocal acting and body language to convey Hyde’s nature. This doesn’t really work and it’s not hard to see why, on a visit to the set, W.Somerset Maugham loudly enquired, “Which one is he now ?” Indeed, the fact that Jekyll's friends don't recognise that Hyde is in fact Jekyll makes them seem positively stupid. I could happily do without Lana Turner, who appears as Beatrix, whose idea of playing a good girl is to merge with the wallpaper and act kittenish, and Donald Crisp, as her father, goes through the standard disapproving parent act. It’s the kind of role which means that if he forgot the words, you could quite easily prompt him. Ian Hunter makes no impression whatsoever as Jekyll’s best friend and it’s left to the cherishable C. Aubrey Smith to keep things moving in the early stages – although casting this most military of actors as a vicar is perhaps pushing it a little.

The best thing about this remake is, surprisingly, Ingrid Bergman. She switched roles with Lana Turner shortly before production, feeling that her talent would be better served by playing the role which was more distant from her screen image. This was certainly the correct choice and Bergman literally glows with carnal promise. I think it’s one of her best performances, despite a somewhat shaky accent, and it was this darker side which finally emerged again in her two best parts – Alicia in Notorious for Hitchcock, and her final masterwork, Charlotte in Autumn Sonata for the other Bergman. She retains the fragile, luminous beauty that lit up her next film - Casablanca - and the result is a very touching, believable characterisation. She makes the whole film worth watching and the end result is a kind of testament to her huge talent.

The Disc

Earlier in the year, Warners disappointed R2 viewers with their disc of Gaslight, which omitted the key feature of the R1 release – the excellent 1938 version of that film. Thankfully, they haven’t made the same mistake here and the result is a delightful DVD that will give much pleasure to fans of classic Hollywood.

The disc is double sided with the 1932 film and the extras on Side A and the 1941 version on Side B. Both films are presented in their original 1.37:1 aspect ratio and in glorious black and white.

The 1932 version is an inferior transfer to the one granted to the later film but this is understandable. For many years, as I described earlier, the film was unavailable and it’s a small miracle that it’s still around to be put on DVD at all. When MGM remade it in 1941, they decided to buy up the rights to the Paramount film and dumped it in their vaults. For many years it was considered to be a lost film but, during the 1970s, it was discovered in a much cut, poorly maintained print. The following 20 years were spent by film historians in trying to restore it to its original condition. Although what we have now isn't the 'full version', it's the nearest we are likely to get.

Consequently, this is a film which looks 72 years old but don’t let that put you off. The transfer is a fine effort with the available materials; crisp, detailed and gorgeously filmic without being over-textured. There is some damage in evidence, largely through scratches, and some artefacting occurs here and there. But the contrast is superb and this is a vast improvement on the muddy print which was dug up by Leslie Halliwell and has been shown several times on television.

The 1941 version looks, quite simply, stunning. This is well up to the standard of Warners’ other transfers of their back catalogue - Now Voyager, Casablanca, Mildred Pierce - and is almost beyond criticism. I spotted a few instances of print damage and a couple of blocky artefacts during one of the dark exterior scenes. But overall, it’s a lovely visual experience with quite staggering detail and some beautiful levels of grey.

Both films are presented in the original Mono format. Having suffered through Warners’ recent attempt to turn Meet Me In St Louis into a Dolby Digital 5.1 experience, I am pleased to report that these audio tracks are absolutely fine. The 1932 version is a little crackly in places but, as so often, this adds to the charm of a very old film. Too much aural cleaning up can make a very sterile experience. The 1941 version, from a much better maintained print, is perfectly represented.

The 1941 version is accompanied by a wonderfully pompous theatrical trailer. The 1932 version has a superb audio commentary from film historian Greg Mank which is packed with trivia and intelligent insights into the film. We also get a very funny Bugs Bunny Looney Tunes cartoon, "Hyde and Hare".

Both versions have subtitles provided for the film. None of the special features are subtitled.

This would be an excellent DVD even if it only contained the 1932 version of the film. The addition of the 1941 version makes it an essential purchase.
Details and Specifications
DVD Video Review

Region: 2

Certificate: 12

Distributor:
Warner Brothers

Running Time:
92 and 108 mins approx
Soundtracks:
English Mono

Subtitles:
English

Director:
Rouben Mamoulian
Victor Fleming

Main cast:
Frederic March
Miriam Hopkins
Rose Hobart
Spencer Tracy
Ingrid Bergman
Lana Turner
-- more --
Ratings
Film
8
Video
8
Audio
8
Extras
7
9
About Mike Sutton
Mike has been reviewing DVDs and, latterly, Blu-Rays for this site on and off since June 1999. He is willing to review anything and everything but his first loves are American movies from the 1960s to the 1980s, Sam Peckinpah, Brian De Palma, Westerns, and Horror. His main contribution, however, is to sharply raise the average age of the reviewing staff.


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