Celebrate the spooky season with two versions of Robert L. Stevenson’s classic horror tale!
In Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic science fiction novel The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the renowned Dr. Jekyll posits that mankind’s nature can be split into different dual, or even multiple, psyches. Devising a serum to test his theory, he transforms himself into his mirrored version: whereas Jekyll is an essentially upright person — generally moral with occasional lapses, his other side is mostly evil. His carnal, violent, and vengeful aspects are represented by this new person, whom he names Mr. Hyde.
In both films, Hyde terrorizes London and preys in particular on the unfortunate Ivy, a barmaid who had previously been flirtatious with the engaged Dr. Jekyll, who was too gentlemanly to fully succumb, yet aroused by her eroticism.
This tale also plays out against Jekyll’s personal troubles with his betrothed, Beatrix, and her stern father. As Jekyll loses control of his life to Hyde, so too does his relationship suffer.
Though many other filmed versions of these characters have comes since, Paramount’s 1931 adaptation and MGM’s remake of the same screenplay which followed in 1941, remain the most famous filmed versions of the tale.
Rouben Mamoulian’s 1931 pre-code film features Fredrich March in the title performances, and features rather monstrous makeup effects for Mr. Hyde, who is simian or werewolf-like in appearance (complete with Wolfman-esque transformations): suggestive not only of a split personality, but of de-evolution: a regression to an animal nature.
It has something of the feel of the classic Universal Monsters, with Hyde not only a villain in the piece, but a bestial and monstrous presence as well.
Boasting a bit more star power, Victor Fleming’s 1941 take at MGM is far more “Hollywood”, with a relatively young Spencer Tracy as both the doctor and his devious counterpart, and none other than Ingrid Bergman, playing against type, in the role of Ivy.
A comparison of the two films demonstrates a decision that every adaptation of these characters must grapple with: to depict Hyde as man or monster. Hollywood takes, especially modern ones like The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen or Van Helsing, usually opt for the “bigger is better” approach, but as written by Stevenson, Hyde was indeed monstrous and brutish, but identifiably human.
The Fredrich March version of the character, featuring iconic creature effects by Wally Westmore, pushed an animalistic version of Hyde as far as reasonably possible. The Spencer Tracy version of the character, while darkly featured and brutish, is much less of a dramatic transformation. If anything Jekyll and Hyde almost look too similar for the story to be believable: Spencer Tracy, and… Spencer Tracy in big eyebrows and dark makeup.
Interestingly, the direct juxtaposition of these two films shines a light on the Hays Code, as the 1931 version is decidedly more primal. When Jekyll is first tempted by Ivy (Miriam Hopkins) while attending to her injuries in her bedroom, the scene plays with a much charged more sexual energy — she strips seductively and, presumably nude under the covers, waits for him to approach her bed, then kisses him.
Another interesting example of the change in the landscape in the letter which Jekyll writes to his associate, Lanyon, urging him “in God’s name” not to fail him. (While this exact letter does not appear in the novel, the book does use variations of this phrasing throughout). In the 1941 film, the same letter appears but the wording has been adjusted to the tamer “in the name of Heaven”, avoiding any connotation of casual blasphemy.
Behind the scenes, even more drama attended these two adaptations of the same tale: having secured the rights, MGM actually tried to erase the 1931 film from history, taking possession of the negative and destroying copies.
Thankfully their attempt failed and the superior 1931 film is still with us. Taken separately, or more richly together, they remain entertaining and worthy of celebration — though the 1931 version’s richer subtext and style make it stand much taller as the more satisfying and memorable of the pair.
Both the 1931 and 1941 versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde are available on DVD from Warner Archive.
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Screen images of the 1931 film were captured from a digital copy and do not represent the full, uncompressed quality of the DVD image. Screen images for the 1941 film are direct captures from the disc with no editing applied, but may have compression or resizing inherent to file formats and Medium’s image system.