Here’s my latest IN THE SPOOKLIGHT column, published in this month’s HORROR WRITERS ASSOCATION NEWSLETTER, on the Spencer Tracy classic, DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941).
IN THE SPOOKLIGHT
Can this be evil?
Mr. Hyde asks this question upon seeing himself in the mirror in the 1941 version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, starring Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman, my favorite film adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novel.
Sure, I admit that by the slightest of margins, the 1931 version starring Fredric March is the better film. You can’t beat March’s performance (he won an Academy Award for Best Actor), it has the superior make-up job by Wally Westmore, and features some nifty camerawork and very creative direction by Rouben Mamoulian.
But the 1941 version so successfully captures the essence of evil, that in spite of its lavish handsome production values, there’s something all very ugly and sinister about it.
Evil I know your name, and in the 1941 version, its name is Spencer Tracy.
Spencer Tracy is brilliant as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. His Mr. Hyde is so wicked and depraved, you almost feel as if you need a hot shower afterwards to wash off the debauchery.
The energetic and sadistic Hyde seems to relish this ugliness, smiling and feeling good about himself. It’s an unsettling performance made even more impressive by the fact that in this version the make-up on Hyde is minimal. It relies mostly on Tracy’s performance, and he doesn’t disappoint.
Tracy also creates a strong, likeable Dr. Jekyll. There’s a heroic quality to Tracy’s Jekyll that makes him an admirable and effective lead character. There’s every reason to believe that Tracy’s Jekyll will be the hero here and defeat the nefarious Mr. Hyde. Of course, this isn’t the case, which makes the plot of this one all the more tragic.
Dr. Jekyll (Spencer Tracy) believes that people have both a good and an evil side, and that when an imbalance occurs, and the evil side wins out, problems arise. He believes he can treat mental illness by isolating a person’s dark side, and then suppressing it, in effect curing the unstable patient of his demons. As heroic and thoughtful a man as Dr. Jekyll is, this theory is largely moralistic and seems as far removed from science as a priest’s sermon. Maybe Dr. Jekyll should have been Reverend Jekyll.
Jekyll is engaged to Beatrix Emery (Lana Turner), but her pompous well-to-do father Sir Charles Emery (Donald Crisp) disapproves of Jekyll’s controversial ideas, and so he refuses to give his permission for his daughter to marry the young doctor. In fact, he so disapproves he takes Beatrix away on a trip for a while, leaving Jekyll angry and frustrated.
What’s a good doctor to do with all this extra free time? Well, work more of course. He performs his experiment on himself, and thus Mr. Hyde is born. No harm done of course, because Mr. Hyde remains in the lab, but later, when Jekyll’s loyal servant encourages him to go out and have some fun, to take in a rather risqué show, Jekyll says no, that it wouldn’t be a wise decision. But it would be okay for Mr. Hyde to go. You can see this thought process work its way across Tracy’s face.
Mr. Hyde takes in the show, and it’s here where he introduces himself to young Ivy Peterson (Ingrid Bergman). Earlier, Dr. Jekyll had rescued Ivy from a ruffian, and he had accompanied her back to her apartment. There, she doesn’t realize he’s a doctor and thinks he’s making a pass at her when he asks to examine her. It’s a sexually charged scene, but Jekyll, engaged to Beatrix, knows this relationship can go nowhere.
But as Hyde, such is not the case. Hyde can pursue a relationship with Ivy. And thus begins the demented relationship between Hyde and Ivy, as Hyde torments Ivy to no end. He tortures her psychologically and physically. These scenes are excruciating to watch, especially since Hyde seems to be enjoying it all.
Later, when Ivy visits Dr. Jekyll for help, in one of the movie’s most poignant scenes, Jekyll promises her that Hyde will never bother her again. And he fully intends to keep this promise. However, Hyde has become so strong, that even against Jekyll’s will, he will surface again to continue his reign of terror on Ivy and anyone else who gets in his way.
Ingrid Bergman is also excellent as Ivy. When we first meet her, she is a strong-willed and assertive young woman, but once Hyde has his way with her, she’s reduced to a trembling, terrified victim who feels trapped and powerless.
This is one of the strongest parts of this version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, the relationship between Hyde and Ivy. Hyde breaks Ivy, enjoys breaking Ivy, and the process is so well-played by both actors, the level of discomfort so high, at times, you just want to shut the film off.
Director Victor Fleming, most famous today for directing both THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939) and GONE WITH THE WIND (1939) in the same year, gives DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE a grand epic feel.
The film also features a powerful music score by Franz Waxman. It was nominated for an Academy Award but lost out to Bernard Herrmann’s score for THE DEVIL AND DANIEL WEBSTER (1941).
John Lee Mahin’s screenplay plays up the dangers of repression. Dr. Jekyll seems to value his new potion more for its ability to give him access to forbidden pleasures than for its ability to help others. The film seems to be making the argument that if not for the repressions of proper society, the dark side of humanity wouldn’t exist. In other words, if people were allowed to indulge in a little “bad” behavior now and then, they’d feel better and wouldn’t go down the road to debauchery.
So, as evil as Hyde is in this movie, we understand why Jekyll creates him. Late in the film, when Hyde beats Sir Charles Emery, the snobbish father-in-law, we know that it’s really Jekyll slamming that cane into the man’s head, and strangely we don’t feel so bad about it.
Of course, we feel differently about the way he treats Ivy. To think that a man like Hyde, potion or no potion, could treat another human being the way he treats Ivy is maddening, mostly because it comes off as real. People treat others far worse without evil elixirs, and it’s this part of the film that resonates so sharply. DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is certainly not a date movie.
Mahin would go on to write the screenplay for another genre classic, THE BAD SEED (1956).
Spencer Tracy delivers one of the all-time great acting performances in a horror movie in DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. He nearly does the impossible when he convinces us that someone as evil as Hyde could really come from someone as heroic as Jekyll. Even the good guys have their dark side. It’s a marvelous performance.
And yet we hardly ever hear of Spencer Tracy’s performance as Mr. Hyde, which is too bad, because it’s one of the best.
Can this be evil?