Along with Paramount's 1920 and 1931version, MGM's 1941 edition still packs a punch – partially due to the usage of the original '31 script (revised with some intriguing variations), and retracing the predecessor's most visceral scenes.
Certain studio brass balked at Fredric March's casting in 1931, but solid revenues and a Best Actor Oscar win for March stopped all the grumbling; though maligned by its contemporary critics and ignored by the Academy, Spencer Tracy's performance really resonates today, with a less animalistic but equally sadistic Hyde. The makeup of the first film – still a marvelous work of craftsmanship – was radically toned down here; a subdued, soft-spoken villain, Tracy never lets us forget Hyde's devious scheming and latent brutality.
In both the '32 and '41 films, Hyde is a rapist, and a possessive, physically and emotionally abusive sugar daddy to a locked up dance hall girl (here played by Ingrid Bergman, in her streak of abused women roles between “Spellbound,” and “Gaslight”).
Victor Fleming's still potent approach to the story had the benefit of precedence: Freud was cool after “Spellbound,” so the infamous whipping dream was passed by the censors; and though the Code forbade the level of nudity and physical cruelty present in the '31 edition, Fleming took Rouben Mamoulian's penchant for close-ups in ‘31 further by holding on his actors' faces, while the turmoil of their characters writhes across the screen. Ironically, the melodrama that evoked restrained Victorian passions in 1931 becomes a major flaw in the MGM version; here, reflecting the cinematic mores of 1941, with Jekyll's bride (Lana Turner) reduced to patio-groveling weakling in the final reel.
Using a very lovely print, Warner Bros' transfer once again reveals the undeniable beauty of classic black and white cinematography, and the mono mix shows off Franz Waxman's lengthy narrative underscore during the whirlwind transformation sequences.
As the second feature of a double-bill, it's worth checking out both versions, which still hold their own amid myriad other variations of the Jekyll and Hyde tale.
© 2004 Mark R. Hasan