A Tale of Two Hydes

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Robert Louis Stevenson’s late-19th century novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been the inspiration for countless stage, film, radio and television adaptations and inspired works. The first adaptation was Thomas Sullivan’s stage play Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which debuted in 1887, a year after the novella’s original publication. This stage version of Stevenson’s story included significant changes to the plot, including the addition of a complicated, romantic relationship between Dr. Jekyll and his well-mannered socialite fiancée. In 1920, Paramount Pictures released their version of Sullivan’s interpretation, a silent film starring the original A-list superstar John Barrymore in the title role. Known for his devastatingly handsome looks and “great profile,” Barrymore shocked audiences with his gruesome, monster-like appearance as the vicious Mr. Hyde. A little over a decade later, Paramount began preparing a remake of the 1920 film with plans to have Barrymore reprise his role.

Due to a recently signed contract with MGM, Barrymore was unavailable for the part. Paramount assigned Hollywood-newcomer Rouben Mamoulian to direct the talkie remake. Mamoulian got his start as a director on Broadway (returning to the stage later on in his career), and was fresh off his first two films for Paramount: the early talkie Applause (1929) and the marvelous City Streets (1931), starring Sylvia Sidney and Gary Cooper. With Barrymore unable to star in the updated version of one of his most popular roles, and Paramount scrambling to find a reasonable substitute, Mamoulian made a rather bold demand for the leading role: Fredric March. Paramount executives balked at the idea of Fredric March carrying such an important film, as they considered him more of a lightweight, romantic matinee idol type. Now most of us know, or are at least familiar with, the two-time Academy Award (and two-time Tony Award) winning actor and his long, distinguished career. Unfortunately, March is largely forgotten today (unlike Bogart, Stewart, Grant, Gable, etc.), despite being one of the most popular and respected actors from the 1930s until his death in the mid-1970s. But for those of us who are familiar with March’s diverse filmography, it’s hard to imagine a time he wasn’t considered a serious actor. Fortunately Mamoulian’s persistence paid off, and Fredric March was cast as the charitable (and sexually frustrated) Dr. Henry Jekyll and his evil alter-ego Mr. Hyde. March was perfect for the role, with the added bonus of possessing an uncanny resemblance to John Barrymore, which had served him well before in his Academy Award-nominated performance in The Royal Family of Broadway (1930), a lighthearted parody of the Barrymore family. (Personally, I think March looked more like the incredible Richard Barthelmess; they could’ve easily been brothers.) March’s performance earned him his first Academy Award for Best Actor, “tying” with Wallace Beery’s tragic turn in 1931’s The Champ. (March actually surpassed Beery by one vote, but Academy rules at the time stipulated such a small margin result in a tie.)

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Almost a decade after Mamoulian and March’s masterpiece, MGM purchased the rights to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in hopes of filming their own version of the story. MGM was not content with just simply remaking the film, but wanted to guarantee theirs was the only talkie version. To ensure this, MGM recalled as many prints of the 1931 film as they could (including the 1935 heavily edited version that complied with the Production Code), either burying them deep in their vaults, essentially rendering them lost, or completely destroying them. Ironically, MGM opted to make the 1941 remake based on Mamoulian’s 1931 adaptation (with a few minor changes) instead of the original source material. And despite having Barrymore under contract throughout the 1930s, MGM had no interest in him reprising his role.

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The MGM-produced Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941), currently streaming on FilmStruck as part of the Icons: Ingrid Bergman series, was directed by Victor Fleming and starred Spencer Tracy in the title role, along with Lana Turner as Dr. Jekyll’s love interest Beatrix Emery (the counterpart to Rose Hobart’s Muriel Carew), Ingrid Bergman as the barmaid Ivy Pearson (originated by Miriam Hopkins) and Donald Crisp as Sir Charles Emery, Beatrix’s stern, disapproving father. During the film’s early development, Spencer Tracy expressed the desire to play Jekyll and Hyde as the two sides of the same person without relying upon make-up to clearly define the evil alter-ego. He also suggested that Ingrid Bergman, who was originally slated to play the role of Beatrix Carew, be one woman, treated as two different ones: the barmaid/prostitute Ivy and the proper upperclass Beatrix. Tracy’s idea was quite clever and would have been a bold artistic choice that could have set his performance apart from March’s 1931 role. MGM and Fleming disagreed with this vision of the Jekyll and Hyde character, much to Tracy’s disappointment. The make-up applied to Tracy for Hyde was noticeable, but not nearly as drastic as March’s unrecognizable full transformation into a simian-like creature. Subtle changes were made to Tracy’s brow, hair and teeth, which combined with his exaggerated facial expressions, gave him a slight neanderthal look. Unfortunately Tracy, one of the finest actors of any generation, is horribly miscast. Tracy knew he was, too. It’s apparent that he tried his damnedest to turn out a fine performance given what little leeway he was allowed. Tracy’s Dr. Jekyll is arrogant, as he should be, but fails to gain sympathy for his plight as the sexually frustrated man engaged to Beatrix, a proper Victorian woman who personally wouldn’t mind a shortened engagement to help speed along their consummation, but can’t help but fall in line with traditional social convention. Her father continually stands in the way of their romance, pushing back their wedding day into the unseen future, which only adds fuel to Jekyll’s evil, sex-crazed inner spirit.

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Today, the 1941 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has its fans, and is widely available and regularly shown on TCM, but is considered in many circles a curious novelty at best. Spencer Tracy’s lackluster performance (such a hard thing to say about a marvelous actor) and the absence of mouth-dropping special effects for Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde, all but make this film forgettable. Its one saving grace is in Ingrid Bergman’s brilliant portrayal of Ivy Pearson, a woman who is confident and largely in control of her sexuality, until stripped of her agency, held captive, brutally beaten and raped at the hands of Mr. Hyde. Bergman’s performance is touching and powerful, giving Miriam Hopkins a run for her money. Aside from Bergman’s performance, the film is far too polished and glamorous, with an oddly upbeat musical score. The film also suffered at the hands of the restrictive Production Code, which sanitized much of the dark, adult content. Also missing is Mamoulian’s clever use of the camera and first person narrative as an effective plot device, with Victor Fleming failing to offer a satisfying alternative. Tracy’s Mr. Jekyll lacks the charisma and arrogance present in Fredric March’s performance; March’s Jekyll knows he’s sexy, which ultimately plays a big role in Hyde’s violent sex-crazed personality, making the transformation more believable. Most importantly, Tracy’s Mr. Hyde just isn’t that scary. Sure he commits awful acts of violence, but he never displays the same dark, looming menace present in March’s performance. Some of that can be blamed on the Production Code, but we all know there were plenty of clever ways to undermine those silly restrictions. (Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder were masters of subverting the Hays’ Office.) Instead of removing the 1931 Paramount film (which is airing on TCM February 7, 2017 at 6:00pm ET) from the public’s consciousness, MGM inadvertently helped to cement the film’s legacy as one of the great monster films of all time. When the 1941 film was released, Fredric March was complimentary of his friend Spencer Tracy’s performance. According to Deborah C. Peterson (author of Fredric March: Craftsman First, Star Second), March called Tracy on the phone to congratulate him, and Tracy supposedly responded, “Why, Fred, you son of a bitch, I’ve just done you the biggest professional favor you’ll ever have.” Though flawed, it could be argued that the 1941 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde not only cemented Mamoulian’s version as the definitive one, but also allowed a young Ingrid Bergman to break out of MGM’s early typecasting of her as the good girl. We see glimpses of the dark, complicated woman that she would so often portray in later films, such as Notorious (1946). It’s safe to say that classic cinema, and its faithful audiences, benefitted from MGM’s misstep.

Jill Blake

10 Responses A Tale of Two Hydes
Posted By Bill : January 7, 2017 2:12 am

Total misreading of the ’41 version. MGM did try to squelch the March, mainly to keep non-MGM theatres from playing it in direct competition to their own, fooling consumers.Without the caveman makeup, Tracy offers cinema’s first sexual sadist. He obviously tapped into something here that he’d never repeat. He allows the audience to clearly see that it’s Jekyll enjoying every depravity. No Hyding behind the makeup, no letting Jekyll, or the viewer. off the hook. His Hyde is real – not a Max Factor “other”. His hatred so extreme you can almost feel the spittle off the screen. His ritualistic S&M sessions with Bergman are uncomfortable to even watch. Real Code-breakers. So much that David Lynch recreated them in Blue Velvet – with Bergman’s daughter, yet. And Jekyll’s wet dream of whipping his girls like horses the most erotic, and transgressive, sequence in ’40′s cinema.

Posted By LD : January 7, 2017 7:09 am

The 1931 version of DR.JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is my favorite, not so much because of March’s performance, but because of Hopkin’s portrayal of Ivy Pearson. She is simply terrific. I am a huge Bergman fan but feel she was miscast, and I have read so did she. Although there is another story that originally Bergman was cast as the fiance but she decided she wanted the Pearson role. I don’t know what is true. I do feel that Hopkin’s performance contributes greatly to the definitive status of the 1931 film.

It’s been a while since I have seen Barrymore’s 1920 performance but I do remember it was fascinating how he seemed to use his entire body when transforming into Hyde.

Posted By Mitch Farish : January 7, 2017 9:27 am

I agree, LD. Hopkins is terrific, and her scene with Hyde as he tortures her emotionally with his “should I go or should I stay” act makes you feel her terror. It’s as effective as any film today at evoking psychological horror. Bergman and Tracy try, but they were hampered by the Hayes Code; and let’s face it, Tracy doesn’t have enough “ham” to pull off a performance that requires it. Hyde needs to be larger than life, and Barrymore and March both leave Tracy in the dust with their over-the-top antics.

Posted By Bill : January 7, 2017 9:41 am

Shouldn’t judge these by the same standards. Since this is the Freudian version, Hyde is Jekyll’s Id – unrestrained, but still Dr. J. Still human… That’s the point. He’s still Jekyll, not an inflated cartoon boogeyman. As it is, it was reported that Tracy felt he was caught acting. Something he loathed to do.

Posted By Emgee : January 7, 2017 3:09 pm

Originally Robert Donat was cast as Jekyll, and the movie was to be made in England, but the war intervened.

Tracy quickly lost interest and confidence in the movie after the screentests without make-up were seen as a failure.
A perhaps apocryphal story is that the author Somerset Maugham visited the set and asked the director, while seeing Tracy act, “Which one is he now?”

Never cared much for the 1941 version; Tracy’s heart clearly wasn’t in it, whereas March clearly relished the role.

Posted By Mitch Farish : January 7, 2017 4:32 pm

It’s a very tough film to watch because Tracy seems so uncomfortable in the role, as if he’d rather be doing anything else. As for the ’40s Freudian interpretation, they’re all Freudian. The 1920 Barrymore version was the first to set up the triangle between Jekyll/Hyde and the women representing the pure and decadent parts of his personality. Barrymore’s Hyde represents licentiousness and sexual disease. That’s why he effected that crouched walk and has thinning hair on his peaked head. March’s Hyde was an uninhibited primitive, all energy and wild vigor. The ’20 and ’31 films had focus; Tracy just seems confused. He wasn’t made for the role, but was a good actor otherwise.

Posted By Mitch Farish : January 7, 2017 4:37 pm

Miriam Hopkins elevates the ’31 version in my opinion, and deserves a lot of credit for staying in character when March sprayed her face with spittle through is fake teeth.

Posted By LD : January 7, 2017 5:03 pm

It’s interesting, I think, that the 1931 version had March change into a Neanderthal, a throwback in evolution. When the film was released it had just been 6 years since the Scopes Trial. It was a popular film so I guess there were few, if any, objections. When the film was re-released in 1936 Hopkin’s role was cut by eight minutes.

Posted By George : January 7, 2017 8:57 pm

The March/Mamoulian version became legendary during the decades in which it was unavailable for viewing. At one point it was considered a lost film; some shots of Miriam Hopkins, cut for the ’36 rerelease (mentioned by LD) are still lost.

The Tracy version is well made and well acted, but a bit too stuffy and restrained for my taste. It comes down to taste: which do you prefer, the grit and sexiness of pre-Code Paramount, or the gloss of early ’40s MGM, when the Code was in full force? I prefer the ’31 version.

Posted By Chris Wuchte : January 9, 2017 5:10 pm

Tracy has a few good moments in the ’41 version. I recall a scene with him playing a piano while he taunts Bergman with all the innocent things they could do to pass the time, only to come up with reasons they can’t do any of them. He’s chilling in that moment.

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