Saturday, 18 October 2014

Halloween 31 For 31: Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

Dir. Victor Fleming

There would eventually be a film in the season like this one. More so that, as this proves, it's not a good idea to cover two films based on the same concept or a remake unless you want to contrast to the point on purpose. It's definitely not a good idea, as here, when this feels like an almost exact remake of the 1931 adaptation with the same plot structure, when you wished going into it the film would take a different spin on the material. The worse thing is that the studio funding this adaptation, MGM, bought the negative for the 1931 version and keep it effectively suppressed, thus adding a worse shadow over their take on the Robert Louis Stevenson version decades after when putting the two side-by-side. It's the exact, same narrative only with different emphasis in aspects and material added that makes it longer. Instead of Fredric March, it's Spencer Tracy as Dr. Jekyll trying to split the good from evil in mankind's minds through chemistry, only to find an elixir that turns himself into Mr. Hyde, all his evil in a personified form. The frustration of being prevented from marring his fiancée Beatrix Emery (Lana Turner instead of Rose Hobart) pushes him forwards to becoming Hyde repeatedly, whose interests lay with bar maid Ivy Peterson (Ingrid Bergman instead of Miriam Hopkins), and in control develops such an influence that Jekyll can turn into him without need of the chemical compound.  

While it was an acclaimed film, and an impressive movie for me to first see, Rouben Mamoulian's 1931 film does quality as a the "vulgar" of the two versions, a Pre Hay's Code film that got away with more explicit content for its time and, with Hyde as a literal ape man, was completely comfortable with being a ghoulish horror film as it was a serious literary adaptation. The 1941 take is the "respectable" version, the same narrative beats filtered through a glossier tone. Said 1941 adaptation is...the dullest film of the season so far. The fact I've viewed it next to the previous version is to its detriment, as I originally feared, but it's also noticeably weaker despite this, showing me aspects of cinema that I am not a big fan of, from this era of cinema to now. The elaborate use of cinematic grammar from the first version, including first person scenes, is gone, a more basic and conventional grammar used instead common in American films of the time. The film looks beautiful, to its credit, but has a gradual pace which drags immensely, without a style to it that can further intoxicate the viewer. I also find myself seeing, even with great actors in the roles, how bad casting choices or strained performances can so badly effect a film, especially in the worst cases when the film is trying to be overtly important in tone. Controversially, the worse case of this in with Ingrid Bergman as Ivy Peterson, a great actress who is yet the weakest part of a film full of immense flaws, nowhere near as good or charismatic as Hopkins in the 1931 version. Because of this film's sanitized tone, Peterson no longer is a very flirtatious "loose" woman who is yet lovable and sympathetic, but a more "respectable" bar maid, played by Bergman with immaculate hair and soft focus lighting on her, the character becoming an arch, serious performance I've come to find hollow and painful to watch in movies. This is worse when, with Peterson,  you're supposed to find the character deeply sympathetic and watch on at horror when she is abused by Hyde. This is a problem with the cast in general. Tracy doesn't do bad as Jekyll, and his Hyde, not an apeman but with a maniac, toothy grin, is certainly trying to bring something sinister to the film, but it's against some less than memorable casting and performance choices. Jekyll's colleague Dr. John Lanyon (Ian Hunter) who makes an awkward leap from a jovial chum to seriousness when he discovers the truth, or Lana Turner as an ineffectual stand in for Rose Hobart, admittedly having some additional dramatic meat with extra scenes, but left as a stereotypical blonde innocent on camera.

What's the real kicker is how the word "sanitised" is really felt throughout this film. It dances around content the 1931 took on bluntly. Peterson's domestic abuse is made more convoluted in presentation when, before the Hay's Code was enforced, the original take didn't hold back on the severity of the situation, of her emotional shock up and covered in bruises. The original version was sexually frank, tinged with the greater "vulgarity" and while done with great seriousness, did share a tone comparable with the Universal horror films of the time, in balancing the seriousness with being a horror picture to creep the audience out with. Also it was more subtle, despite one or two moments of hysteria, able to give the viewer a real gut punch in its message about the futility of separating man from his evil side. Granted, the 1941 version does have an interesting additional scene of Jekyll explaining his theories to an increasingly outraged set of dinner guests, but this is also a film where, to show someone has become evil due a mental disturbance, they are shown shouting at a preacher in a church about preaching rubbish; considering how Christianity, from my vantage point, is more self critical and progressive than it may seen to be, this being the first scene of the film is a warning about the streak of quaint, but eye rolling, conservatism added to the story. That and the scenes with Jekyll talking to a jolly, older guard about a comet about to collide with the Earth and the old man's philosophy of positivity. We have to blame former Postmaster Will H. Hays for this sort of damned lifelessness.

Abstract Rating (High/Medium/Low/None): None
The film does attempt at something more artistically unconventional with the transformation sequences, resorting the dream imagery with a Freudian bent. Bergman and Turner as horses being whipped by Hyde, and images on top of other images. It's interesting, but not only doesn't hold a candle to the first transformation sequence in the 1931 version, but for all its lurid aspects, Rouben Mamoulian's film was able to depict symbolism in much more subtle ways. Rather than broad metaphors, an image of a pot bubbling to the point the boiling water inside was coming out violently was vivid a depiction of Jekyll's mind. The rest of the film never tries any of this sort of obvious metaphor, so it doesn't quality for the list anyway.

A Cinema of the Abstract movie?
If I am to watch more horror films from the 1940s, I don't want films like this that feels stuffy and stale. I want films that have the energy or the atmosphere you get in films from this era. As much as I don't want to bang on about the 1931 version again, by itself on this first viewing, this version fails in comparison nonetheless. It was tedious to sit through and I needed to pause it a few times to get through. I recommend the other film far and away before this one.

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