(On Cable TV, June 2018) I never thought I’d reach a point in my cinephilia where I could talk knowledgeably about the 1920, 1931 and 1940 versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but here we are. The 1920 version has John Barrymore wearing prosthetics, exposed ankles (i.e.: charmingly quaint ideas about morality) and first-mover advantage, while the 1940 version has Spencer Tracy managing Mr. Hyde without prosthetics or (much) makeup beyond messed-up hair, and much-improved technical credentials. But I’m increasingly partial to the 1931 version for Fredric March’s unchained take on the character, and numerous directorial flourishes including a spectacular subjective opening shot that incorporates still-impressive special effects trickery. Given that the 1931 version is a pre-Code film, it features notably more risqué content than both the 1921 and 1940 version, making it more honest to the themes of the original work. Hyde feels more dangerous because he’s not as restrained as in the other versions. Otherwise, the story is the story … but as a comparative viewing of all three version will show, the 1931 is the best execution of it. Amazingly enough, this 1931 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde film is said to have completely disappeared between 1940 (when the owner of the Spencer Tracy version bought back all the copies they could find and denied rental requests by keeping the film in their vaults) and the early seventies, at which point it started being shown again. Count your blessings in being able to see it and compare it with the other versions.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) From our twenty-first century perspective, we routinely complain about remakes … but the truth is that the early decades of cinema were just as rife with movies being remade. Of course, back then they did have better excuses, as the state of the art in moviemaking kept progressing at a pace that would astound us today. Take the leap between the 1920 and 1941 versions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde: One of them silent, crude and garish while the latter one being more nuanced and controlled. Spencer Tracy delivers a truly good performance in both eponymous roles, relying on sheer acting (and hairstyling, and makeup) to distinguish between the two characters. The direction is more ambitious, the story a bit more sophisticated, the portrayal of evil not quite as comically quaint as in the previous film. As a result, the 1941 version can be watched today with far fewer obstacles between the film and the viewer—sure, the colour is missing … but not much more. Where the 1941 version suffers a bit, especially when watched as a double-feature with the 1920 version, is that it has fewer surprises to offer in telling the same story. In a way, that frees the viewer to appreciate the execution and Tracy’s more impressive performance largely bereft of prosthetics.
(On Cable TV, April 2018) According to my notes, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is the oldest movie I’ve ever watched to date. While I wonder at the idea of a movie that has travelled in time nearly a hundred years to be watched today, I’m also tempted to put Science Fiction fan beanie on my head to point out that, of course, a genre film is more durable and memorable than then-contemporary drama. Genre is fun, genre is interesting and genre, all things considered, travels pretty well through time. The basic Jekyll/Hyde story, after all, is a pumped-up illustration of the duality within all of us, torn between our basest instincts and our better natures. Here we have John Barrymore (grandfather to Drew Barrymore, if you want another link between then and now) playing both lead roles: an upstanding citizen who, thanks to scientific experiments and hilariously ill-advised nudging by his future father-in-law, sees his inner beast unchained and free to act badly. One aspect of watching a 1920 film trying to tackle debauchery is the curiously tame nature of the excesses (ooh, an ankle) and yet the film does manage to make its point come across clearly. The hideous transformation of Jekyll into Hyde is well handled through prosthetics and makeup, and the rest of the film is decent enough. I’m not that charmed by the entire film—as with other silent movies, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde seems to last forever, exhibits only a rudimentary understanding of modern cinematographic grammar and is simply too foreign to be watched transparently when the title cards brutally remind you that there’s an entire audio dimension missing. Still, I’m still impressed that this nearly hundred-year-old artifact can still be watched and make us care about the story it has to tell.