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Wednesday, August 11, 2010

TAKE ONE, TWO, THREE...: The Three Faces of Ev-il...

When Tony Curtis was released from the US Navy at the end of WWII, the 20-year-old was determined to pursue his dreams of acting. After learning that there were some openings at the Dramatic Workshop, where he would be acting alongside soon-to-be-legends like Walter Matthau, Harry Belafonte, and Bea Arthur, Tony was ready and raring to go. The only problem? He would have to audition to be accepted. Because he was too nervous to perform a scene with dialogue, Tony opted to re-enact the great metamorphosis scene of Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. This, in addition to the compelling light and dark sides of Mr. Curtis's own nature, served as my inspiration for this week's post.

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The story of and legend of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has been retold in many different ways and many different mediums. In cinema alone, the list of films that have been directly adapted from Stevenson's original novel are countless-- from Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde. Though the tale being repeated ad nauseum should have expectedly grow cold by now, just as the evolving mythology of the vampire continues to peak our interest, this horror story keeps going strong. The themes of good and evil, human versus animal, and cerebral versus sexual, remain relatable topics. Sex sells, now more than ever. However, it was in the past that it presented itself more seductively, more interestingly, and more violently. In time periods of more strict moral behavior, and more stringent cinematic codes,  filmmakers had to be very crafty to divulge all of the facets and dangers of suppressed human sexuality with honesty and without suffering from the censors' scissors.

Watching the following three adaptations, it is interesting to witness what the audiences of the times must have: the slow unfolding of hidden yearnings, the unleashing of one's inner beast, the acknowledgment of those thoughts, feelings, and compulsions a proper, puritanical society teaches us to suppress. Witnessing the metamorphosis onscreen must have come like a rush; a welcome release and catharsis on a society ready for change, indulgence, and ecstasy. However, the horror too remains. The horror of what it is to look at the baser nature of ourselves and recognize only a monster-- one that lives within all of us, and one that we must constantly seek to control. Heavy duty stuff, but sometimes it is only through the most extravagant means that we see the clearest truths.

Below I briefly discuss the J and H films of 1920, 1931, and 1941. Instead of recapping the varying plot-lines, which are essentially exactly the same, I shall point out the ways each film manages to distinguish itself and the essential factor within each film that makes it unique. All of them are superb, and all should be seen, if only to compare the different interpretations of presentation and performance, but in the three following categories, each movie takes a turn standing above the others and holding its own: The Doc, The Women, and The Film.


It probably comes as no surprise that one of the most lauded thespians in American history should hold the title for one of the greatest performances of all time. Despite the fact that Fredric March took home the Academy Award in 1941 for his performance of the good/bad doctor, it is John Barrymore's interpretation of the scientist-gone-mad that maintains a well-deserved notoriety. Barrymore (left in "Hamlet" in 1922) was the perfect man to cast in the role of the intelligent and innocent doctor who is slowly manipulated onto the path of darkness. For one, his reputation as a great male beauty, aka The Great Profile, made his transformation into a gruesome, egg-headed monster even more horrific. To see John in his prime-- young and fresh, before alcohol and ravaged his mind and body-- gives you a better idea of why the ladies had such great affection for the man who was Beau Brummel. More importantly, the Barrymore legend of acting talent is no overstatement. This guy is good. There is a reason that he, his brother Lionel, and his sister Ethel, were so revered in their time. "Pretty," Johnny may have been, but he wasn't afraid to get ugly, and the self-same torments and demons he possessed within his soul, which plagued him his whole life and drove him to self destruction, he equally wore proudly on any stage. He never failed to rip himself open and martyr himself before movie cameras at his most demented, pathetic, and destroyed. Inside all genius, there is madness, and it is precisely John's gifted madness that made his work on the 1920 film so breathtaking.

To this day, John's initial transformation scene of Dr. Jekyll to Mr. Hyde is a moment that every actor remains enthralled by. The main reason is that no makeup is used. The cameras role without stopping, there are no special effects, it is simply John, clutching his throat, crumpling in agony, disappearing below his counter, and arising a totally different animal. He pulls a Lon Chaney, but without a makeup bag. The effect is astounding, mesmerizing, and terrifying. This one, uninterrupted moment more fully communicates how simple it is for all of us to give in to our own private monster-- how closely he lives beneath our skin. John does not disappoint for the rest of the film in his characterization, though he does have a little help from the makeup department as the story progresses. His Mr. Hyde (right) is diabolically sinister and physically repulsive. Whereas in Rouben Mamoulian's '31 version, Fredric March's Hyde is interpreted as primitive and ape-like-- a throw-back to our inner-caveman-- and the Victor Fleming '41 version gives us a Spencer Tracy with mad, emphasized eyes and teeth, John's Hyde is somewhat of a conundrum. His elongated, egg-domed head protrudes under a greasy mat of gnarled hair, and his hunched walk resembles a slinking, twitching insect. Indeed, when the transition begins to overtake him in a later scene, a tarantula is seen, super-imposed, closing in on his bewitched and transfixed body. The fact that his appearance is so inexplicable makes the terrorizing of his chosen victim Gina, the always superb vixen Nita Naldi, all the more repellent and despicable. 

While Fredric and Spencer both deserve kudos for what they brought to their characterizations, they can't touch Barrymore on this one. So, if it is the performance of the Doc you are most looking for, reach for 1920. You won't be sorry. Just scared!


The casting of the women was a very important part of all three films. In casting the dancing girl/prostitute Ivy (or Gina as she was in the 1920 version), a girl had to be chosen whose overt sexuality could penetrate and disturb even the most self-controlled and moral of men. She had to be the epitome of desire, provoking and drawing forth a lust for which the doctor would purposely concoct a potion to release. But too, the actress needed to evoke sympathy from the audience, for the burden of being an object of insane desire becomes a punishment that eventually kills her. It's the old "hooker with a heart of gold" scenario-- no lady of the night was born on the street. The choice to use the sexy and scintillating Nita Naldi as John's counterpart, Gina, (I'm wondering if the writer cleverly left the va- off the beginning of that one) is no shocker. Nita was the epitome of feminine sexual danger at the time. Miriam Hopkins (left) as Ivy in the '31 version is also something to behold. In fact, her initial meeting with the as yet untainted Dr. Jekyll, when she tries to seduce him in her bedroom, is still quite jaw-dropping. When she raises her skirt and places his hand on her leg, it makes one hot under the collar even decades later. Miriam was a fascinating and truly gifted actress, too often forgotten among her contemporaries. It was just this type of envelope-pushing role, which deviated from the normal expectations of chastity and womanhood, that made her all the rage in the pre-code era. (If you get the chance to see her in The Story of Temple Drake or Design for Living, take it).

However, it is 1941 that wins the award for the superb exploration of the temptations of female sexuality. Not only did he cast the gloriously tragic and inhumanly beautiful Ingrid Bergman as Jekyll's temptation, Ivy, but Fleming also cast hot to trot Ms. Lana Turner as his luscious fiance, Beatrix (both right with Spence). At first, you may think that Fleming got these roles reversed-- that Ingrid would have served the film better in the prim and lovely fiance-next-door role, and the effortlessly sexy Turner should have been the target of Hyde's passion. This too is what I believed at first, but somehow the unexpected decision works. It is precisely Jekyll's repressed desire for his beautiful fiance Lana that fuels his need to make the sensual and vulnerable Ingrid his prey. In fact, the two women resemble each other greatly in the film. Neither of them have ever looked so gorgeous. With long, curly hair, soft lips, and ripe figures, they are practically interchangeable. The naive and youthful innocence of Lana, whom Spencer's Jekyll must be chomping at the bit to wed and bed, bears little difference from Ingrid's interpretation of Ivy-- except the price of sharing Ivy's bed is much cheaper than a wedding ring. In this version, Jekyll gets the girl of his dreams the right way, and Hyde gets the girl of his dreams the wrong way. The fantasy sequence in which Jekyll envisions himself as Hyde, driving a chariot pulled by these two women-- naked nonetheless-- speaks volumes. He sadistically lashes at them with his whip, urging them to go faster and faster in a physical representation of man's ultimate orgasm- the final unity of the Madonna and the Whore.

The Sadistic Dream Sequence

So, if it's the ladies you want to look at, turn your peepers to Victor Fleming's 1941 version. Ingrid Bergman is her usual magnificent, multi-layered self, giving great depth and pathos to her role of the broken woman, and Lana, whom I think is often underrated for her talents, is equally intriguing and sensitive in her portrayal of the suffering fiance.


As you have probably guessed, the final trophy goes to Rouben Mamoulian for his adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1931. Despite the triumphs of both the silent and '41 versions, Mamoulian's direction of the middle film is both technically and narratively the most intriguing. A very smart move on his part, in order to better meld his audience with the protagonist/antagonist he created a series of point-of-view shots. When Jekyll (Fredric March) sits with his fiance Muriel (Rose Hobart) on a bench (left), we get direct to camera close-ups of both faces, which are smoldering with desire. As Muriel looks out at the audience enticingly, we more fully understand the lust churning in Jekyll's loins, which he is obviously struggling to keep suppressed. But she too is a mammalian creature, who yearns for her chaste lover as much as he yearns for her. The countdown to the wedding day thus becomes painfully long and unbearable, and the viewer is totally on Jekyll's side when he decides to indulge in his hidden animal, unleash the beast, and make Miriam Hopkins's sultry Ivy his unwitting prey. These POV shots become equally compelling once Jekyll becomes Hyde, seeing himself for the first time and living as him for the first time. Again, the audience moves with the camera, walking heavily in the shoes of their own dark and devious natures. It makes the film both thrilling and horrifying in that we are forced to personalize the experience.

The makeup used for Fredric is also unique. While at first he seems just plain ridiculous, looking like a goofy monkey and in no way passable as human, his appearance serves a purpose. It seems hard to buy that any woman, prostitute or not, would sleep with a being so obviously ape-like, and we have to use suspension of disbelief when Miriam is raped by the monster much more than we have to with the equally hideous portrayals of Barrymore and Tracy. I mean, this is just plain bestiality! But, that is Mamoulian's point. By tapping into suppressed desires and caged violent tendencies, Jekyll is getting in touch with his most animal, ungoverned, and unevolved self. His primate features recall that of the caveman, or perhaps even the missing link, who did not woo with wine and roses but simply clubbed a female over the head and had his way with her guilt-free. While modern man is sophisticated in ways of the heart, while he can love, feel pity, relate to other creatures, Mamoulian suggests that the baser nature remaining deep at our core can not, or rather will not, do the same. The absence of responsibility and emotion, existence based purely on the instant satisfaction of the "id," is the closest man can get to freedom. But, as the film points out, he must sacrifice his humanity to get it.

What finally makes this version a bit superior to the others is the fact that it was made at the right time. The years 1930-1934 were a very rich and enticing, albeit brief, period of film-making before the production code was enforced and the censors (via Will Hays and Joe Breen) went haywire. Stories were bolder, dialogue was more risque, and it was the last dance of the freewheeling twenties before the depression set in with full force. Thus, the themes of sex and violence are more freely explored, expressed, and enlarged upon than in the other two versions. With a little more wiggle room, Mamoulian was allowed the ability to go further than Fleming and silent director John S. Robertson had. The effects remain impressive as well, with Fredric March's transformation realistically being implied through a compilation of shadowing and the brilliant, twisted elasticity of his face.

Jekyll, regretting his decision!

In the end, it is hard to go wrong with the tried and true story lines of our horror history. Despite their macabre and frightening nature, we still look forward to witnessing new visualizations of old nightmares in every generation... possibly even every other week. It's like meeting an old friend. The beauty of J and H, in addition to other horror flicks, seems to be that it allows us to live vicariously through the malevolence of others, exorcising our own less savory compulsions and even letting go of pent up fears. Any of the previously mentioned versions deserve a gander and will allow you for a while to indulge in your inner Hyde while safely returning to your (I hope) more peaceable Jekyll side afterward. It's nice to know, after all, that when you just can't hide your Hyde anymore, you can always pop in an old video and let him out again.