Dr. Jekyll Is Not Himself These Days

grims grave

 

Greetings, fellow miscreants.

As the picture above would indicate, I am feeling uncharacteristically giddy and “full of beans” at the prospect of resuming my column after an exceedingly long hiatus.  Now that I am a free agent and my deathless prose is no longer hidden among the byways of the Flat Field Records website, I hope to expand my rabid and ever-faithful fan base solidly into the double digits.  (For the sake of completeness, as well as posterity, I have re-posted my early Flat Field columns for your no doubt eager perusal.)

The reasons for my absence are not pleasant.  As many of you are aware, my widely misunderstood career as an avant-garde surgeon has rendered me of no small interest to certain legal authorities.  This has forced me to lead the life of an itinerant squatter in various industrial ruins throughout the New York metropolitan region.  It is essential that I keep my whereabouts strictly hush-hush.

Nonetheless, rumors began circulating that I dwelt within the secret, twisting catacombs beneath the abandoned Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg.  Having now vacated the premises, I can confirm that this was indeed true.  It was a most congenial home for me, and I left only under extreme duress.  My sacred solitude, formerly interrupted only by the occasional “urban explorer” or nosy camera-wielding tourist from California,  steadily eroded due to a stream of developers and contractors, bent on transforming my private palace into “luxury condos.”  Weep not for me, but for a once-dignified ruin, soon to be cruelly restored and revamped for nefarious purposes.

Although I am now comfortably ensconced in a location which must not be named, the process of finding new digs was long and arduous.  Furthermore, it left my beloved pet raven, Barnaby, peevish and out of sorts.  (He’s a creature of habit, poor thing, and has only recently recovered his equilibrium.)  I have more than ever come to feel the truth and power of Bela Lugosi’s searing monologue from Bride of the Monster (1955):

“…Home?  I have no home.  Hunted, despised, living like an animal!  The jungle is my home.  But I will show the world that I can be its master!  I will perfect my own race of people.  A race of atomic supermen which will conquer the world!”

Anyway, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Let’s discuss it, shall we?

Of all the classic Gothic horror tales, Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (no “The,” originally) was by far the most frequently filmed in the early days of cinema, inspiring at least eight adaptations during the silent era alone.  And yet, while every generation sees fit to re-imagine the Dracula and Frankenstein myths for contemporary audiences, and the Phantom of the Opera has enjoyed a most lucrative afterlife, the greatest double act in horror history has fallen on hard times.  True, there has been the occasional TV version or lowbrow parody or obscure foreign-language offshoot in recent decades, but no high-profile, straightforward adaptation of the story has been made for American or British theatrical release since the insipid Victor Fleming film of 1941.

But why?  It’s not as if Stevenson’s themes have dated.  True, Victorian repression is not what it used to be, but I have detected no falling-off in human fiendishness in the ensuing years — nor has the public lost its interest in the various nasties that lurk beneath the cloak of bourgeous respectability.  Furthermore, the story’s obvious parallels with drug addiction have mostly been left unexplored.  I can offer no explanation for this neglect; I merely offer it as one of life’s imponderables.

The 1920 and 1931 versions, at least, managed to improve on their literary source.  Stevenson’s novella isn’t especially thrilling when read today, not least because it is structured as a mystery story–the solution being that Jekyll and Hyde are the same person.  Since the modern reader is unlikely to be astonished by this fact, the tension slackens and the big reveal toward the end trickles off into a damp squib.  Stevenson also managed to ignore sex completely, so the familiar dichotomy between the virtuous fiancee and the music-hall floozy, with all that they imply about Jekyll’s inner conflict, is nowhere to be seen.  (Credit Thomas Russell Sullivan’s 1887 stage adaptation for introducing these now-standard characters.)

Here, then, are my pithy musings on the three most noteworthy versions to date.

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

Although John S. Robertson’s direction is as good as it needs to be and no better, the first feature-length version of the tale endures because of John Barrymore’s unique, spidery interpretation of Hyde.  The child-trampling scene remains from Stevenson, but the emphasis here is on Hyde’s unsavoriness and decadence rather than his physical brutality. Leering, stringy-haired, and just plain unsanitary, this habitue of low dives and opium dens owes a fair amount to the title character of The Picture of Dorian Gray — while Jekyll’s prospective father-in-law Sir George Carew (Brandon Hurst), who challenges Jekyll with his worldly cynicism, serves much the same function as Lord Henry in Wilde’s novel.

Behold the famed single-take transformation scene below.  You are permitted to laugh at Barrymore’s melodramatic, actorish flailings after swallowing the potion — but stick with it, and marvel at how much the old ham accomplishes with facial expressions alone.  (As his debauchery progresses and the makeup becomes correspondingly extreme, he begins to look somewhat like rock idol Alice Cooper on a bad night.)

 

The scene where a giant phantom tarantula bearing Hyde’s face melts into the sleeping Jekyll’s body, thus transforming him into Hyde, remains beautifully loathsome.

 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Rouben Mamoulian’s film, starring Fredric March, is not only the best version of the tale, but a strong candidate for the greatest horror film ever made.  I confess that I love it beyond all reason.

Part of my enthusiasm no doubt stems from having seen it on the big screen at an impressionable age, during the pre-video era, at a time when the film was rarely shown and quite difficult to see.  It is hard to convey, in this current media environment where more or less everything is available all the time, how exciting it was when a rare and much pined-for motion picture made an unexpected appearance at the local revival house or on television.  You knew it might be your only chance to see it for many years to come.

First of all, it’s a technical and stylistic tour de force, with Karl Struss’s restless, prowling camera dynamically expressing Mamoulian’s directorial vision.  (The much-acclaimed subjective sequence that opens the film, in which we see everything from Jekyll’s point of view and don’t catch a glimpse of the man himself until he pauses before a mirror, was cut when the film was reissued several years later.  Happily, it has since been restored.)  The state-of-the-art transformation scenes are likewise astonishing, and made use of highly innovative makeup and light filter techniques which were for many years a closely guarded secret.  Wally Westmore’s Hyde makeup could perhaps have been toned down a notch or two — March is completely unrecognizable — but the apelike physiognomy is in keeping with the concept of Hyde as a kind of evolutionary throwback.

A vintage Aurora model kit, with a Hyde figure based on Fredric March.  Dr. Grimsby had one of these as a stripling youth.

A vintage Aurora model kit, with a Hyde figure based on Fredric March. Dr. Grimsby had one of these as a stripling youth.

Famously, there is also an astonishing amount of eroticism in this pre-Code film — it leaves no doubt that sexual frustration is at the root of Jekyll’s problems — and a brutality of tone that makes it suitably nerve-racking even today.

March mostly plays Hyde for laughs in his early scenes; he and Mamoulian conceive him as a simian but rather high-spirited chap, bursting with the vitality of an unleashed id.  But as his behavior toward saloon singer Ivy Pearson (played with great vulnerability and a near-hysterical edge by Miriam Hopkins) grows more vicious and controlling, we stop laughing, and March’s performance becomes one of the most harrowing portrayals of a sexual predator ever committed to celluloid.  He won an Oscar for his performance — a feat that would not be duplicated by an actor in a horror film until Anthony Hopkins’ win for The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

 

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

Here’s where it gets rough.

Victor Fleming’s film is practically a scene-for-scene remake of the Mamoulian version, minus the imagination, sex, tension,  and thrills that distinguished its illustrious predecessor.  Instead, we have heaping helpings of MGM gloss — exactly what this story is not crying for.

Then there’s the abysmally wrong-headed casting.  Although Barrymore and March were both American actors, neither was quite so palpably American as Spencer Tracy, who seems very out of place indeed among the gaslit London cobblestones.  His characteristic relaxed decency suits neither Jekyll’s obsessiveness nor Hyde’s brutality; no amount of leering and grimacing can mask the fact that the man is basically a mensch.

 

Lana Turner, as Jekyll’s upmarket fiancee, is what she always was:  a signifier of glamour, more an abstract field of shimmering platinum than a relatable character.  And while Ingrid Bergman was at her most dewy and edible as Ivy, she is no one’s idea of a cockney trollop, and her East End (of Stockholm?) accent is lamentable.  (The original casting had Bergman as the fiancee and Turner as the floozy, but Bergman was fed up with playing “good girls” and prevailed upon Fleming to give her the more colorful role.)

Alas, this was the only version that played on television for many, many years, so generations grew up thinking of this, and not the Mamoulian version, as the “classic” Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.  Alarmingly, the corporate vandals at MGM came perilously close to erasing the earlier film from history altogether.  While the remake was in preparation, the studio bought the rights to the 1931 version and destroyed all the prints they could locate; the result is that the film was thought to be lost until a print was re-discovered decades later.  I quail to think how close MGM came to consigning a great film to oblivion, in the service of one that was overextended, bland, and derivative.

A pox on it.

Finally, as a kind of post-script, I attach the sublime trailer for the 1976 blaxploitation feature, Dr. Black, Mr. Hyde.  It is quite simply the finest example of the art I have ever seen, and will save you the trouble of having to watch the movie itself.

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