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.)
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.
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.
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.
This piece was originally published at StreamLine, the official blog of FilmStruck on January 7, 2017 and can be found archived here.