Robert Lewis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (1931/41) is basically a Victorian morality tale about the audacity inherent in mankind to believe that he can rule over life and death/ good and evil. When scientist Henry Jekyll (Fredric March) attempts to separate these dualities he discovers that evil is too strong for man’s fragile soul and thereafter runs amuck in London as the demonic Mr. Hyde.
Stevenson, a man who suffered from bouts with his own ‘Hyde’ had previously been immortalized on the stage. Now it was film’s turn and to be certain, Hollywood came up with two stellar takes; the first in 1931; the second, a decade later from two different studios with very distinct visions in mind.
The 1931 Paramount production is perhaps the most perfectly realized. It stars Fredric March in his Oscar-winning dual role as Jekyll and Hyde. Jekyll is a fastidious lecturer at and scientist at the medical college whose sexual frustrations are exacerbated when the father of his fiancée, Muriel Carew (Rose Hobart) refuses to consent to their marriage before an extended period of ‘waiting.’
To stave off his anxieties, Jekyll and his fellow practitioner, Dr. Lanyon (Holmes Herbert) take to the music halls for some entertainment. On one such trek they come to the aid of saucy barmaid, Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins) who’s current date has attempted to take advantage of her. Toying with Jekyll’s affections, Ivy arouses the ‘Hyde’ in him. He returns to his laboratories, determined to split the good from the evil in his own self. But the experiment goes horribly awry.
After transforming into the hideous Hyde, Jekyll returns to take advantage of Ivy. Eventually, his demonic self takes over. Jekyll rapes and murders Ivy and then, Rose’s father before escaping into the night. Unable to control the ‘Hyde’ transformation, Jekyll is hunted down and killed by police constables.
Directed by Roubin Mamoulian, the ’31 film is a truly terrifying experience. March’s transformation into the vial Hyde was achieved through photographing the actor wearing light sensitive make-up applications. By adjusting the filter on the light the make up appeared to alter March’s physical composition.
In the ‘41 version, starring Spencer Tracy in the dual role, the effect of transformation is achieved less effectively through a series of layered time lapse exposures. Heavily criticized, Victor Fleming’s remake is not quite the ‘dog’ most critics have suggested.
True – due to restrictions within the production code for film ethics (ethics not imposed on the original), much of the fear and loathing inherent for the character in ‘31 is absent here. To compensate for this removal, MGM lavishes production values and a very spooky lighting of its sets that helps offset the lack of immediate thrills its predecessor possessed. Casting the female leads in the remake proved rather problematic. Ingrid Bergman’s Ivy Peterson is hardly the British tart that Miriam Hopkins is. But Lana Turner as Beatrix Emery (replacing Hobart’s Muriel Carew) is quite adequate and enchanting. An interesting aside: the Stevenson novel does not contain either female characterization – they are both inventions of Hollywood.
Warner Home Video’s double feature DVD contains both versions: in short – the 1931 version is the benefactor of much restoration work – both in cleaning up the image and restoring many scenes that were excised for the film’s subsequent theatrical reissues. However, the B&W image is overall quite grainy and still marred by a considerable amount of dirt and scratches. In contrast, the 1941 remake exhibits an almost flawless image – refined with fine details evident throughout and a complete absence of age related artifacts.
The audio on both is mono. A stunning and comprehensive audio commentary by Greg Mank on the 1931 version discusses both films. There are no extras on the 1941 version. Highly recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
1931 version 4
1941 version 3.5
1931 version 3.5
1941 version 4.5