Genre: Crime Drama and Horror Running Time: 1 hr. 53 min.
Release Date: August 12th, 1941 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Victor Fleming Actors: Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Bergman, Lana Turner, Donald Crisp, Ian Hunter, Barton MacLane, C. Aubrey Smith, Peter Godfrey, Frances Robinson
he year is 1887 when renowned physician Dr. Henry Jekyll (Spencer Tracy) observes the upsettingly disruptive Sam Higgins (Barton MacLane) in church, whose manic symptoms strike a nerve. Jekyll is certain he can help the poor man (a perfect test subject), whose mind is steadily unraveling, but it would take some controversial experimentations with chemicals only previously studied on animals. “I’m no witch doctor!”
Ethical considerations prevent the scientist from proceeding, though he nevertheless conducts trials privately in his laboratory, which tend to distract him from his beautiful young fiancee Beatrix (Lana Turner) – and her regularly disapproving father Sir Charles Emery (Donald Crisp). That evening at dinner, Jekyll elaborates upon his theories of the brain and soul to a large gathering of esteemed guests and colleagues. Higgins was spiritually distorted after an explosion separated his good side from his evil side (on some kind of cellular level), allowing unstifled wickedness to momentarily prevail. It doesn’t sound like science as much as theological observation, but Jekyll is confident that his research will expose the truths behind what the rest of his profession dubs balderdash.
After dinner, Henry happens to interrupt an assault against barmaid Ivy Peterson (Ingrid Bergman), who attempts to seduce the good doctor as repayment for his deed. She’s briefly successful, too, though their embrace is cut short by Jekyll’s associate Dr. John Lanyon (Ian Hunter). It was a mere fleeting transgression, which Henry dismisses to bury himself in his work – contentious formulas very much against the advice of his peers. And when Higgins passes away, Jekyll sees no other option than to experiment on himself to perfect a serum that can isolate the psychological qualities of good and evil.
Unlike previous iterations of this famous Robert Louis Stevenson yarn, extensive makeup and prosthetics aren’t needed to augment the transition from Jekyll to Hyde (though there are some, even if they can’t conceal Tracy underneath). Instead, Tracy predominantly adopts a guttural voice, disheveled hair, a piercing stare, a devious grin, and thick perspiration to convince of his malicious alter ego. It’s primarily up to his acting to pull off the transformation – and he’s quite capable of succeeding. Bizarre and somewhat comical visual effects do aid in illustrating his mental shift, but his actions and intentions are beastly enough to recover the terror (particularly when he journeys to the Palace of Frivolities to stir up trouble). Yet when Ivy fails to recognize the facial similarities between Jekyll and Hyde, one wonders if extra variances would have been helpful; it’s somewhat like Superman simply slipping on spectacles to become a completely unidentifiable person.
Despite the major stars populating what was once a mere horror shocker, the additives of lengthier sequences of torment and drama slow down the momentum of the severer, more disturbing moments. Plus, the longer audiences see Tracy struggle to carry on his primitive, barbaric rendition, the flimsier it becomes – paired with the now unexceptional layering techniques as he morphs back and forth. Nevertheless, the plot still serves as a biting cautionary tale of crippling addiction (and giving in to temptation), even in its form of diverted spirituality merged with science-fiction. And the actors are engrossing enough that pacing issues can’t rob the film of modest entertainment value.
– Mike Massie