Monday, October 29, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941)

Like Dracula and Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde serves as a touchstone for literary and cinematic horror. Directed by Victor Fleming, the 1941 film is one of many screen adaptations of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of the id unleashed, and like most movies it takes certain liberties with its source material. Although it is not generally regarded as the best film version to tackle the text, the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde remains worth watching today primarily for its impressive A-list cast, which includes not only Spencer Tracy in the dual title role but Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner as two love interests who attract both the monster and the man.

Tracy leads as Dr. Henry Jekyll, whose engagement to the angelic Beatrix (Lana Turner) is jeopardized by his obsessive efforts to separate the good and evil sides of human nature. Determined to pursue his research, Jekyll becomes his own test subject and thereby sets loose his darker half, Hyde, on the city of London. Sadistically cruel and unfettered by Jekyll’s better nature, Hyde ensnares a barmaid named Ivy (Ingrid Bergman) as his unwilling mistress and soon threatens everyone whom his alter ego holds dear.

Tracy’s performance as both Jekyll and Hyde is interesting if not great. The Oscar-winning actor certainly had better roles over the course of his career, but his intense, burning eyes and hard-edged mouth suggest the powerful beast within even when he’s playing the more humane doctor. Film buffs more frequently note the performances of his lovely costars, largely because the two actresses swapped roles before filming began. Bergman was originally chosen to play the saintly Bea, while Turner was to have the bad girl role. Having claimed the the more compelling part, Bergman’s performance is perhaps the most nuanced and moving of the entire film, although you won’t buy her attempt at an English accent for a second.

The sexual themes of the film don’t lurk beneath the surface; they burst out at the seams, charging every interaction between the central characters. Jekyll’s relationship with Beatrix mixes barely repressed desire with utter disregard for her feelings and expectations; he already loves his research more than he loves her as the story begins, and his transformation into the more openly selfish and destructive Hyde is anything but a surprise after that. In one particularly memorable scene, a hallucinating Hyde lashes a pair of horses, one light and the other dark, while the horses transform into the tormented figures of Ivy and Bea.

It’s a tribute to Stevenson’s creative influence that so many other film treatments of this tale have been done over the decades. See the 1931 version with Fredric March to compare the two casts and their approaches to the major characters; the consensus is that March gives the superior performance in the dual title roles. John Barrymore also offers an interpretation of the man and monster in the silent 1920 adaptation. For a different take on the story, try Mary Reilly (1996) or even The Nutty Professor (1963). The duality of the Jekyll/Hyde character continues to fascinate audiences and filmmakers; we see new versions of the story every few years, but the Tracy and March adaptations do much to help shape these later productions.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde earned three Oscar nominations but went home empty-handed from the 1942 awards. See Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938) for Spencer Tracy’s Oscar-winning roles; he was nominated a total of nine times for Best Actor. Ingrid Bergman earned seven nominations with three wins, although she was not nominated for her most famous role as Humphrey Bogart’s lost love in Casablanca (1942). Lana Turner earned her only Oscar nomination for Peyton Place (1957), but she is best remembered today for her femme fatale role in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946). Don’t miss veteran actor Donald Crisp as Bea’s worried father; a silent film star who played Ulysses S. Grant in D.W. Griffith’s landmark film, The Birth of a Nation (1915), Crisp weathered the transition to talkies and won his own Best Supporting Actor award for How Green Was My Valley (1941).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.