March Hyde Madness: Spencer Tracy Underwhelms in 1941

The year was 1941 and the powers-that-be at MGM studios decided the time was right to bring Dr. Jekyll and My. Hyde back to life. Rather than creating their own vision of the story or going back to the original Robert Louis Stevenson source material for a more accurate version, they opted to do a straight forward remake. Since this was before televisions were in every home and long before the idea of home video, doing a remake just ten years after an Academy Award winning version doesn’t seem quite as crazy as it would now. Just imagine the fan boys revolting at an idea of a Lord of the Rings remake.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde 1941 1As previously detailed, MGM first acquired the rights to the 1931 Paramount Pictures version and then recalled all prints of the film; effectively burying the version to the point it was believed lost at one point. Such a feat would be impossible now in the digital age but it was effective in 1941 to ensure that their version was the only one viewers would have access to. Next, MGM would have to tame down some of the visuals and script as the pre-code days were gone and the censors now had a much stronger hand in what the moviegoers could see. Plus, this was MGM, one of the biggest movie studios of the day and they never came close to offending the audience. This is probably where I have my first problems with this version. MGM has a tendency to go safe with their productions. For example, compare their 1938 version of A Christmas Carol to the classic 1951 version. True, they are quite lavish but they have Hollywood written all over their films. Sometimes it works but in a horror film, I like a little grit if, for no other reason, a touch of reality. All of the grit visualized in the 1931 version was washed away by MGM.

Next, you have some established, big name stars. Spencer Tracy heads up our cast in the dual role of Dr. Henry Jekyll (no longer pronounced “jeekul”) and Mr. Hyde. He had already been in such films as Boys Town and Edison, The Man, so he was clearly at a different point in his career than Fredric March was when he took the role. His version of Hyde is drastically different than March did in 1931. There are only some subtle differences between this Jekyll and Hyde: bushy eyebrows, makeup work around the eyes (which becomes more pronounced as Hyde takes over), messed up hair. It is certainly more believable that he could blend into London society. Ingrid Bergman stars as the lovely bar maid Ivy. She was one year away from Casablanca and three from Gaslight, so her career was on the verge of exploding. She gives a much less sexual performance than Miriam Hopkins did in 1931 and, for me, it makes Ivy seem a little more refined than she should have been. The names of Jekyll’s fiancée and her father have been changed to Beatrix Emery and Sir Charles Emery, for no apparent reason. Lana Turner, another established star of the day, played Beatrix in very much the same manner as we saw in 1931. Sir Charles seems a little less pompous here but certainly more standoffish. However, his change of attitude in allowing Jekyll and his daughter to marry is more motivated by business decisions rather than just giving in that we saw in 1931. Ian Hunter is Dr. Charles Lanyon, serving the same role of disapproving friend who is ultimately forced to turn Jekyll over to the authorities.

I must admit up front that the 1941 version has never been a favorite of mine. Upon previous viewings, my primary complaint had been the cast. Spencer Tracy is a great actor but never someone I gravitated towards. While the subtle differences between his Jekyll and Hyde work here to make it more believable, it really is hard to tell the two apart and brings to mind how naïve everyone was not to tell that the two were actually the same man. His performance was blasted by the critics as not being frightening enough, which I wholeheartedly agree. He seemed far too gruff, too old and too American for the sophisticated Jekyll. It just doesn’t work for me. I really enjoy Ingrid Bergman as an actress but she seemed miscast here. Perhaps I’ve seen The Bells of Saint Mary’s too many times but I think the role of Ivy was much better in the 1931 version.Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde 1941 2

While I did like this 1941 version better upon this viewing, it is still ultimately disappointing. There seems to be some five minutes missing from the film. They appear to be various lines from Hyde but why they were cut and where they are now remain a mystery. I don’t think they would change my opinion. I found Victor Fleming did a great job directing some of the scenes that were heavy in the usual MGM visual flare. However, I also found him to be incredibly lazy at times with some scenes that seemed to be shot-for-shot remakes of the original (and not as effective). Just like fans screamed at Rob Zombie for his vision of Halloween, I think modern audiences would be doing the same at Fleming today. I think it best to watch this version first and then upgrade to the 1931 version. It is available on one of the four film TCM Greatest Classic Film Collections along with four superior movies (The Haunting, House of Wax and Freaks), making it definitely worth the low asking price. Check out the trailer on YouTube to get an idea of what you’ll be watching so your expectations are in the right place. It’s also available on iTunes and Amazon (as is the superior 1931 version).

Next time, we flash forward to the 1950s where we discover Dr. Jekyll has both a son and a daughter. Yes, we’re headed to some bumpy territory but should I mention one of these movies stars John Agar?


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