Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941)

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*. Horror and sex. The two went together long before the dead teenager genre. Sex has always been a force to be feared, especially in film. Nearly every movie monster is out to get some: from Dracula, who already has a harem of succubi, chasing after Lucy, to King Kong breaking down walls to get to Fay Wray, the Creature of the Black Lagoon falling for Julie Adams (well, who wouldn’t?), and on and on.
*. Is this just an obsession of the movies? This version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is outrageously sexy (I’ll get to some of the details later), but Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel isn’t. In fact, there are no women in the novel at all. Mr. Hyde is a brute, but his only crimes (at least that we hear of) are his trampling a kid in the street and beating an old man to death. The beast within isn’t an unleashed id, but just a violent psychopath.
*. Director Victor Fleming’s take on the old story is something quite different. Spencer Tracy is introduced to us as a sexually wired guy. The crazy man in the church identifies with him immediately and calls him “bull-blooded.” Later, Tracey adopts this designation and likens himself to a bull in a china shop. And even in the presence of his fiancée’s father he can’t help nibbling on her fingers. This man is hungry. He certainly doesn’t have any scruples when it comes to a brief dalliance that includes some playful undressing with a girl like Ingrid Bergman. We may well doubt his insistence that he was in control of the situation throughout.

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*. Then, of course, there is the fetish angle. Probably the most famous scene in this film comes in the first dream sequence, a tire fire of Jekyll’s libido that has Tracy whipping Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner as a pair of naked pony girls.
*. In case you haven’t seen the movie, I will assure you I’m not kidding, and repeat: Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner appear as a team of pony girls. How did that make it past the censors?
*. And this isn’t the only bit of over-the-top sexuality. Bergman seduces Dr. Jekyll by taking off her garter and stocking, a garter that he fears may be on too tight and that he pockets and takes home with him. In the second dream sequence Bergman becomes the cork in a champagne bottle that is screwed into and then released with a triumphant pop and surge of bubbly (I have to insist again that I’m not making this up!). We also learn that Bergman is whipped by Hyde when she becomes his concubine.

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*. The first time I saw this movie I was puzzled by the casting against type. Surely Bergman should be the good girl/fiancée and Turner the fallen seductress? And the story goes that this is the way it was supposed to be, but Bergman was tired of being good girls and asked that the roles be reversed. Whether this is true or not, however, is still debated.
*. I think the change, if it was a change, sort of works. Bergman isn’t convincing at all as the b-girl (one assumes she is an immigrant from somewhere, maybe France), but she does a good victim. Turner, meanwhile, just doesn’t look right in period dress.
*. Tracy’s performance is similarly mixed. He’s fine as the troubled and repressed Dr. Jekyll, but his Mr. Hyde is only a sleazy, bug-eyed loser with unkempt eyebrows and dirty teeth. He’s not even particularly threatening or violent. He gets his kicks out of tripping people, poking them or pushing them from behind, or abusing women and engaging in domestic cruelty. In the event, Tracy’s performance was widely panned. The New York Times found him “more ludicrous than dreadful.”
*. Victor Fleming was one of those guys I like to think of as engineers rather than directors. Producers could feel comfortable putting him in charge of big, bothersome projects like The Wizard of Oz or Gone With the Wind. But he had little in the way of a personal style (contemporary examples of the type would include names like James Cameron and Peter Jackson). This movie needed more humanity. There’s fog and gas lamps, but no atmosphere. And while I don’t mind Hyde’s minimal make-up, the transformation scenes are weak, being just a series of superimposed dissolves. How his hair goes from an unruly mop as Hyde to perfectly coiffed as Jekyll is anybody’s guess.
*. I wonder what was in that smoking beaker that Jekyll/Hyde drinks to effect his transformations. I can’t think of many beverages I’d want to drink that give off stage vapours like that.

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