The Archivist #142: Spencer Tracy Shines in a Dual, Dueling Role: DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE

Victor Fleming’s 1941 adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s novella gets a freshly scrubbed Blu-ray release

The title says it all I think.

The Archivist — Welcome to the Archive. As home video formats have evolved over the years, a multitude of films have found themselves in danger of being forgotten forever due to their niche appeal. Thankfully, Warner Bros. established the Archive Collection, a Manufacture-On-Demand DVD operation devoted to thousands of idiosyncratic and ephemeral works of cinema. The Archive has expanded to include a revivals of out-of-print DVDs and factory pressed Blu-ray discs. Join us as we explore this treasure trove of cinematic discovery!

By 1940, Spencer Tracey was not only a perennial box-office favorite, but also a two-time Academy Award winner for Captains Courageous in 1938 and Boys Town just a year later. Between Boys Town and arguably one of his most famous roles in the Victor Fleming-directed adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s perennial favorite, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Tracy appeared in three other films (Boom Town, Edison, the Man, and Northwest Passage) released in over the course of a single year. Like many performers of his era, Tracy worked under a long-running studio contract, well-paid certainly, but also limited in the roles he could take. Like many performers of his time, it was more enough that he was a working actor. Regardless of whether Tracy had any say in accepting the dual title role in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Tracy delivered one of his most memorable performances, deliberately avoiding the theatrical makeup usually associated with the Hyde persona for a whole body, inside-out approach.

Romance first, tragedy last.

Stevenson’s 1886 novella was and remains an ur-text for psychologically driven Gothic horror, irresistible to performers eager to play diametrically opposed, dueling personas sharing the same body. Not surprisingly, the Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde has seen more than its fair share of adaptations, some more faithful than others, some barely resembling the source text at all. Stevenson’s novella has been adapted for the silver screen at least a dozen times, including a 1920 adaptation featuring John Barrymore in the title role, and just a decade before Tracey slipped into the role, an Oscar-winning role for Fredric March (The Best Years of Our Lives). Tracy, though, didn’t seem the slightest bit daunted by following in March’s footsteps, in large part because he felt that his take was sufficiently different that accusations of imitation or duplication wouldn’t fall in his general direction. He was right.

A slickly made, generously budgeted, glossy black-and-white adaptation brilliantly shot four-time Oscar-winning cinematographer Joseph Ruttenberg (Gaslight, Mrs. Miniver, Woman of the Year), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde centers, as always, on the dual title characters, Dr. Jekyll (Tracy), a respectable member of high society, and his brutish alter-ego, Dr. Hyde (Tracy again), the literal manifestation of Dr. Jekyll’s worst, libidinal instincts, sexual and otherwise. For Stevenson, Jekyll represented Victorian-era morality, a surface gloss on human nature unfettered by law, morality or ethics. Hyde obviously represented that critique, though not every adaptation has made a point of underlining or emphasizing those ideas, instead leaning heavily on Hyde’s grotesque behavior and the audience’s prurient, voyeuristic interest in that behavior. Both takes can be found in Fleming’s adaptation, though melodrama, especially Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s relationship with the two female characters, the ill-fated Ivy Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), a hedonist or sensualist by one definition, a fallen woman by another, more judgmental one, and Beatrix Emery (Lana Turner), the society-approved, virginal romantic interest.

The end of the beginning or the beginning of the end.

Everything goes sideways, of course. Jekyll can’t give Hyde free rein to do whatever he wants without consequences to everyone around him and eventually, Jekyll himself. While Stevenson spent little time on the elusive elixir invented by Jekyll to release Hyde. Before long, the elixir no longer determines when and where Hyde makes an appearance and the division between Jekyll and Hyde, a convenient, comforting fiction, dissolves. And in a Victorian society that judges any deviance from the norm as worthy of imprisonment or death, Jekyll seals his own fate the moment he decides to take the first, life-changing sip of the elixir. It both “frees” Jekyll and dooms him, a predictable end that also serves here and in more traditional adaptations, as a critique of the Victorian society that refuses to make a place for him.

Special Features

  • Theatrical trailer

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