DR. JEKYLL AND MR.
Horror has pretty much come to be looked upon as the bastard child of the motion picture industry. Although always profitable, folks no longer seem to want to give the horror genre its due- I guess they must have forgotten what horror did for Universal in the 1930, and there might not have been THE LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy, had it not been for The House That Freddy Built (aka New Line Cinema and their A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series). However, once upon a time horror really did have some credibility in the motion picture community with the 1931 version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE earning Fredric March an Academy Award for Best Actor, not mention additional nominations for adapted screenplay and cinematography. Fortunately for horror fans, March’s Oscar winning performance has been digitally preserved on Warner’s DVD release of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE ($20), a disc that also includes the 1941 Spencer Tracy remake.
Directed by Rouben Mamoulian, this version of the often-filmed Robert Louis Stevenson proves to be one of the visually interesting and intelligent adaptations. Also, this pre-code horror classic is steeped in a sense of sexuality that made it one of most realistic and amoral depictions of the base nature of the human animal, especially when the façade of Victorian propriety is stripped away from the title character. The plot of 1931’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE finds Dr. Henry Jekyll (March) expounding the theory that man has a dual nature- a good side and a bad side- with Jekyll himself having a great deal of difficulty repressing his darker lustful side around his fiancée Muriel (Rose Hobart).
Through chemical experimentation Jekyll hopes to free men from their darker nature, but his formula gives rise to an uninhibited alter ego dubbed Mr. Hyde. Hyde has a shocking, almost Neanderthal appearance, which once freed of Victorian conventions, begins an illicit and increasingly violent tryst with Ivy Pearson (Miriam Hopkins), a streetwalker, who once tried to seduce Dr. Jekyll. Although Fredric March’s restrained and unrestrained performances as Jekyll and Hyde earned him a much-deserved Oscar, Miriam Hopkins’ earthy turn as a woman of easy virtue (whose plight turns ever more tragic) proves to be every bit as good as March. The cast of 1931’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE also includes Holmes Herbert, Halliwell Hobbes, Edgar Norton and Tempe Pigott. For those unfamiliar with the history of 1931’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE, the film was originally produced by Paramount, but then it was purchased by MGM who remade it in 1941. Sadly, this version ended up only buried in the vaults for quite some time, and also had its pre-code sexuality and violence eviscerated, over the years. However, for this release, Warner has assembled the most complete version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE we are likely to see.
Warner Home Video has made 1931’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE available on DVD in a nice looking black and white transfer that frames the film in its proper 1.37:1 full screen aspect ratio. This is a seventy plus year old film, so the presentation isn’t perfect, but for the most part, it is quite pleasing. Although there are some scratches, blemishes and other minor signs of damage, the film elements are in generally good shape. The image itself usually appears is fairly sharp and reasonably well defined. There is some softness here and there, but it is never too bad. Blacks are clean, whites appear stable and contrast is good. While film grain is noticeable throughout, it never becomes excessive. Digital compression artifacts are never a cause for concern. The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack is quite respectable for a vintage film, with little background hiss or other audible anomalies. Fidelity is a bit thin, but never too bad, and the dialogue is well rendered.
The 1941 version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is quite lavish and glossy; benefiting from everything that the MGM dream factory could bring to the table. Perhaps that is the film’s biggest problem, it’s too glossy, when it should be far grittier than MGM’s high caliber production values. Additionally, while there are similarities to the 1931 adaptation of the Stevenson story, director Victor Fleming and leading man Spencer Tracy make this DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE a rather different animal. All the overt sexuality and violence have been toned down considerably for this version, with the central character losing much of the bite he had when Fredric March portrayed Hyde. Not to mention, Tracy’s Hyde makeup is far more human in appearance, and as such is fare less frightening.
Also, Tracy’s Hyde seems more of a drunken lout on a violent bender than the dangerous subhuman animal that March became in the previous film. Tracy carries off the nastiness of the Hyde character convincingly, but the level of menace that March brought to the role is decidedly lacking in the interpretation. I think Ingrid Bergman was an interesting, but not wholly successful choice for the film’s bad girl role. Bergman certainly embodies the tragic qualities of the character quite well, but isn’t quite convincing establishing Ivy as the lower class barmaid that captures Hyde’s interest. While Lana Turner is absolutely gorgeous and picture perfect as Dr. Jekyll’s fiancée Beatrix, I think she could played the trashy barmaid role with a lot more ease than Bergman. The cast of the 1941 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE also includes Donald Crisp, Ian Hunter, Barton MacLane and C. Aubrey Smith.
1941’s DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE looks far better than its predecessor, with this beautiful black and white film surviving the decades with fewer signs of age. Joseph Ruttenberg’s Oscar nominated black and white cinematography has been beautifully transferred with all of its gloss and sheen intact. The image appears crisp and produces terrific definition, which brings of the splendor of the costumes and production design. Blacks are velvety, whites are clean and contrast is excellent. The film elements are very clean and free from the signs of age one would expect from a sixty plus year old film. The Dolby Digital monaural soundtrack is in excellent shape for its age, with almost no background hiss or other audible anomalies. Fidelity has the expected limitations, but Franz Waxman’s score remains quite pleasing. No other language tracks are provided for either film, but both feature English, French and Spanish subtitles.
Music underscores the interactive menus on both films, each of which are presented on a separate side of the DVD. Through the menus for both films once has access to the standard scene selection and set up features, as well as a few extras. The main extra is a running audio commentary for the 1931 version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE featuring film historian Greg Mank. Mank’s talk proves to be scholarly and very detail, but it is also very accessible and quite enjoyable, thus making it something that every fan and film buff will want to listen to. Also included on the disc is the 1955 Looney Tunes short Hyde And Hare, in which Bugs Bunny finds himself the guest of Dr. Jekyll and his ghoulish alter ego. A theatrical trailer for the 1941 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE closes out the extras.
The 1931 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE is a true horror classic from back in the days when the genre had a chance at some genuine respect. Warner has done a very good job with the presentation of this classic, and an even better job with the 1941 version of the story. If you are a genre fan or film buff, this is a DVD you will want to add to your collection. Very highly recommended.
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