Recently Turner Classic movies aired both the 1931 and 1941 film versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde on consecutive days, giving me a good chance to compare the two. The ’31 version was directed by Rouben Mamoulian and starred Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, and Rose Hobart. It was a remarkable piece of filmmaking for its day, very technically innovative, with an impressive use of POV shots, including a brilliant opening sequence that’s shot almost entirely from Jekyll’s own point of view, which must’ve taken some very creative camera work. Our first view of Jekyll himself (here pronounced “Jee-kle,” a more correct pronunciation than the “Jeckle” version we use today) is from his own POV as he looks in a mirror, foreshadowing the later shot where we see Hyde for the first time also from his own POV — both no doubt achieved by building a duplicate set behind a clear piece of glass so that the “reflection” was actually March himself. There are also lots of clever scene transitions, particularly the recurring use of diagonal split screens to juxtapose characters and events and convey the theme of duality. I’d love to see a “making-of” featurette or article about the movie. Plus there were all the transformation effects, of course, and though the dissolves and jump cuts are familiar techniques today, there was one technique used that’s still impressive, and that only works in black-and-white. I read about it in The Twilight Zone Companion — they’d paint the first stage of the transformation makeup on the actor in red (say), then light him through a red filter so it was invisible, and then they’d switch to a green filter so it would fade into view, and he would visibly begin to transform right before our eyes, purely in camera. It was done quite effectively here.
I found Hyde’s makeup (by Wally Westmore) and his behavior more comical than frightening at first, but when it got into his ongoing abuse of Ivy (Hopkins), it became quite chilling and dark, and surprisingly modern in its frank portrayal of a sexually abusive relationship. The sexual content was pretty blatant for the era, even with a partial nude scene (plus some nude paintings/sculptures clearly visible at some points), though I guess I shouldn’t be too surprised since it came out before the Hays Code was enforced.
I also feel Hyde’s appearance was given away too soon. There should’ve been more mystery about what was going on in that first transformation, some suspense about what the results of Jekyll’s experiments were. Heck, in the original Robert Louis Stevenson story, we didn’t find out that Hyde and Jekyll were the same man until after he/they died! True, most of it was told in flashback, which was a very clumsy format for the story, but the movie could’ve tried to capture some of that sense of mystery.
Unfortunately, the 1941 version is a greatly inferior film. Despite being from a rather accomplished director, Victor Fleming, who’d done Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, it was a much less innovative, much more ordinary production than the previous film, with nothing really intriguing done with the direction, cinematography, or special effects. The casting was also pretty bad. Spencer Tracy was just too nice a guy to be effectively menacing, and as much as I like Ingrid Bergman, it was kind of painful to listen to her trying to pretend to be a Cockney. Though on the other hand, I think this is the first time I’ve ever seen a Lana Turner movie, and she was really lovely.
The movie also suffered greatly from the Hays Code. The hand of censorship was so heavy that the movie couldn’t really explore or depict what made Hyde so evil. It implied that he was sexually violating and abusing Ivy off-camera, but it was executed so sedately that what we saw onscreen made Hyde seem more just uncouth and annoying than cruel and terrifying, so it never really sold the sense of menace. Given the radical difference in censorship, I’m surprised the ’41 movie hewed so closely to the ’31 film’s storyline. I mean, that’s a movie that’s heavily dependent on the sexual nature of Hyde’s relationship with Ivy to demonstrate how brutal and abusive he is. Try to tell the same story with the sexuality swept under the rug and it’s rendered hollow. Maybe they should’ve told a different version of the story altogether, one where Hyde’s evil was demonstrated through crime and violence and stuff they could actually show, instead of nebulously implied sexual cruelty. After all, the original Stevenson work doesn’t include the Ivy character or Jekyll’s more wholesome fiancee, and avoids specific description of Hyde’s debaucheries aside from a murder or two.
Jack Dawn’s makeup for Hyde was also way too subtle, basically just a wig, a small appliance on the brows and nose, some wrinkles around the eyes, and bushy eyebrows, with the rest being just Tracy bugging his eyes and grinning. Fredric March’s Jekyll turned into an apelike brute, but Tracy essentially turned into Burgess Meredith as the Penguin. No, strike that; at least the Penguin was interesting to watch. Plus it was completely ridiculous that nobody could tell that Jekyll and Hyde were the same man. At least Clark Kent had glasses. The whole thing was kind of embarrassing, and greatly disappointing.
Although I guess it’s kind of appropriate that of two consecutive versions of DJ&MH, one would be good and the other would be bad.