Monday, January 13, 2014

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)
seen on TV @ TCM

In Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (at least this version), Dr. Jekyll, in explaining his scientific research, talks about the good and evil within man, but I think what he's actually talking about is what we now call the id and the superego. Of course, it wouldn't be until the twentieth century when Sigmund Freud would come along and give it those names (along with the ego, the force in between), and this story is set in the nineteenth century. 

The way this classic literary tale is presented here, Hyde is clearly the manifestation of all the things Jekyll would secretly like to do but chooses not to. He's not a Hulk-like monster, either (as he kinda is in other versions); that's something I always forget whenever I think about this story.

At first, I had forgotten whether or not I had seen this before when I watched it, but I definitely had. This version of the story is mighty hard to forget! Spencer Tracy's Hyde doesn't have a great deal of added makeup - more hair, maybe a false set of teeth, sweatier - but he barely needs any of it to scare the pants off of you, a tribute to what a remarkable actor he was.

Visually, this is a hell of a movie. The frenetic editing of the transformation sequences, the not-bad-for-1941 visual effects, the costumes and set design (along with the makeup, naturally) - they all make this movie come alive in a way that's almost modern. Director Victor Fleming did Oz and Gone With the Wind (can you imagine having both those films on your resume?), in both cases coming in to replace previous directors. A look at his IMDB page reveals that he was a cinematographer going way back to the early days of the silent era, and that must have been quite an education for him. 

You'd think he'd be better remembered than he is. True, he was a substitute director on Oz and Wind, but he does some wild stuff here. Look at the weird visions Jekyll has when he transforms into Hyde. Maybe they're taken directly from the book, I don't know, but to see them in this context - Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner as racing horses, being whipped by Tracy, Bergman popping out of a bottle, Turner falling underwater - there's a sexual potency to these images that's absolutely startling to see in a 1941 movie, and Fleming captures it with great skill. We understand these as being the inner workings of Jekyll's repressed id, but they're suggestive enough to be open to a little interpretation.

Fleming's output diminished after this movie. He never came close to the heights he scaled in the 30s - but then again, after Oz and Wind, who could? - and died in 1949, but I think he did pretty well for himself. I like this version of Jekyll a lot, but the Fredric March version is supposed to be just as good too, so one of these days I'll have to look at that one also.

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