December 09, 2008

Vintage horror on the big screen - two Dr Jekylls

Over the next few weeks, the BFI Southbank in London is showing the 1931 and 1941 Hollywood versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. These were the first two film adaptions of Robert Louis Stephenson's novel to be made with sound.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931)
starred Fredric March
and Miriam Hopkins. Director Rouben Mamoulian's extraordinary version, equating Mr Hyde's animal behaviour with Dr Jekyll's suppressed violent urges, heavily hints at his unspoken sexual desires. For this reason, the film was censored, even before the Hays Code had started incurring it's huge list of cinematic taboos. It's subtle by today's standards but still definitely adult-themed - like Jekyll's encounter with a 'woman of the street' that hints at his being sorely tempted, despite being a respectable doctor, engaged to be married.

At present, the only DVD of the film (a US double-bill of both these versions) is still a censored one, though uncut (or less cut) prints occasionally play on British TV. There are some startling publicity photos that indicate that additional scenes were shot and then censored, or not used - like the monstrous Mr Hyde catching and eating a pigeon, and another of him stamping on a small child in the street! No footage of these scenes has emerged as yet.

Not only is the subject matter ahead of its time, but the film-making is still interesting today
, demonstrating how early sound cinema took the new technology in its stride. Considering how much bulkier early movie cameras were when they were sound-proofed, the point-of-view tracking shot that introduces Jekyll through his eyes as he goes to work, is impressive.

Starring as both leading men, Fredric March was better known for light comedic roles, but you may know him from the original A Star is Born (1937), I Married a Witch (1942) which is very much a prototype for Bewitched, Inherit the Wind (1960) or as the US President in Seven Days In May (1964). He won an Oscar for his portrayal of Jekyll and Hyde, citred as the first ever awarded to an actor in a 'horror' role.

The film gets a deserved extended run in London, showing daily from December 12th to January 1st. Details here.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1941)
starred Spencer Tracy and Ingrid Bergman
. It's more restrained than the earlier version, though the cast may be more familiar to you. Spencer Tracy takes on the main roles, though is somewhat miscast, and far less make-up is used for his violent 'alter ego'. The furious Freudian symbolism in the dream sequence is quite over-the-top, verging on funny. Ingrid Bergman famously took on the role of the 'bad girl', while Lana Turner played the virginal fiance, both actresses playing 'against type'.

Director Victor Fleming's impressive previous credits include no less than
Gone With the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, though this film isn't in colour, which begs the question, why remake a ten-year old movie? It still makes an interesting comparison to the Fredric March version.

It will be shown at the BFI London on January 6th and 10th only. Details here.

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