Friday, September 5, 2008

Two Movies About Jekyll and Hyde

The story of Jekyll & Hyde would best be experienced without any prior knowledge whatsoever. This is a feat which, for lack of this writer's education, would be akin not to acknowledging the audience's knowledge that Batman is Bruce Wayne. You know, like Begins did.

The 1920 Dr. Jekyll & Mr Hyde is one of the first horror movies ever made, alongside the German landmarks of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Golem that same year. As an American production J&H precedes Nosferatu, The Man Who Laughs and Lon Chaney's portrayal of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

Charles Laughton's muted intensity was the original horror star role for thespians and the story would be remade on film again in 1931 when Karloff and Lugosi respectfully immortalized Frankenstein and Dracula. Jekyll is neglected as an archetypical monster. What actor doesn't relish the chance to embody a transformation from good to evil? The theatrical production was arrived on the stage of London within a year of the original story's publication and lives as a mainstay of

Granted, Jekyll & Hyde is/are not the icon(s) that Frankie and Drac became but he/they share literary pedigree and they keep making the same movie about him/them even if they don't make money, from Dr Jekyll & Mrs Hyde to Mary Reilly. Who can forget Martin Landau (as Bela Lugosi)'s exclamation in Ed Wood that he's always wanted to play Jekyll & Hyde, when Ed is in fact pitching him a story of transvestism? Duality and flip-sides are basic building blocks of melodrama. The Jungian thing, sir. Okay, and the added benefit of public domain. JEKYLL. HYDE. THIS TIME THEY'RE COPS.

Robert Louis Stevenson's original 1886 novella had the benefit of creating the damn story and leaving the revelation that Jekyll-is-Hyde until the final chapters. The main characters are Jekyll's friends, who wonder about his increasingly paranoid isolation and the mysterious provision in his will for one Mr Edward Hyde - who has recently appeared in town and made a name for himself as a total scoundrel. What could the good and respectable Dr Jekyll have to do with such a man....?

Well, we all know that by now. So it comes as little surprise that the major adaptations of the story to film are exercises in creative rearrangement. Stevenson's accounts of Hyde are chilling primarily in the continual observations from various characters that to merely see the face of Hyde is to view the face of absolute wickedness - that his cruelty is so manifest in his person it contorts his very features. This goes a long way in conveying Hyde's evil, since Stevenson is conspicuously chaste in describing Hyde's deeds. There's an incident of child abuse early on, and then he punches some woman on the street towards the very end...was this as much sin as Victorian-era Stevenson was comfortable describing?

Given that the theme of repression is paramount, Hyde's uninhibited contrasts to Jekyll deserve far more fleshing out. The films' most interesting creative choices reside there and in Hyde's appearance.

In 1920, John Barrymore essentially plays Hyde as Nosferatu - elongated putty chin and nose (and head, revealed eventually) - before there was one. He creeps and slinks like a vampire and his M.O. is made manifest in the plotline of a beautiful Italian (read: exotic and slatternly) dance hall girl. Prior to Jekyll's invention, his friends take him out to the 1880s version of Hooters to see a little uncovered knee action, where he meets the lovely girl and his inhibition prevents him from getting his freak on. As Hyde he pursues her, while alter-ego Jekyll placates his lovely fiance.

This makes such illustrative dramatic sense that Spencer Tracey does the same thing in 1941, only without the fright makeup. According to IMDB trivia Tracey suggested to producers a realistic take on the story, wherein Jekyll would be driven to Hyde-like activities through drugs and alcohol in the parts of London where he'd be anonymous. Tracey wound up still drinking the magic potion, but not without the decision to wear little-to-no-makeup at all, to the films' detriment. It's really hard to believe no one can tell them apart; Jekyll's face is only a little contorted, his eyes only a little wilder, some fake choppers in his puss...

Lana Turner basically has nothing to do in that version as Jekyll's "good girl" fiance, while Ingrid Bergman gets to deal with Hyde. Those are actually the best scenes in the film, since Tracey's Hyde is principally after destroying her psychologically before the physical ravishing. Being a talkie goes a long way in articulating Jekyll's desires, though never quite as well Stevenson did. There is also the annoying addition of a priest, whose simple pronouncements about good and evil are a lazy shorthand for setting up Jekyll's central conflict. Victor Fleming's direction lends a nice rhythm to the proceedings, especially the laboratory montages.

The romantic element, entirely absent from the novella, remains with us in J&H's legacy through Jerry Lewis' The Nutty Professor and its imitators, including the Eddie Murphy remake - the idea of a nerd who invents a potion for transformation in a ladies' man is a gentler version of the story, including the novella's third act twist wherein the transformations start occurring uncontrollably.

I have a feeling the 1931 version is the happy middle in all this, for the balance of a frightful lustful Hyde and tortured Jekyll. Neither of its filmic bookends elaborate the doctor's original mission, to distill not only the evil in himself but the good - an alchemic allegory for adaptation. Mary Reilly may even be the version that best captures a sense of mystery, the main character being one of his unwitting house servants.

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