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Two Opportunities to See Dr. Jekyll Uncork His Id
on May 19, 2004
Fredric March earned an Academy Award for his bifurcated performance in the titular roles of the 1931 version--arguably the best to date--of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, Robert Louis Stevenson's familiar tale of a scientist who uses chemistry to liberate his baser instincts and allow them free reign over his body and behavior. And the Oscar was certainly deserved, as March easily convinces the audience that he is two different and disparate men. As the academic Dr. Jekyll, March is prim and decorous, the epitome of Victorian English gentility. But as the mean and selfish Mr. Hyde, March really cuts it loose and chews the scenery. Part of the transformation can be attributed to the make-up, of course, which makes March look like a snaggletoothed hybrid of simian and Neanderthal. But the make-up alone would not suffice. It is March's brash delivery of dialogue, unusual gesticulations and posturing, and bizarre body language that really sells the unrestrained, vile nature of Jekyll's alter ego.
Another outstanding performance in the film is that of Miriam Hopkins. In the role of prostitute Ivy Pearson, both the object of Mr. Hyde's carnal desires and the victim of his sadistic abuse, the amply bosomed and nicely figured Ms. Hopkins can exude a lustful sexiness while simultaneously being personable enough to elicit genuine sympathy from the audience.
The direction and cinematography work is also outstanding and contributes greatly to the film's success. Director Rouben Mamoulian keeps the pacing brisk and the story tight, never allowing the audience an opportunity to become distracted or bored. When appropriate, several shots are set up so that the audience literally sees the action from Fredric March's point of view--or at least the camera is skillfully manipulated to make it appear as such--and talented cinematographer Karl Struss is able to frame these shots in such a way that they are natural to the flow of the plot and never feel gimmicky or contrived.
Now, the DVD from Warner Home Video would be worth the retail price for the 1931 edition of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE alone. But this is a double feature, folks, and Warner gives the paying public a second good film for the price of one ticket--MGM's 1941 version of the classic horror story.
In the 1941 film, Spencer Tracy assumes the two titular roles, and the beautiful Ingrid Bergman takes over the part of the prostitute Ivy. Other than the change of cast and some filmic or narrative "cosmetic" differences, the plot remains intrinsically the same. This film's budget was much larger than the 1931 flick, though, and it also has big-name, high-profile stars in the major roles. Yet despite those assets, this film doesn't quite achieve the pinnacle of the first.
The film's major weakness is the palpable miscasting of Tracy and Bergman. Both are fine actors, but Tracy's emotional range and Bergman's general persona make each really unsuitable for the characters they portray. Tracy just isn't able to cut loose to the same degree as March, and he is therefore unable to create a Mr. Hyde that reads as the unequivocal polar opposite of his Dr. Jekyll. As for Ms. Bergman, she's just too classy--on screen and off--for any audience to totally accept her as a woman of ill repute. And while she's certainly as pretty as her predecessor in this role, Ms. Bergman's performing style emanates a sense of continence that makes her Ivy seem celibate, especially when compared to the lusty sensuality that radiates from Ms. Hopkins' characterization.
Still, the 1941 version is a pretty good flick in its own right, and it even has a few outstanding moments. One of the best is a dream sequence where Ivy and Dr. Jekyll's betrothed--played by Lana Turner, who probably would be more believable than Bergman in the Ivy role--are transformed into centaur-like horses, with Mr. Hyde riding on their backs and wildly flailing at them with a whip.
In addition to the two films, the Warner double-feature DVD also contains a few cool bonus features. With the better of the two films (i.e., the 1931 version), there is an optional audio track that offers a feature commentary with film historian Greg Mank. Also included on the disc is a classic Looney Tunes cartoon called HYDE AND HARE, in which Bugs Bunny crosses paths with Dr. Jekyll and, in more ways than one, experiences the effects of the good Doc's elixir.
All in all this is a great double-feature offered at a reasonable price, and lovers of great cinema or fans of the horror genre will undoubtedly be pleased with having this disc in their film collections.