What would any of us give to purge our less than altruistic principles; to perfect humanity at large by casting out its instinctive and fundamental flaws? This question has perplexed and tantalized mankind almost since he first learned to stand upright and think for himself. History, as well as literature, is littered in social-psychological critiques (both factual and fictional) desperate for a better understanding of the inner workings of the human mind and body; to unlock the secrets of life and death and conquer the seemingly finite reaches of time and space. After all, what is the fountain of youth, Aladdin’s genie, or the pursuit of physical perfection through steroid use and/or plastic surgery, other than man’s own superficial way of hoping, wishing and/or experimenting on his/her own body to yield a better self? To be smarter, faster, stronger, more acutely to utilize the vast portion of the human brain, dormant and unused; the quantum leaps derived from today’s science have, in effect, made at least part of these ambitions a reality.
Interestingly, they have not blunted our suspension of disbelief in late 18th and early 19th century literature about the scientific/supernatural; works like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: The Modern Prometheus; wrought to explain and make sublime sense of what the modern world’s deification of science might hold in store for the future. We know now, for example, parts of human cadavers cannot be sewn together and electrified to create a living pseudo-human life form. Although, conversely, modern science has made it possible to harvest various organs (hearts, kidneys, even corneas) from a living donor and transplant them, fully functional, into another human being. And science has also unraveled the mysteries of stem-cell research; able to stimulate the creation of body parts in a clinical vacuum with a cross-pollination of embryonic cells and DNA taken from the person desiring to regrow and replace their old parts. Alas, all of the aforementioned examples are cosmetic at best, catering to the old ‘fountain of youth’ daydream. But what about improving the human mind, and perhaps even, the human soul?
Basically a cautionary tale against man’s tampering with the psyche to ‘improve’ upon the will of God, Robert Lewis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde has long been associated with a rare mental disease, more commonly referenced in psychiatric medical journals as ‘split personality.’ Stevenson’s fascination with the incongruous nature of goodness and evil, struggling for supremacy within man’s divinely inspired soul, had haunted him to the point of distraction for decades. In 1885, it became something of an all-consuming passion, Stevenson – recovering from a hemorrhage – startled in the dead of night by a terrifying nightmare he would later call his ‘fine bogey tale’. Reportedly, Stevenson wrote his first draft of The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde in just three days; was prompted by his wife’s criticisms to torch it; and then, to begin anew, rewriting it from scratch in less than a week, this time as an allegory about man’s fatal faith in science. While various biographical accounts of this episode in Stevenson’s life have suggested the author may have been addicted to cocaine or ergot, the authorized account is that Stevenson was writing his opus magnum from his bed in a flurry of activity strangely inspired by his own weakening from illness.
In retrospect, what Stevenson had done was to create a literary subgenre unlike anything published in his own time. In fact, the premise for all modern day superheroes derives from Stevenson’s basic understandings of alter egos and the split personality. The novella was an immediate hit, thereafter, endlessly critiqued by literary scholarship as everything from an examination of the duality of human nature, to a scathing social critique of the 19th century’s social hypocrisies, to a reevaluation of man’s transgressions against God; Jekyll’s overweening pride (in Christianity, pride deemed the greatest of all sins) in his daring to rid himself of inherent evil, becoming the ultimate err against the divine: a precursor to evil itself ‘Hyde-ing’ in the light of day. One of the most popular interpretations of the novella has remained ‘civilized man’ vs. his ‘animalistic’ precursor. As many have pointed out, Henry Jekyll is not, at least by Victorian standards, a morally ‘good’ person, but a man whose conviction rests in his ability to scientifically dabble with the variables of life (itself considered something of a demonic notion in the Victorian age) without first realizing that simply because he is able to do so, it does not follow that he should. Jekyll’s inability to comprehend the inextricably bound primordial elements of man’s ‘goodness’ and ‘wickedness’ leads him to believe the pre-human creature – nee animal – can be separated from his more altruistic self, advanced over the course of centuries by evolution; a tragically flawed concept ultimately leading to his undoing.
It was inevitable such a zeitgeist would eventually trickle down into the realms of popular entertainment. Almost immediately, stage versions began to crop up; considered one of the all-time great acting challenges for all aspiring Jekylls to Hydes. To date there have been no fewer than thirty-five movie incarnations of the famed tale; some comedic (The Nutty Professor 1963/1996) others, derivatives on the central theme (Mary Reilly 1996, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 2006). The first literal attempt on celluloid to tell the tale as written, and under what would become its standardized, if truncated title, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde occurred in 1908, with other competing releases made in 1912, 1913 and 1920. But it would be a version launched by Paramount Pictures in 1931 – the first talkie edition – that would truly solidify the iconography of Stevenson’s maniacal villain and, even more ironically, endure as the definitive screen interpretation for more than half a century to follow.
Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931) has long since become the one to emulate; certainly, in Fredric March’s bone-chilling central performance as the dashing and esteemed physician/scientist doomed to the folly of his own vanity. I used to think March's performance was peerless to any and all following it, although in more recent times I am not entirely convinced Spencer Tracy’s reincarnation of the altruistic doctor and his demonic doppelgänger in Victor Fleming’s glossier 1941 version (made at MGM) is entirely without merit. In its own time and for decades thereafter, Tracy’s performance was eviscerated by the critics. Rumor has it, Joan Crawford set the standard when she walked onto the set one day while Tracy was rehearsing, glibly turning to Fleming to inquire, “Which one is he playing now?” Certainly, Tracy never regarded the film as a highlight of his acting career, quietly hoping against hope its’ reputation would eventually – and quietly – fade into obscurity. But time does strange things to movies and their folklore. Indeed, some mellow in the mind’s eye while others simply grow more worthy of our admiration with age.
Fredric March plays Jekyll traditionally; that is to say, with youthful pomposity as the self-professed healer of the sick (there’s even a sequence originally shot, then excised, then much later restored to the final edit, showing Jekyll as a Christ-like figure, stealing the crutches out from under a lame girl, before inspiring her to walk). March’s Hyde is a sort of prehistoric regression into pure animal; ably abetted by the special effects makeup created by Wally Westmore that nearly disfigured March’s imperious matinee idol profile. March’s Hyde isn’t necessarily ‘evil’ so much as he is reacting to his most primitive instincts – a throwback to his Neolithic ancestry, free of cultured social constraints.
By contrast, rather than comparison, Spencer Tracy's Jekyll is subtly – and ironically, sullen – if somewhat more compassionate. He lacks the ego of March’s medical practitioner. His Hyde is a sadist and a brute, but still a man (albeit, a supremely depraved one). Personally, I find Tracy’s Hyde far more unsettling than March’s because Tracy maintains a human presence; his mind uncontrollably warped to derive extreme pleasure from exacting pure pain and even death upon unsuspecting victims. By contrast, March’s Hyde simply cannot avail himself of the killer instincts of a mad dog stricken with an incurable case of hydrophobia. True confessions: I saw Tracy’s performance first, as a small child on a Saturday afternoon edition of Bill Kennedy at The Movies. Those final moments, where Tracy’s wild-haired Hyde, beady eyes thirsty with venom as he approaches the camera in extreme-close up, his dagger drawn to murder Ian Hunter’s Lanyon, struck an indelible and haunting impression that has remained with me ever since. At the time, Tracy’s Hyde left me cringing in the corner. It was not until several decades later I managed to see Fredric March in all his flamboyant finery. Comparatively speaking, there is no comparison – March’s Hyde is the more compelling of the two. But again, is a comparison even fair when each actor’s interpretation is so diametrically contrary to the other?
Finally, I must concede to the belief, MGM's 1941 version has superior production values; Cedric Gibbons set design in no small way augmented by Joseph Ruttenberg’s highly evocative cinematography. Paramount's recreations of Victorian London by Hans Dreier, largely impressionistic, but likely closer to the truth, are nevertheless, rather bloodless. Herein, we should note there are two ideas about vintage England to reconsider: the reality of the place itself and the concoction of a reasonable (even unreasonable) facsimile as its stand-in. Perhaps no other studio did more for establishing a fiction for what life was really like than Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; a studio steeped in founding father, L.B. Mayer’s fervent desire to improve upon, and thereafter market the fiction as reality itself. It’s rather amazing to consider how prolific and successful Mayer’s dream factory became at such divine and fanciful mimicry. For 1941’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, MGM provides peerless gloss to these fog-laden streets, moodily lit with an atmospherically dampness; the glittery Victorian salons, churches, ballrooms and conservatories, with all their densely laden bric-a-brac, afforded the full reign of the studio’s 5-star plushness, panache and formidable resources. Travis Banton’s costumes for the ’31 version are, again, more modest and truer to the period. But Adrian’s verve for opulence in the ’41 remake is, at least to my tastes, is more cinematically edifying.
Where the 1931 Paramount movie excels is in its hellish transformation sequences, done with a light-sensitive makeup applied to Fredric March’s face and hands, the gradual dimming of various colors filters (shot in B&W) making it appear in-camera as though March’s handsome visage and youthful appendages are being tortuously aged, contorted and regressed to the monolithic skeletal structure of a simian-esque Neanderthal. It remains cinematographer, Karl Struss’ technical brilliance, combining these aforementioned lighting effects with a swirling camera and clever uses of spinning disc sounds that startles the imagination with a truly convincing blast of horror. The transformation in the ’31 version has no equal in the ’41 remake. Instead, Ruttenberg falls back on a series of lap dissolves, similar to those Universal had mastered for Lon Chaney Jr.’s conversion from man to beast in The Wolf Man (1941), although herein, occasionally with considerable difficulties aligning the various pieces on film. Midway through shooting the ’41 version, maestro of the montage, Slavko Vorkapić was called in to create a startling series of images in montage: Jekyll, as Hyde, whipping a pair of steeds pulling his hansom cab, their manes transformed into bound facsimiles of Lana Turner (as Jekyll’s angelic fiancée, Beatrix Emery) and Ingrid Bergman (as the sly barmaid, cum Hyde’s lover, Ivy) their beckoning faces overcome by fear, swallowed up by swirling waters turned into thick clumpy mud.
Rather curiously, all filmic versions of Stevenson’s infamous tale have introduced both a ‘good girl’ and a ‘bad girl’ to the plot. Stevenson’s book has neither. In the ’31 version, Rouben Mamoulian cast Rose Hobart as Henry Jekyll’s fiancée, Muriel Carew; in the ’41, Victor Fleming entertains the lovely, Lana Turner as the same, renamed Beatrix Emery. In both movies, the wily barmaid/prostitute is named Ivy, although in the ’31 version her last name is Pearson and Peterson in the ’41; played respectively by Miriam Hopkins and Ingrid Bergman. Hobart is a more sincere and mature love interest, possessing a womanly intuition that denotes fidelity to her relationship with March’s Jekyll, but with a simultaneous undercurrent of intelligence for seeing beyond his self-aggrandizing virtues. By contrast, Lana Turner’s Beatrix is a more virginal and naïve girl, unaware of what true devotion in marriage to any man means, but lustfully drawn to Tracy’s Jekyll, yet frantic in the final moments of his conversion into Hyde because she is unable to comprehend both halves are one in the same. The supremely satisfying performance in each movie is Ivy. Miriam Hopkins’ wench is given to mercenary slyness, unapologetically dangling a bare leg from beyond the covers of her bed to entice Jekyll to remain at her side. In Ingrid Bergman, Ivy becomes a more sinfully adoring tart, her loaded glances deliberate, as in ‘let’s get on with it, lover.’
Respectively, Holmes Herbert and Ian Hunter give credible assists as Jekyll’s most trusted advisor and fellow physician, Dr. John Lanyon. Herbert’s relationship to Fredric March’s Jekyll is oddly enough, more paternal in nature. If anything, in the ’41 version, Hunter and Spencer Tracy are fraternal colleagues. There’s even a hint of healthy competition for Beatrix’s heart. In the ‘31 film, Halliwell Hobbes assumes the role of father to all as Muriel’s doting pater, Brigadier-General Carew, while in the ’41 version Beatrix’s welfare is overseen by the more prudently stern, Sir Charles (Donald Crisp) who is, decidedly, not a proponent of Henry’s more cavalier ideas about medical science meddling with God’s laws.
Both movies pretty much follow the same narrative trajectory, the 1931 screenplay written by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath; the ’41 remake, by John Lee Mahin. Dr. Henry Jekyll is a young physician with very rare ideas indeed. While March’s Jekyll expounds upon these to a mass of young aspiring doctors, taking notes during a lecture at London’s Medical Hall, the ’41 version staves off Jekyll’s grandiose ideas until about a third of the way into our story; Jekyll, making his studies, conducted on animal test subjects, known during a courtly dinner party attended by Sir Charles, Beatrix, Lanyon and other members of their cultured ilk who are decidedly more appalled than elated by Henry’s prophesied revelations. The ’31 version makes every attempt to establish Jekyll’s legitimate medical credentials. There are, in fact, several opening sequences showing him administering to the sick, lame or dying with great personal satisfaction.
The ’41 remake begins with Jekyll, Beatrix and Sir Charles attending Sunday mass; the ravings of a madman, Sam Higgins (Barton MacLane) disturbing the sermon and stirring Jekyll to rise from his pew to diffuse the situation. Henry comforts the man’s distraught mother (Sara Allgood) in the vestibule and vows to attend her son’s condition until he is well. Alas, sometime later, Sam dies from self-inflicted wounds and Henry, who had earlier been denied the right to experiment on Sam with a serum he has been secretly working on, decides to use the concoction on himself in his laboratory to prove his theory; that man’s evil can be separated from his good. In the ’31 version, the impetus for Jekyll self-experimentation is a little unclear, other than to satisfy his ego and be the one to suffer a shocking medical breakthrough, using the serum he has been working on.
The character of Ivy is introduced similarly in both versions; Lanyon and Jekyll coming across the barmaid as she is being accosted by a cockney stranger in a back alley in the seedier Whitechapel district. In both versions, the perpetrator gets away. The gentlemen offer to escort Ivy to her rundown tenement. Ivy complains of being in pain and Jekyll offers to examine her in her bed chamber to deduce if there are any fractures or broken bones. In both instances, Ivy immediately takes to flirting with Jekyll, arousing his more dishonorable intentions. Because the ’31 version was made before the installation of Hollywood’s self-governing Code of Ethics, the would-be seduction of March’s Jekyll by Miram Hopkin’s Ivy is far more effective. She disrobes for the ‘examination’ and reveals a bare leg from beneath the covers with a garter to tantalizing Jekyll. As Jekyll leans in for a better look, Ivy lurches forward, embracing him with a firm, wet kiss. In the ’41 version, Ivy merely asks Jekyll if he thinks she isn’t “such a bad looker.” In both instances, Jekyll is narrowly averted from a fall from grace with this guttersnipe by the sudden appearance of Lanyon. However, in the ’31 version, Lanyon is modestly appalled at catching Jekyll in a clinch. In the ’41 version, Ian Hunter’s Lanyon cajoles with a coy smile; these ‘men of the world’ sharing a wink and a nudge.
Jekyll returns home to discover from his loyal man servant, Poole (Edgar Norton in 1931/Peter Godfrey in ’41) that owing to his fairly liberal views departing from the medical tradition, Muriel/Beatrix’s father has decided to take her on an extended vacation abroad, thus delaying the announcement of their engagement and plans to marry. In each film, the separation proves too painful for Jekyll to bear. He is, after all, a young man with all the sexual proclivities of an amiable suitor of affluence and urges. Herein, Sir Charles departure with Beatrix seems rather cruelly timed to inflict the maximum frustration on a man whose only sin, thus far, is he loves his beloved far too much. In the ’31 version, extenuating circumstances mitigate Jekyll’s anxieties about being separated from Muriel. Gen. Carew is not taking her away to spite Jekyll for his progressive notions, but rather as a travelling companion while he restores his own health in a warmer climate.
In any case, Jekyll endures as much as he is able to apart from his paramour; deciding, in a moment of weakness, to test his serum once again and using its liberating and transformative properties to masquerade as Mr. Edward Hyde while he pays a call on Ivy at the pub and dance hall where she is employed. Aside: Fredric March’s Hyde makeup is so grotesquely ape-like it is a small wonder he is able to go virtually unnoticed for this extreme ugliness by virtually all the patrons, save Ivy, who is understandably ruffled by her first sight of this bizarre human/animal hybrid. In the ’41 version, Ivy’s introduction to Hyde is equally met with a look of minor terror as the leering Spencer Tracy lasciviously caresses the silhouette of her frame with shifty eyes. The distinction ought to be made, that while Hopkins’ Ivy is genuine repulsed by the primal quality of this ‘beast-like Hyde’, Bergman’s bar wench is more preoccupied by the prospect of being raped by this overindulgent brute.
Nevertheless, both Ivy’s overcome their aversion to Hyde, particularly when he offers to set them up in a fashionable apartment far removed from the squalor of their present abodes. As Hyde, Jekyll presumably indulges his sexual appetites in their boudoir; his tastes skewed more to the perverse and predicated on an unconquerable need to dominate Ivy by force. When Jekyll learns Muriel/Bea is returning to London, he vows to set aside his thirst for these salacious nighttime pub crawls and settle down. Alas, fate will not leave well enough alone. In both movies, Ivy, having retained Jekyll’s calling card from her initial alley rescue, pays a call on ‘the good doctor’ to disclose what her lover – Hyde – has done. Both Miriam Hopkins and Ingrid Bergman deliver stellar performances during this big reveal to Jekyll, whom neither recognizes as the man having brutalized them. But Bergman’s puffy-eyed and gaunt Ivy, quivering in deathly exhaustion, is an especially sympathetic creature as she begs and pleads for Jekyll to rid her of the twisted evil she has allowed to take over her life.
Jekyll is horrified by the wounds inflicted upon Ivy; presumably, suffering from some sort of amnesia from the drug that has prevented him from fully recalling his behavior when under its influence. Jekyll promise Ivy she will never again see Mr. Hyde and, after she has gone from his salon, he hurries to his laboratory, adjacent his home, to destroy all remnants of the vial formula, though not its antidote or his written notes on how to make more of the same. Muriel/Beatrix returns to London and Gen. Carew/Sir Charles gives his blessing the two should marry at the earliest possible convenience. In each film, an engagement party is planned for this coming announcement. Alas, as Henry Jekyll departs his home for a quick jaunt to his beloved’s paternal home a queer sensation overcomes. In Mamoulian’s ’31 film, this unintentional transformation is staged in late afternoon, spurred on by Jekyll witnessing a cat attacking a canary in a nearby tree. The ’41 version creates an infinitely more sinister approach to Jekyll’s uncontrollable morphing into Hyde; photographed in the dead of night with a low bank of fog rolling in; Tracy’s Jekyll strutting casually down the street, his congenial whistle suddenly turning into a reprise of the song Bergman’s Ivy once warbled at the pub. Each time he attempts to whistle something else his tune inevitably becomes Ivy’s song; forcing Jekyll into a clammy sweat and then the unholy realization he is about to turn into Hyde without desiring to do so; the power of his evil counterpart too great for his righteous self to ignore.
In both instances, Jekyll – as Hyde – makes his way to Ivy’s apartment. Having been told she has nothing to fear, Ivy is quietly celebrating her newfound independence with a bottle of champagne when Hyde reappears; at first, marginally friendly, though looming large and ominously threatening. She pretends to be glad to see him, but he then reveals the contents of the conversation she had with Dr. Jekyll. Still, perhaps, unable to deduce Jekyll and Hyde are one in the same, Ivy realizes her fate and attempts to escape the apartment; the supreme moment of betrayal turning to murder as Hyde strangles Ivy before escaping into the night. Eventually, Hyde makes his way to Lanyon’s home, entrusting him to go to Dr. Jekyll’s house to retrieve the antidote. Lanyon complies and bears witness to Hyde’s transformation back into Jekyll; a most horrific surprise he vows to expose to the medical community at large and to Muriel/Beatrix. Jekyll agrees to turn himself in, but not before he has a chance to break the news himself to his fiancée. Lanyon reluctantly agrees.
Meanwhile, the hour has grown late. Muriel/Beatrix is disappointed at Jekyll’s failure to show up to their engagement party. The last guests having left, Jekyll, as himself, sneaks into the garden and then the conservatory to implore his beloved to release him from his commitment to her. Neither woman fully understands what has come over her fiancée; Beatrix, in particular, unravelling into hysterics as she drops to her knees and clings to Jekyll’s leg, begging for his forgiveness and reconsideration. However, when Muriel/Beatrix looks up, Jekyll has once more uncontrollably morphed into Hyde; now, perhaps, intent even on destroying her. The girls’ screams drawn Gen. Carew/Sir Charles to their defense, Hyde bludgeoning to death his potential father-in-law using Jekyll’s distinctively identifiable cane. Discovering the weapon at the scene of the murder, Lanyon leads Scotland Yard’s detectives straight to Jekyll’s home. The police break down the door to Jekyll’s laboratory, only to discover Jekyll quietly sitting behind his desk, insisting he has been home all night. As Jekyll is a respected citizen, the detectives are ready to believe his story without fail. But Lanyon encourages them to wait a moment, knowing that without his serum it is only a matter of time before Jekyll transforms back into Hyde.
Unable to keep his secret any longer, Jekyll becomes his alter ego; the police looking on in awe as Hyde attempts a daring escape. In the ’31 version, Hyde is subdued rather quickly by a single shot fired from one of the policeman’s revolvers. However, in the ’41 version, the police are seemingly powerless to detain their suspect, Hyde avoiding incarceration and scaling the stairs of the laboratory, presumably to escape, only to be confronted by Lanyon who is holding a revolver as Jekyll’s horrified and ever-devoted butler, Poole cringes from behind. Unable to see even a glimmer of Jekyll’s former self in Hyde’s hideously disfigured visage; Hyde steadily approaching with knife drawn to mortally wound Lanyon, Lanyon instead fires a single round into his best friend; Jekyll dramatically toppling backwards down the steep incline to the floor. Observing Hyde’s grotesque extremities reverting back to Henry Jekyll’s softer features, Poole compassionately knees before his former master and begins to receipt the 23rd Psalm as Franz Waxman’s lush orchestrations engulf in a choral reprise and the screen fades to black.
In either incarnation, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is compelling viewing; a case of two studios producing stellar screen interpretations. Each deviates dramatically – if not thematically – from its source material and the other film version; both are praise-worthy with their distinct studio brand of classic storytelling yielding sublime visual refinements. Buoyed by Fredric March’s Oscar-winning performance, the 1931 Paramount feature is, perhaps, the more perfectly realized; though, I would argue, only by a margin of error. The fault in the ’41 film is its generally sloppy lap dissolves to accommodate Spencer Tracy’s transformations from Jekyll into Hyde. Perhaps, MGM was merely trying to be different, unwilling to tread on familiar ground by borrowing Wally Westmore’s makeup techniques. But Warren Newcombe’s dissolve technique doesn’t cut it at all, despite some fascinating makeup achieved by Jack Dawn. Spencer Tracy is rendered nearly unrecognizable in his penultimate mutation as Hyde; tinged with greasy tresses and a sort of pocked/scarred flesh, spritzed with thickly gathered beads of cold water to convey sweat.
The perennial fascination with the novel and these early movies likely stems from the fact that unlike a good many tales of the supernatural told before and since its time, the central protagonist in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde does not start out to be a cult horror figure. The plight of Henry Jekyll is really one of the all-time great tragedies in literary fiction: a man firmly pursuing a policy meant to enlighten and advance the stymied craft of medicine to the benefit of all, but who ultimately pays the supreme price for his own flawed brilliance. Consider that Henry Jekyll, apart from his experimentations on animals (in this pre-PETA era, not considered a crime against nature…let’s just run with that assumption, shall we?) chooses to advance his cause, not by experimentation on unfortunates, the mentally ill, or even patients placed in his care, but rather on himself. Here is an individual so steeped in the concept of ‘physician heal thyself’ and his fervent belief he has stumbled across the greatest medical discovery of the ages, he willingly submit to his own tests, secure in the understanding his experiments can only serve to benefit all mankind – a cure for insanity. It is Henry Jekyll’s pride that crucifies his chances for greatness; vanity feeding upon itself, devouring its master in a stroke of ill-timed genius turned to self-destructive dreck.
Warner Home Video has given us a flipper disc, housing both versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The 1931 version is the benefactor of a considerable restoration effort to put back some six and a half minutes of missing footage excised for the 1938 reissue. Alas, not much has gone on outside of a general remastering to ensure the image is sharp and pleasingly contrasted with good solid tonality in its gray scale. Age-related artifacts are everywhere and, at times, densely concentrated so as to distract from this visual presentation. Dirt and scratches riddle the main title sequence and several of the scenes have very rough dissolves/fades as well as a few missing frames. The audio fares considerably better, with minimal hiss and virtually no pop.
The 1941 edition appears to have undergone a considerable clean-up. It’s virtually artifact free, except for the extremely occasional anomaly. While grain is denser on the ’31 version, the ’41 has a glossy patina that appears indigenous to the film stock and not the result of untoward DNR application. Owing to improved sound recording techniques, the ‘41’s audio, also mono, seems more refined and crisp. The ’31 version contains a fascinating retrospective audio commentary by noted historian Greg Mank, whom I could listen to all day long. He covers the history of the novella, the various stage adaptations and the films. He’s precise, entertaining and informative – in short, everything one could hope from a skilled orator and film historian. Great, great listen! Alas, there are no other extras to speak of save a theatrical trailer for each movie – a shame! Otherwise, this disc release comes highly recommended. But we sincerely wish the Warner Archive would undertake to reissue both movies to Blu-ray and give the ’31 version its long overdue overhaul to rid it of its age-related blemishes.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
1931 version 4.5
1941 version 4
1931 version 3.5
1941 version 4.5