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Friday, October 31, 2014

31 DAYS OF HORROR 2014-Day 31: DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (1941)

Mr. Hyde (Spencer Tracy) turns Ivy's (Ingrid Bergman) life into an abusive living hell.

One of the drawbacks to being addicted to scary movies when one is a kid is that while devouring such fare by the metric ton at a tender age, sometimes some great stuff might not seem to be all that because of the viewer's youth and lack of life experience. As a kid I watched horror movies for monsters, gore, violence, pretty girls, and whatever other lurid content I could garner from films that more often than not had been edited for TV. The genre's deeper aspirations and examination of the human condition meant less to me than the startled look on the face of my dimwitted Collie when he'd let out a particularly clamorous fart, which is why I always wrote off the 1941 Spencer Tracy version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE as a non-event. Well, watching the film again with a mindset and worldview quite far removed from my perceptions of things at age nine or ten revealed a film far more horrible than I remembered it being, and by "horrible" I mean that the most real horror is that which we human beings inflict upon one another.

Four's a crowd.

This iteration of the classic story finds Dr. Jekyll (Spencer Tracy) very much in love with and engaged to pretty blonde innocent Beatrix (Lana Turner), but their ardor is serially quashed by her father's insistence that Jekyll confine his work to conventional medicine rather than pursuing crackpot theories on the nature of good and evil within man. When her father takes Beatrix away to Monaco for an extended vacation — in actuality a massive case of ultra-assholish cock-blocking on the part of daddy — Jekyll uses his unwilling singlehood to create a serum that will fully unleash man's evil side, using himself as a test subject. Thus is born Mr. Hyde, the living, breathing, nasty expression of the saintly Jekyll's basest urges, and he wastes no time in hitting the town in search of some strange. Having previously committed an act of gallantry while Jekyll, namely rescuing a young woman from a back alley rape at the hands of a random brute, Hyde encounters the toothsome lass at her job as a barmaid at a local dance hall. The barmaid, Ivy (Ingrid Bergman), earlier proved to be a bit of a bawd when Jekyll gave her a once-over following her thwarted violation, so Hyde, recalling her saucy attitude, engineers her getting sacked from her job (while instigating a riot at the same time) and offers to see her home. However, the gallantry of Jekyll does not exist in Hyde and he immediately rapes Ivy, subsequently keeping her in a state of perpetual terror as he makes her his sex slave and the recipient of beatings that escalate in severity. 

Ingrid Bergman as the tragic Ivy.

When Beatrix returns from her vacation, Jekyll decides to abandon his sordid second life as Hyde and settle into staid normalcy, but, following weeks of abuse at the hands of Hyde, Ivy works up the courage to seek help, so she goes to see Jekyll, not knowing that he is in actuality her tormentor. She vents her tragic state of affairs to Jekyll, even going so far as to get down on her knees and offer herself as his concubine in exchange for his help, and from there things spiral to inevitable blackness as Jekyll, to his horror, discovers that his shifts to his Hyde persona are no longer in his voluntary control...

Spencer Tracy as Hyde.

Very adult for its era, this version of DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE's potency eluded me during childhood, largely due to Hyde's monstrous nature bearing only relatively-subtle markers of the bestial. Rather than the werewolf-like fiend of the 1931 Frederic March version, Tracy's Hyde starts off looking like a swarthier, darker-haired and caliginous version Jekyll, gradually evolving into what could be mistaken for a long-lost Marx Brother. That allows Tracy to give free rein to the all-too-human monster within, and this take on Hyde is all the more believable for it. This is the familiar embodiment of the self-absorbed asshole who courts and creates trouble and misery for all around him, taking sadistic pleasure in his sheer palpable malevolence intimidating those unfortunate enough to cross his path. A hateful expression of the male at his very worst and most unchecked, Hyde is the most loathsome kind of bully in that he won't hesitate to follow through on the promise of his intimidation, gleefully stooping to excessive physical violence, rape, and outright murder, and he could not care less about any possible consequences of his foul actions. His lack of such blatant physical cues to his demonic nature as fucked-up teeth, coarse body hair, and claw-like hands only bolsters Hyde's evil and renders him as horrifically mundane as a wife-beater, a date-rapist, or the common violent street thug. 

The element in the film that resonated most strongly with me was the plight of the story's women, neither of whom get what they want or need and are destroyed by the man to whom they would gladly give their love. Beatrix is on hand to be perpetually frustrated, first by the machinations of her father and later by the existence of Hyde, thus her virginal innocence serves as a sexually and emotionally-stifling trap. Ivy, on the other hand, makes it crystal clear that she is no stranger to the pleasures to be had with men, has an endearing lust for life, and a working class earthiness that radiates sensuality, but those healthy attributes are crushed like so many dried flowers beneath the heel of Hyde's shattering abuse. The Madonna/whore dichotomy may be a bit on the nose but it is given vivid expression as part of an hallucinatory vision during Jekyll's first transformation into Hyde. Jekyll sees himself in the role of a fevered carriage driver, viciously whipping a pair of horses into a crazed gallop, only to have the equines morph into nude representations of Beatrix and Ivy.

The whore and the Madonna, galloping mares in Jekyll's transformative vision. 

So, yeah, there's a hell of a lot going on here that would have seemed boring or ordinary or simply gone over my head when I watched it as a kid, but a solid knowledge of grownup cruelty and dysfunction gained over the past four decades or so helped shed light onto the worthiness of the 1941 DR. JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE. It's a surprising gem that I can't believe slipped past the watchful eye of the Hays Code, and I've gained a new and deep appreciation for it. If you have not seen it or if you, like me, wrote it off for not being a straight-up monsterama, it deserves a second chance.

 Poster from the original theatrical release.

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