by Robert Short – Special Guest Contribution
General Abstract: In 1887 London prominent physician Henry Jekyll incurs the ire of his older colleagues because of his experiments and views on the possibility of separating the good and evil aspects of man’s nature. As his experiments with potions continue, Dr. Jekyll faces horrible consequences when, transformed into the animalistic, bestial Mr. Hyde, his dark side runs wild.Literary Origins
“It was on the moral side, and in my own person, that I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both”.
Originally published in 1886, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Gothic novella The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has served as the underlying literary basis for all cinematic adaptations of the story. Certainly film versions have explored many of the dark themes introduced in the written work, the duality of man, good versus evil, and religion versus science chief among them.
While the Stevenson story was rightfully given on-screen credit as the original source for the 1920, 1931, and 1941 screen presentations, the cinematic editions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde also owed a debt of gratitude to an 1887 four-act stage adaptation written by Thomas Russell Sullivan in collaboration with the actor Richard Mansfield. Whereas Stevenson presented his tale using multiple narrators and a circular style, which allowed the events of the story to end back at the narrative’s origin, Sullivan composed the play in a straightforward, linear fashion, staging the action in chronological order, thereby conveying a stronger impression of realism for the audience. Sullivan’s work also gave greater visual emphasis on the contrast between Jekyll’s good and Hyde’s evil, of which the latter, in Stevenson’s work, was more left to the imagination of the reader than explicitly expressed; as author James B. Twitchell observed:
“What Peggy Webling did for Frankenstein and John Balderston did for Dracula, Thomas Sullivan did for Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The stage play made the story part of popular culture; it straightened out the plot, it provided causality, it made sexual interactions clear, it excised all narrative sophistication, and it profoundly transformed the monster. By the time these adaptations of Victorian horror in prose had made it to film, the stage plays had already made them myths.”
The other significant change brought about in the Sullivan theatrical adaptation was the introduction of a more dominant female personage in the character of Agnes Carew, Jekyll’s fiancée. Stevenson’s original work was noteworthy for its lack of female presence; while not totally void of females, the novella included them as decidedly minor, unsubstantial characters, none of whom had more than a few lines of dialogue. The paucity of any strong women has prompted a number of theories from literary analysts and scholars; some have noted the lack of females as symbolic of the subordinate position in Victorian society, while others have declared it representative of Jekyll’s repressed homosexuality.
An Overall Look at the Film Adaptations
1920 Version. Directed by John S. Robertson. Scenario by Clara S. Beranger. Starring John Barrymore, Brandon Hurst, Martha Mansfield, Charles Lane, Nita Naldi, Louis Wolheim.
The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, under the screen title of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, which will hereafter be shortened to Jekyll and Hyde, proved very popular material in the early days of cinema; between 1908 and 1912 no less than seven adaptations had been filmed, the majority of which were one-reel, or approximately ten to twelve minutes, in length. The year 1920 boasted three versions of the Stevenson tale. The Barrymore film was the first to be released; with a running time of 79 minutes, it was also the first to present the story in a more substantial manner. Certainly the most famous of the silent presentations, given the prominence of the Barrymore name, it may be said that this version of the Stevenson tale brought the genre of the horror film to a higher level; a solid “A” production, the 1920 Jekyll and Hyde did not climax in a cheat ending, where the events turned out to be a dream or an elaborate hoax. Heralded in the film’s advertisement as “The Greatest Actor of Our Time”, handsome Barrymore, known in his early theatrical days as “The Great Profile”, apparently found a personal level of sympathy in the dual role of kindly Jekyll and evil Hyde further; himself possessed of dark urges, alcohol could literally transform the actor “from a courteous, charming fellow into a foul-mouthed beast.”
Clara Beranger’s screenplay followed the 1887 stage concept of Jekyll’s being engaged, the fiancée rechristened Millicent from the play’s original Agnes, and later renamed Muriel and Beatrix in 1931 and 1941 respectively. As in the stage play, unlike the Stevenson work, the Sir Danvers character, his name altered to Sir George Carewe in the Barrymore version, General Carew in 1931 and Sir Charles Emery a decade later, was presented as Jekyll’s future father-in-law. In the 1931 and 1941 adaptations, Jekyll’s future relation was depicted as a straitlaced, highly proper individual; interestingly, unique to the Barrymore film, Sir George encouraged his future son-in-law to yield to temptation, paving the way to Jekyll’s subsequent probing of good and evil. The eventual murder of the Sir Danvers personage, an occurrence from both the Stevenson novella and the Mansfield drama, was also retained in Beranger’s script, and carried over into the subsequent 1931 and 1941 films.
Quite significantly, the 1920 script introduced a second major female role, injecting an element hitherto excluded in both Stevenson’s original work and the 1887 stage adaptation. The attractive dance-hall girl Gina awakened the prim Jekyll’s baser instincts, and later had a relationship with Hyde; while the Barrymore version did not deeply explore the dalliance, one could easily assume it was at very least an unsavoury one, contrary to the mores of Victorian times. In subsequent screen adaptations, Gina evolved into Ivy, the barmaid, whom Hyde physically torments, psychologically tortures, and eventually destroys.
It is now somewhat difficult, and perhaps even unfair, to assess the artistic quality of a century-old film, unless evaluating it through a historical lens. While no longer in its infancy, the silent cinema of 1920 had yet to develop the fluid camerawork and imagery more evident by the end of the decade in such classics as Sunrise, The Crowd and The Wind; ironically the advent of sound would initially return the early “talkies” to a more stagnant state. In a review in Silent Film Sources film historian David Pierce said of the 1920 feature “The staging is not compelling, the scenario communicates the story largely by titles rather than action, and the motivations of the characters are not well developed.” Like many motion pictures of the era, the 1920 Jekyll and Hyde certainly may appear rather static and stilted to modern audiences, although certain scenes, such Jekyll’s transformation into Hyde, are grandly overacted.
1931 Version . Directed by Rouben Mamoulian. Screenplay by Samuel Hoffenstein and Percy Heath. Starring Fredric March, Miriam Hopkins, Rose Hobart, Holmes Herbert, Halliwell Hobbs.
Florid and cinematically exciting, the 1931 version of Jekyll and Hyde has often been considered the best screen adaptation of the Stevenson work. The temporal setting was perfect for another Gothic horror tale; by the time the filming of Jekyll and Hyde had begin in the summer of 1931, Universal Studios had scored a massive hit with Dracula, and would later enjoy similar success with the November 1931 release of Frankenstein. The first film directed by European-born Rouben Mamoulian, the 1929 Applause, demonstrated the director’s innovative use of sound and camera movement; Jekyll and Hyde, Mamoulian’s third film, again provided the director with ample opportunity to utilize his creative talents. Opening the film with the ominous strains of Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D Minor, Mamoulian initially employed the subjective camera, so that the audience saw the physical surroundings through Jekyll’s eyes; Jekyll himself was first seen as a reflection in a mirror, a technique later repeated when Hyde made his initial appearance. This premier sound presentation of the Stevenson story also benefited from having been produced in the “pre-code” era, a more liberated time in the history of early cinema.
Mamoulian’s interpretation of the classic story did not involve the more commonly accepted underlying theme of good versus evil, but rather “the primitive, the animalistic versus the spiritual because that’s in all of us, including the saints”, a concept depicted in a combination of horror and Freudian psychology. The director spoke of Hyde as “an animal” that “knows no evil”. As Jekyll gradually became corrupted through the continuation of his experiments, Mr. Hyde likewise became more and more evil, deteriorating with each developmental stage he experienced.
Mamoulian’s version further influenced most future productions of Jekyll and Hyde through the emphasis of the contrasting characters of the two the leading women, Jekyll’s upper-class fiancée, Muriel and Hyde’s promiscuous music hall singer Ivy. While the 1920 film did include both Jekyll’s fiancée and Hyde’s romantic interest, Millicent and Gina respectively, the notion of stressing their differences was never specifically addressed; while Millicent was undoubtedly virtuous, Gina was never particularly portrayed as someone of a baser nature, although the fact that she was a dancer perhaps implied that she was of lower social standing than Millicent; moreover, the Hyde/Gina relationship might be viewed in general as distasteful. In the more liberated era of Hollywood, prior to the 1934 Production Code, director Mamoulian illustrated the barmaid Ivy’s loose morals quite graphically in contrast to the chaste fiancée Muriel; upon her first encounter with Jekyll, after he has rescued her from an attacker on the street and checked her wounds, Ivy performed a playful striptease, ultimately slipping fully nude under the covers of her bed. Actress Miriam Hopkins, who appeared as Ivy, had reportedly actually wanted the part of Jekyll’s fiancée; she found the pivotal character of Ivy too unsympathetic. Ultimately, Mamoulian’s Jekyll and Hyde, with its sexual undercurrent, did not escape the watchful eye of the Production Code; a 1936 reissue saw the film shorn of 15 minutes, reduced from a 97-minute length to an 82-minute running time. The film did not realize a full restoration until the 2004 release on DVD.
Recognized by literary scholars as a motif in Stevenson’s work, the theme of repression featured strongly in the Mamoulian adaptation. With its sober and dignified surface, the repression of the Victorian era, no expressions of emotion orsexual appetites in the public sphere, was woven throughout the 1931 work; the more Jekyll’s forbidden cravings were suppressed, the more he desired the life of Hyde, and the stronger Hyde grows, his evil magnified after months of repression.
Paramount Studios had initially wanted middle-aged character actor Irving Pichel to star in Jekyll and Hyde, a choice to which Mamoulian was opposed. Although agreeing that Pichel would make a wonderful Hyde, the director envisioned a young and handsome Jekyll. Mamoulian pursued a reluctant Fredric March for the eponymous title roles, regarding him a “marvellous actor who also is a very intelligent one” ; to that point in his career, March was considered more a “matinee idol” type, having achieved a huge hit, and eventually an Academy Award nomination, for a wickedly funny parody of John Barrymore in 1930’s The Royal Family of Broadway. The idea of playing a monster, or even an animal in Mamoulian’s term, was not immediately appealing to the star, although the part would ultimately earn March his first Oscar as Best Actor. In a later interview given to Screen Book Magazine, March explained his approach to the dual role:
“I conceived Mr. Hyde as more than just Dr. Jekyll’s inhibited evil nature, I saw the beast as a separate entity – one who could, and almost did, little by little, overpower, and annihilate Dr. Jekyll. And I tried to show the devastating results in Dr. Jekyll as well. To me, those repeated appearances of the beast within him were more than just a mental stain on Jekyll — they crushed him physically as well.”
Rose Hobart and Fredric March (1931) Miriam Hopkins and Fredric March (1931)
1941 Version. Directed by Victor Fleming. Screenplay by John Lee Mahin. Starring Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner. Donald Crisp, Ian Hunter.
While lacking the more candid sexual imagery or inventive camerawork of its 1931 forerunner, director Victor Fleming’s 1941 adaptation of Jekyll and Hyde, from the perspective of the general story line, was essentially a remake of the Mamoulian version of a decade before, albeit not recreated scene-for-scene. An Academy Award winner for his direction of the 1939 landmark film Gone with the Wind, Fleming informed publicists that his adaptation would be a more naturalistic presentation than Mamoulian’s. Nonetheless, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the producing studio of the Fleming film, was evidently concerned about any possible competition from or unfavourable comparison to its Paramount predecessor; having acquired the rights to the 1931 film, MGM consequently suppressed it, succeeding so effectively that the Mamoulian version remained hidden for over twenty-five years, even believed lost, until an abridged print was discovered in 1967.
While both the Mamoulian original and the Fleming remake concerned a Victorian gentleman whose sexual instincts, warped by the puritanical society in which he lived, ultimately took a monstrous form, Fleming’s Jekyll and Hyde, developed under the constraints of the Production Code and produced by the more conservative studio of MGM, eschewed of necessity the more forthright sexual undertone of the Mamoulian version. The progressiveness of Mamoulian’s adaptation, including the views on sex espoused by Dr. Jekyll and the more frank eroticism, were obliterated in the 1941 remake; the Fleming production expressed a greater emphasis on Victorian repression and psychological interpretation. In an early scene, the father of Jekyll’s fiancée Beatrix disdainfully proclaimed “I do wish Harry wouldn’t make such demonstrations of affection in public.” Ivy’s behaviour towards Jekyll in their first encounter was more flirtatious than provocative; Hyde’s later terrorizing of Ivy, demonstrated through constant threats of violence in the 1931 treatment, became an exercise in psychological cruelty, a more subtle horror, and. in its manner, more malicious and calculating, evolving into a sadistic intensity quite unlike the 1931 forerunner.
The eroticism of the Mamoulian presentation did, however, strikingly manifest itself as violence, notably in several fantasy sequences occurring during Jekyll’s transition into Hyde. Not part of the diegetic action of the film, these segments, more extreme than any depiction seen or suggested in the 1931 version, included the whipping, although the actual whip was never shown by order of the Production Code, of Beatrix and Ivy as “horse-women” and an image of Ivy’s laughing head as a champagne cork; visions which would undoubtedly elicit a sexual interpretation from a Freudian analyst.
Envisioned at one point as a vehicle for Robert Donat, Jekyll and Hyde piqued the interest of Spencer Tracy. As the actor explained,
“I had always been fascinated by the story and saw it as a story of the two sides of a man. I felt Jekyll was a very respectable doctor – a fine member of society. He had proposed to a lovely girl and was about to marry her. But there was another side to the man. Every once in a while, Jekyll would go on a trip. Disappear. And either because of drink or dope or who-knows-what, he would become – or should I say turn into? – Mr. Hyde. Then in a town or neighborhood where he was totally unknown, he would perform incredible acts of cruelty and vulgarity. [. . .] The girl, as his fiancée, is a proper lady. But as his fantasy whore, the girl matched his Mr. Hyde. She would be capable of the lowest behavior. The two girls would be played by the same actress [some sources have indicated Katharine Hepburn, whom Tracy had not yet met, was a consideration]; the two men would be me.”
Apparently originally tested as good-girl Beatrix, Jekyll’s fiancée and the ingenue of the narrative, Ingrid Bergman, “fed up” playing such roles, approached director Fleming and producer Victor Saville with the idea of performing the part of the more promiscuous Ivy. The legend that Bergman and co-star Lana Turner “swapped” roles was exactly that, a piece of Hollywood folklore. The part of Beatrix had been initially announced for Laraine Day, who ultimately bowed out of the project; Turner was cast in the role only one day before shooting of the film began.
Even with the Mamoulian film safely out of the way, the 1941 Jekyll and Hyde did not generally compare favourably with its 1931 counterpart. Mamoulian’s earlier version has been deemed over the years to be a masterpiece; in his contemporary review in The New York Times critic Mordaunt Hall hailed the presentation as “a far more tense and shuddering affair than it was as John Barrymore’s silent picture. [. . .] Fredric March is the stellar performer in this blood-curdling shadow venture.” A decade later the same publication dismissed Fleming’s more cerebral approach to horror as a “preposterous mixture of hokum and high-flown psychological balderdash”. Although praising the Bergman performance, an issue of Hollywood observed “While Spencer Tracy does a grand job in his dual role, his Mr. Hyde is inclined to be more humorous than terrifying.” Modern Screen described Jekyll and Hyde as “funniest when apparently it is trying to be most serious and never so routine as when it is trying hardest to be different.”
In fairness, critical reviews of the 1941 Jekyll and Hyde were not consistently negative. After a preview showing of the film in late July 1941, prior to the August 12, 1941 premiere in New York City, the trades paper Variety, while noting “The promise, however, of something superlative in film making, in the combination of the star, the Robert Louis Stevenson classic and Victor Fleming’s direction, is not completely fulfilled”, did acknowledge “Nevertheless, it has its highly effective moments, and Tracy plays the dual roles with conviction. [. . .] Jekyll may be put down as one of the big ones for fall release.”.
Despite any adverse or lacklustre critical reaction, Fleming’s Jekyll and Hyde appeared to have enjoyed a modest financial success with the movie-going public; domestic and foreign box office returns totalled approximately $1,211,000. Nor was the 1941 production overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences; while not a recipient of any prize, Academy Award nominations were earned in the categories of Best Black-and-White Cinematography, Best Film Editing, and Best Musical Scoring of a Dramatic Picture.
The Face Of Evil
“He is not easy to describe. There is something wrong with his appearance; something displeasing, something downright detestable. I never saw a man I so disliked, and yet I scarce know why. He must be deformed somewhere; he gives a strong feeling of deformity, although I couldn’t specify the point. He’s an extraordinary-looking man, and yet I really can name nothing out of the way. No, sir; I can make no hand of it; I can’t describe him. And it’s not want of memory; for I declare I can see him this moment.”
– Stevenson’s description of Edward Hyde, as expressed by the character Richard Enfield
As depicted in the Stevenson novella, the evil of Mr. Hyde was seemingly portrayed only in his sickly smile; while he bore a definite malevolent countenance, Hyde was substantially “human” in appearance. In the 1887 stage production actor Richard Mansfield, co-author of the play, performed Hyde with a change of expression but no make-up. The cinematic Hyde has been presented in a number of ways, all of which emphasize, to a greater or lesser degree, a very visible, physical illustration of horror.
Barrymore’s 1920 personification of Hyde was first produced through facial distortion; make-up was then applied to create the image of an obscene, corrupt monster, his lank locks falling from a peaked head. A masterful characterization of the embodiment of horror, Hyde’s heinous persona was underscored by a slinking, hunching gait; as was later the case with March and Tracy, the physical ugliness of Hyde stood in stark contrast with the naturally handsome visages of the three actors.
In keeping with director Mamoulian’s concept of a more bestial Hyde, actor March’s 1931 physical portrayal of the evil character was the most unrealistic in human terms, and the furthest from the original Stevenson description; Hyde’s simian appearance was more Neanderthal than modern homo sapien in nature. Application of the make-up was an arduous task, a process demanding up to four hours; makeup artist Wally Westmore drew many sketches in consultation with March, ultimately creating a plaster mold of the actor’s face to spare March gruelling hours in a makeup chair. The device needed a sufficient level of comfort to allow March to wear it for prolonged periods of time, without impeding the actor’s ability to speak clearly. Developing the animal-like fangs proved most difficult; March was required to sit for hours as a dentist made necessary adjustments to the dental work. The end result of these laborious efforts were perfect; the final makeup combined both the sub-human and satanic aspects of the character.
Tracy, in his 1941 portrayal, originally had the idea of doing the transformations from Jekyll to Hyde entirely without makeup; as the actor noted “The change was not essentially physical. It went deeper than that. It was his soul that turned black.” In late December 1940 the actor filmed an unsuccessful makeup-free test of the initial transformation scene as scripted by screenwriter John Lee Mahin. Despite ultimately agreeing to use makeup, Tracy’s depiction was closest to Stevenson’s description of the detestable Hyde; although the face bore an unmistakably dark, venomous look, it still retained a human appearance.
The general concept of the Jekyll and Hyde story, the notion of good and evil shared by one physical body, and presented as a mesmerizing horror narrative, has never stopped fascinating the public. Stevenson’s literary work has never gone out-of-print, and has served to date as the underlying source for no less than thirty film adaptations, some comedic or exploitative, thirteen stage presentations, and seventeen television productions. With its many layers, Stevenson’s chef-d’œuvre can be appreciated on numerous levels; exploration of the various themes and motifs invite literary or philosophical analysis, or a reader may simply choose the book as a chilling midnight treat.
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