Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, 1941. 8/10

[And some thoughts on late Victorian/early 20th century sci-fi and horror stories]

One of many film adaptations of the Robert Louis Stevenson novel. Spencer Tracy takes on the dual Jekyll/Hyde role; his fiancee Beatrix is played by Lana Turner, her father Sir Charles Emery (Donald Crisp), Ingrid Bergman the barmaid Ivy. John Layman (Ian Hunter) is Jekyll’s colleague.

After a rather exhausting explication of Jekyll’s theory on the nature of evil and the changeable personality, we find Harry and John walking the streets at night, startled by a woman’s cries, that is, Ivy’s.

She has a good time beguiling Jekyll with symptoms so he’ll ‘examine’ her; not that there isn’t a legitimate reason; she’d just been attacked. “The momentary triumph of evil” is how John characterizes Harry’s dalliance with her.

With the gatekeeper at the hospital, Jekyll has a quaint, somewhat humorous discussion. A comet’s about to zip by (it’s 1886), and then, to follow up, Jekyll mentions the feasibility of a balloon trip to Mars–no worries on a balloon’s inability to rise in space, but whatever. Anyway, leaving a cryptic note, Jekyll finally (at 34 minutes in), tries the elixir he’s told people that he’s been working on.

The experiment, meant to explore man’s evil/or just uncivilized nature, seems more than a bit dangerous. It’s not unlike experimenting with drugs. In fact, Jekyll begins to hallucinate as soon as he downs the stuff; some of imagery beautiful, some violently sexual. As many critics have noted, Hyde looks more or less like Jekyll would after a pub crawl. He’s freaky, but not an out-and-out devil.

This take on the transformation has the undoubted advantage of Hyde looking just decent-looking enough to have him cavort around London without being mistaken for a cross between The Elephant Man and Jack The Ripper.

Meanwhile, Charles figures to take Beatrix out of the country, and maybe to break off her engagement, due to Harry’s self-righteous blathering about his malignant experiments. Soon enough, Harry gets a letter from her which, while it shows that she still loves him, their marriage is off…Oh, well, at times like this, why not summon that good ol’ boy Mr. Hyde? And Ivy, naturally.

This time the elixir brings more nightmarish preludes, featuring haunting images of both women. Anyway, soon Mr. Hyde’s out on the town, specifically the dance hall where Ivy works. Serving him champagne, he comes on strong. “Tonight I follow the rainbow.” She wonders how he knows where she lives–this is the downside of Jekyll’s very superficial transformation into Hyde–it’s inconceivable that she wouldn’t recognize him as the doctor who recently treated her.

He convinces the proprietor to fire her, so that he can then pretend to be her sympathetic benefactor. Tracy is at his best in this scene, leering at Bergmen with menacing glee. In Europe, Beatrix gets a letter from John, telling her that Harry’s gone missing, but she lies to her father that indeed the letter’s from Harry, who is now involved in philanthropic work.

That’s enough to raise Harry in Sir Charles’ eyes to lift his opposition to Beatrix marrying him. Meanwhile, back in London, Ivy is skittish about her new boyfriend, for the obvious reason that he’s been beating her. Then he comes slithering in, scaring off her friend Marcia (Frances Robinson). “Very nice material” he remarks about Marcia, and not only about her dress.

Hyde talks to Ivy about going away…never satisfied, these monstrous types. Calling her “my little cherub” is hardly soothing, as he treats her like trash. Very creepily, he talks about what to do to her while he plays placidly on the piano. He demands that she sing, and, also “be happy when you’re singing!”

Everything about this scene reminds me of similar scenes from Lynch’s Blue Velvet, in which Dennis Hopper’s sadistic gangster character delights in tormenting his nightclub singer victim, played by Isabella Rossellini.

In the morning, Jekyll burns a key on his lab in his gas stove. Back at Ivy’s, Marcia looks in on her; Ivy’s still distraught. And puzzled, she gets fifty pounds–from an anonymous source–has Hyde ‘disappeared?’ For a while, as we next see Jekyll and Beatrix at a museum. She’s returned, and Sir Charles has seen fit to give his blessing to their marriage. Yes, but, who is Beatrix marrying?

On returning home, he tells his servant that he’s going to be married; sounds rosy, except that who’s waiting for him in his office but Ivy. “You are the famous Dr. Jekyll.” But she seems to see more than Jekyll. Nonetheless, when she shows him her where she’s been beaten, she tells him about Hyde. So, she doesn’t exactly link Jekyll with him.

She throws herself at him in return for his help in dealing with Hyde. He can say that Hyde “will never bother you again.” She says she believes him, but can we believe Jekyll? Enigmatically, she says, in parting, “For a moment, I thought…” Does she mean that she mistook him for Hyde, or that she’s hoping he’ll return her affection for him? Actually, it could be both, as Hyde is the passionate (though twisted) side of Jekyll.

Another aside about the comet with the watchman. Anyway, Jekyll’s sold on marrying Beatrix. On a park bench, he rests for a bit, then, unbidden, Hyde emerges. So much for the promise to Ivy. She’s enjoying some champagne, celebrating the apparent demise of Hyde, as well as her affection for Jekyll “here’s to my angel.” More like her dark angel, as Hyde lets himself in presently.

“Surprised?” He says. Um, no, but yes “perhaps you should see a doctor” (well, hasn’t she just done that?). He sharpens the point by naming Jekyll; by quoting his conversation with her, she realizes something strange is going on, he continues “In him [Jekyll] you saw a bit of me: Hyde!” Right. “Dance and dream!” He says, assaulting her. Is she dead? Yes.

As though the considerable crowd of onlookers are mere bowling pins to get knocked down, he escapes from the apartment building. Now, of course, he realizes his mistake; having destroyed his key to the lab, he can only get in by the front door. Not going to work for Hyde. Suddenly he’s a wanted man, hiding (Hyding?) on the foggy nighttime streets.

He leaves a note for John with an extra key; a man (Hyde, presumably) will come around for it. But when Hyde shows up, John doesn’t trust him. John gives him an odd look. Hyde tries to make off with the key and the formula, but John holds a gun on him. Hyde has no choice other than to demonstrate what the stuff does…in that way he will ‘produce’ Jekyll.

And he does. Needless to say, John’s taken aback. “You’ve committed the supreme blasphemy!” And he urges Jekyll to toss the formula. He promises to tell Beatrix–but how? ‘I’ve got this uncontrollable urge to hang out with Ingrid Bergman?’ He attempts to explain to Beatrix; first, that they can’t be married.

But he doesn’t really explain himself, and just leaves her. He comes back, but as Hyde. He tussles with Sir Charles, then kills him. Now there’s pretty much a mob after him. Breaking into his own place, he escapes. At the murder scene, the police show John the murder weapon, Jekyll’s cane.

Then, as we’d expect, the police burst into the lab. The only question will be, will they confront Jekyll or Hyde? He’s Jekyll, fortunately for him. But John shows up, and fingers Jekyll. Under this pressure, he reverts to Hyde. Nicely done. Another almost cartoonish fight; Hyde is Superman until John shoots him. Dying, he becomes Jekyll again for good. The end.

The three principle characters mesh very well together. In particular, Bergman is so alluring as a temptress, and equally as an innocent victim, that it’s almost too bad that she was not given more roles like this. Tracy is surprisingly good: his domineering, heavy mien works as well showing evil as earnest respectability. On the other hand, Turner lacks presence. That’s at least as much a fault of the script as it might be of her performance. She’s merely decorative. Maybe that’s a subtle intention.

Possibly we’re made to be shown the stuffiness that her role (in the era’s notion of a respectable middle-class woman) fits a straight-jacketed stereotype. Ivy isn’t in any way a bad person as opposed to Beatrix. Ivy is poor, that’s the measure of value she’s judged by. Why else would she be easy prey for Hyde at all, if not out of a longing to be taken care of?

In the opposite way, her flirtation with Jekyll makes sense. After all, he’s single too; his engagement to Beatrix is an on again/off again thing. My point is that if Jekyll doesn’t ‘drink the kool-aide’ (to give the elixir a more modern tag), but can instead find a way to step out of his own fundamental stuffiness, wouldn’t he really be better suited for Ivy? He actually shows more genuine affection for Ivy–other than the quick kiss at the museum, he hardly touches Beatrix.

My only qualms about this version of Stevenson’s story is the prolonged opening, where the religious component is fastened on deliberately, then, just as thoroughly, Harry needles us with his speechifying on science. That slows things down, but, as mentioned, the long-awaited action sequences are married by Hyde’s apparent invincibility.

Very entertaining and well-acted drama with good pacing and very authentic atmosphere. One quibble: a street vendor has a large wagon that looks suspiciously like a streamlined 1930s-1940s commercial or travel trailer. It’s got period-correct spindly tall wheels, but I doubt that there were aluminum ‘caravans’ in the 1880s. Anyway, Farmermouse says 8/10 gaslights for this. 8/10.

†*†*†*

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is an enduring tale for a couple of reasons. The late 19th-early 20th century fascination with science and technology (not unlike the current fixation with information technology) presented a dilemma, exemplified here by man’s duality manifested through scientific means. Pure science brought Hyde into existence, but Jekyll wills the transformation. Interestingly, as the plot goes on, Jekyll effects the transformation without the physical agency of the elixir; showing that he’s internalized and controls it. In effect, in psychological terms, he’s having mood swings. Generally, then, a contemporary touch is the psychology- content, and Hyde are dramatic portrayals of an ego/id conflict.

Both Jules Verne and Robert Louis Stevenson gave us tales with a sort of magical concept of science (again, paralleling our faith these days in the internet). That is, if it’s (in the 1870s-80s) possible to travel to the moon, to the center of the earth, or to the bottom of the sea–then aren’t moon-maidens, Morlocks, and Captain Nemo possible? Science makes mythology come to life.

The conceit of the fabulous fiction of this era also worked in reverse. The actual history of the American Old West was, for example, mined as soon as it was over (by about 1900) to create myths based on larger-than-life personalities.

That many of these heroes and villains were historical characters helped in selling the Old West of novels, stories, and, probably more significantly, the early film industry. The Old West was a crossroads of technology pushing aside a romantic frontier; a Twilight Zone-ish time and space where two types of civilization co-existed briefly.

The iconic TV series, The Wild Wild West, captures well this juxtaposition of the lawless romantic West with the emerging modernity of science and technology; a clash that’s accentuated, and enhanced, by the proto sci-fi nature of some of the gizmos in use.

Although Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde begins with a church scene, complete with sermon, and ends with a hymn, tradition is more or less trampled by the transgressions of Jekyll/Hyde. Yes, Jekyll himself dies, but his idea–the “supreme blasphemy”–is let out of the bottle, so to speak. It’s a bit reminiscent of the monster or alien movie of the ’50s in which the townspeople are so relieved when the threat is gone, but it’s also clear that they (or someone, somewhere) haven’t heard the last from it.

What this clash of eras and genres based on science v. tradition gives us is a mash-up of horror and science fiction; in a sense the two genres crossed paths from about 1870-1920. Before that time, for example, 1816’s Frankenstein was regarded as horror; but isn’t it also science fiction?

By Stevenson’s time (the 1880s), Jekyll and Hyde, a more obviously psychological novel than Frankenstein, is likewise centered on a sci-fi lab, and both novels’ drama is riding on essentially the same ego/id premise. Although the identification of Jekyll with Hyde is direct; that of Dr. Frankenstein with his monster is nonetheless tangible enough. It’s no coincidence, for example, that people continually associate the name Frankenstein with the monster (in fact the monster is nameless).

By the 1930s the first talkies versions of Dracula and Frankenstein were on the scene. Strangely, 1931’s Frankenstein seems to look backward, having pretty much the same horror milieu and atmosphere as that year’s portrayal of Dracula. But the Bela Lugosi of the vampire film wasn’t essentially different from the prototype Dracula of Bram Stoker’s 1896 novel.

Subsequently, however, Frankenstein movies became more sci-fi (1974’s Young Frankenstein and others) that tended to humanize if not lampoon the monster. Dracula, with his roots in mythology and not science, can look different, acquire wives and lovers, etc., but can’t change its nature.

Film certainly has not lost its appetite for either the Frankenstein’s monster or Dracula. Not to mention the Wolf Man, the Mummy, and so on. Alien creatures, even if they’re conceived as essentially robotic, haven’t lost the look of terrestrial monstrosities. The wondrous creations of the 19th century horror novel crystalized into 20th century horror and sci-fi films; many of these antagonists were altered and embellished by a late Victorian fascination with the irrational side of the human psyche.

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