Men are brutes — literally this time
Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? Well, we all do. If you want a glimpse of Old Scratch, just look in a mirror — vanity, pride, lust, covetousness, cowardice, envy — it’s all there.
But when we go to the movies, we’re not in the mood to see our oafish, lazy, lecherous, lying selves. We’d prefer something with a little more class, a touch of sentiment and romance perhaps, and first-rate production values. And if it could include a good-looking babe with decent cleavage being menaced by a drooling, ill-tempered orangutan, all the better.
Robert Lewis Stevenson, writing back in the Victorian Era, put it all together in 1886 with The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Stevenson’s tale, quickly adapted first for the stage and then the screen, gave audiences an exciting whiff of wickedness without obliging them to look at their actual sins. Three classic black-and-white versions of the Jekyll and Hyde story are now out on DVD — a good three decades of Hollywood thrills and chills, not to mention lectures on what happens when man goes “too far.”
All three versions — the 1920 silent with John Barrymore1 and Nita Naldi,2 the early (1931) talkie with Fredric March3 and Miriam Hopkins, and MGM’s glossy 1941 version with Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman,4 and Lana Turner — have been excellently restored and come with a variety of extras. Unfortunately, one has to admit upfront that none of the three is an outright winner — too much downtime between the thrills and chills. But each has a distinct period charm that makes them worth a rental if not a purchase.
For silent film buffs, the 1920 Jekyll and Hyde virtually demands to be seen, thanks to John Barrymore’s bravura set-gnawing in the lead. The Jekyll-Hyde transformation is perhaps the first and still one of the greatest money shots in the history of horror film, and Barrymore does a great job, throwing his body into convulsions and using his twitching lips and blazing eyes to convince us that we’ve seen the transformation without stop-action camera work. In fact, Barrymore’s crouched posture and twisted face only get him halfway through the change. When we see Hyde in the next scene, he has an egg-shaped head, thin hair, prosthetic teeth, and a darkened complexion.5
Barrymore also has a terrific bit at the end of the film where, as Jekyll, he’s pressed to give up his association with Hyde. Enraged, he starts frothing at the mouth and changes into his darker self. He beats his tormenter unconscious with a stick and then dispatches him with a vampire-like bite to the throat.
Fredric March gives a performance equal to Barrymore’s in the 1931 version, which also benefits from fascinating sets, lighting, and camerawork from director Rouben Mamoulian, not to mention some pre-Code skin from Miriam Hopkins. The transformation scene, done with trick camerawork, doesn’t match Barrymore’s, but March’s manic delight in the emergence of his simian side has a superb energy.Like many early talkies, the 1931 film isn’t quite comfortable handling sound. There’s virtually no soundtrack, and some of the scenes hover uneasily between silent pantomime and “real time” talkies.6 Furthermore, Mamoulian seems to have been more comfortable with atmosphere than violence. There’s more brutality in the 1920 version.
Poor Spencer Tracy comes up far behind either of his predecessors in the 1941 version.7 Evil just wasn’t his thing, not on the screen at least.8 But Lana Turner and Ingrid Bergman are as young and lovely as anyone could wish, and there’s a great dream sequence in which Spence wildly lashes a whip over the gals’ heads while they pull his chariot.
All three films suffer from the fact that they just don’t give Hyde enough to do. His idea of a good time consists largely of hanging out in cheap dives and being rude to prostitutes. Diverting, yes, but nothing to write home about. Now, if Hyde could have gotten himself into a three-piece suit, he might have done some real damage.
Kino offers the 1920 Barrymore version in a fancy package that also includes Stan Laurel’s 1925 two-reeler parody, Dr. Pyckle and Mr. Pride. It’s engaging rather than brilliant, but it does have the funniest silent-era fart joke I’ve ever seen. On the down side, the last minute or two of the film is simply missing, a rather egregious shortcoming that Kino doesn’t bother to mention.
Both the 1931 and the 1941 films are available on a single, two-sided disc, so you don’t have to pay extra for the tame Spencer Tracy version. There’s a comic short on this one too, Bugs Bunny Meets Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but it’s TV-time budget Bugs, and I found it devoid of laughs.9
- There’s a nice site devoted to the Great Profile here. [↩]
- Naldi, born Anita Donna Dooley in the Big Apple, played smoldering, exotic beauties throughout the twenties. Jekyll and Hyde was her first picture. Two years later, she enjoyed probably her biggest role opposite Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand. There’s a deliciously smoldering, exotic web page devoted to Nita here. [↩]
- March, who was known for his light comedy roles before taking on Jekyll/Hyde, won an Oscar for his performance. There’s a nice site devoted to him here. [↩]
- There’s a nice site for Ingrid here. [↩]
- To a large extent, Barrymore played Jekyll as Hamlet and Hyde as Richard III. An excellent site devoted to Barrymore as a Shakespearean actor can be found here. [↩]
- And when the characters do talk, sometimes they talk too much. Jekyll’s conversations with his fiancé include a lot of “Do you love me, darling? Love me completely?” “Love you? I adore you, worship you! I count the hours, minutes, and seconds that we’re apart!” [↩]
- The 1941 film is largely an old-fashioned MGM wallow in high Victoriana, surely the whitest era in recorded history. Thanks to the success of the Merchant-Ivory gang, the clotted cream is thicker than ever. I think this needs to be investigated. [↩]
- Tracy used no makeup as Hyde. We’re supposed to know that he’s wicked because his hair is unruly. [↩]
- Chuck Jones buffs may love it. On the other hand, they may hate it. I’m pretty much a Disney guy myself. DONALD DUCK RULES! [↩]
- A far, far better man than I am. [↩]
- A few years ago, yet another remake, scripted by David Mamet under the title Diary of a Young London Physician, was announced. But production seems to have been delayed indefinitely. [↩]