Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Halloween Monster Memories: Five Fine Hydes

It's really not hard to see why, more than 120 years after its first appearance in print, Robert Louis Stevenson's immortal classic of horror and mad science keeps readers and filmmakers alike coming back again and again. We all find ourselves periodically trapped between the better and baser parts of our nature, our fragile human psyches the battleground for the war between the Good and Evil that reside in each of us, whether we care to admit it or not. The idea of these two sides of our personalities being separated and made flesh is one that resonates with just about everyone, whatever the nationality or time period.

So it's no surprise that at one time (and perhaps even still), The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was the most-cinematically adapted literary property in existence. Filmmakers of just about every decade have taken a stab at the tale, and over time these creative folks have come up with many interesting ways of presenting the slavering, amoral, unrestrained id that Stevenson envisioned lurking in us all. So for this week's Halloween Monster Memories, I'd like to take a look at five interesting manifestations of this classic character, and invite my readers to share their own faves. So take it away, Eddie!

5. Hyde and Hare (1955)

Laugh if you will (and you will, if you watch the short), but this Bugs Bunny cartoon was probably my first exposure to the Jekyll and Hyde story. In it Bugs Bunny, the Trickster God of collective our modern mythology, sees an in with mild-mannered Dr. Jekyll, who comes to feed him every day at the park. Insinuating himself into the doctor's home, he soon finds himself fleeing for his life from the gigantic, green-skinned, red-eyed Mr. Hyde. Having no idea that the monster is in fact his new owner, Bugs tries to save Dr. Jekyll and himself by hiding in closets and bedrooms, with comedic results when the tiny Fudd-esque doc transforms into the rampaging beast.

One thing that struck me rewatching this cartoon recently was the odd way in which Dr. Jekyll's first transformation takes place. Home with his new pet, the good doctor passes a bubbling potion in his lab, a potion he knows he shouldn't drink, but in the end can't resist. ("Oh, I'm so ashamed!" he whimpers, as he drains the stuff.) Obviously the lure of becoming Hyde is being freed from one's inhibitions and powerlessness in the face of a disapproving society, and tiny, mild-mannered Jekyll wants that freedom, even though he knows the consequences. Heady stuff for a Looney Tunes short--but then they're deeper than most people think imo.

(No, I wasn't stoned.)

4. Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde (1971)

So the basic idea of the Jekyll/Hyde story is that every person has two sides to his or her personality, sides that can be separated with just the right chemical catalysts. For Stevenson this division was between Good and Evil; Freud's idea of Superego and Id, which he put forward much later, was remarkably similar. But by the time the swingin' 70s rolled around, another possible division had entered the public consciousness, suggesting every person had a "masculine" and "feminine" side. What better way to explore this bold idea than with a retooling of the Jekyll myth?

Okay, maybe that's overstating the case. Still, 1971's Dr. Jekyll and Sister Hyde is a doozy. In this one, Dr. Jekyll is searching for the Elixir of Life, which he thinks must have something to do with female hormones. (With you so far, Henry...) The predictable side-effect occurs, transforming the good doctor into evil but HAWT Mrs. Hyde (Martine Beswick), whom he passes off as his widowed sister. Jekyll falls in love with Susan Spencer, while Hyde falls for Suzie's brother Howard, leading to a rather sticky and sexy situation. Not content with gender-bending sex and mad science, the filmmakers tie in the Jack the Ripper murders and the Burke and Hare graverobbing spree for flavor. Though some might well take issue with the downright biblical gender roles (mens is good, womens is eeeeevil), there's no denying it's a wild ride.

3. Jekyll and Hyde... Together Again (1982)

We've already seen how Jekyll and Hyde can be played for comedy, but for my money it was never zanier or more hilarious than when Fridays alum Mark Blankfield took on the role in Jekyll and Hyde... Together Again, a barn-burning gag-fest. Zeroing in on the repressed-sex aspect of the story--which of course has been there since its uber-upright Victorian beginnings--here we see Mr. Hyde as a gold chain-wearing, pickup line-spouting, pants-bulging Lothario intent on banging everything that moves...or at least humping its leg. (The initial transformation--in which a golden pinky ring bursts from under Jekyll's skin, one of his teeth sprouts a gold sheath, and the Viagra-like effects of the drug are made clear--more than sets the tone.) A product of its time, sure--Jekyll's potion is here presented as a snortable powder, for instance--, it's nonetheless a comedic tour de force for Blankfield, who really should have become more famous than that Kramer guy. If you haven't seen it, get yourself a dvd, check your good taste at the door, and get ready to have some fun.

2. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920)

One of the things the bugs me about a lot of Jekyll and Hyde adaptations is the rather common decision to have the actor play Hyde with minimal make-up, relying on mannerism and expression to signify the transformation from good-hearted man of science to rampaging evil bastard. It's not the idea of a non-physical transformation that bugs me, so much as the fact that we, the audience, are then asked to believe that the supporting characters in the flick would have NO IDEA that Hyde and Jekyll are the same person, despite the fact that they look almost EXACTLY alike. Even great actors have trouble pulling it off--Spencer Tracy's turn as Hyde in the 1941 adaptation is one egregious example; more recently, John Malkovich failed to sufficiently differentiate in 1996's floptastic Julia Roberts vehicle Mary Reilly. I can suspend disbelief with the best of them, but still--really?

Probably the person on whom the blame for this can be laid is legendary silent screen star John Barrymore, who famously portrayed Jekyll and Hyde in the revered 1920 version. Why blame Barrymore? Because he did the same thing, but in his case, he totally made it WORK. His initial transformation is all body-positioning and facial expression, and yet by the time he emerges as the evil Hyde, you can totally understand why even his closest friends wouldn't recognize him. A little make-up is added as the flick moves on--his hunched back is augmented, and he's given that famous pointy head--but it's a testament to Barrymore's immense talent at physical acting that he completely pulls it off--in a way I'd argue no film star has been able to approach since.

1. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931)

Fredric March won the Best Actor award at the 1932 Oscars for his role in this, for my money the definitive screen version of the story. (Okay, in point of fact he tied with Wallace Beery for his role in The Champ, but let's not split, hairs.) One of the few classic monsters NOT to come out of Universal Studios (it was an MGM production), March's Mr. Hyde is as instantly recognizable as any of his hideous brethren. The simian brow, huge ape-like teeth, hairy and pointed skull--this Mr. Hyde represents a physical devolution as well as a moral one. It's a fantastic pre-Hays Code film, and the amount of sex on display will shock those used to the golly-gee-whiz romantic subplots that came later. And the amazing transformation sequence--done with colored filters, lighting tricks, and old fashioned ingenuity--is still something glorious to behold.

So how about you, parishioners? Who are your favorite Hydes?

And special thanks to Vicar-ious pal Tenebrous Kate of Love Train for the Tenebrous Empire--she knows why. ;)


micha michelle said...

i haven't seen enough jekyll\hyde films to have a definitive favorite, but i'm a big fan of the john barymorre version.

the 2007 BBC miniseries "Jekyll" is loads of fun though. i was totally taking in. i think i watched almost all of them back to back. love that james nesbitt.

JamiSings said...

I haven't seen it, but there is a stage musical version that I have the soundtrack for that I love. Though they did give the good doctor a fiancée and Hyde takes up with a prostitute who's in love with Jekyll. But let's face it, you have to throw in extras to get a two hour musical out of such a short story.

Wings1295 said...

Love the toon. :)

Haven't seen a lot of these films, but I am going to be on the look out for them!

The Vicar of VHS said...

@Micha Michelle--I can see why you would dig the Barrymore version! You should work up an Obscure Hollow post on it--I think it would fit! And I did see the BBC series "Jekyll," which I thought was fun and had some cool ideas (every generation has its Jekyll, the scifi elements, etc.). Nesbitt was good in the title role, and IIRC they glossed his non-changed appearance by having Hyde and Jekyll "agree" not to hang out with the same people--an interesting solution. :)

@Jami--If you haven't seen the 1931 version, you're in for a surprise--because in that one Dr. Jekyll has a fiancee, and Hyde takes up with a music hall girl (i.e., prostitute) who's in love with Dr. Jekyll! The more things change, the more they stay the same. ;)

I haven't seen the stage musical (wasn't Sebastian Bach in that for a while?), but I *have* watched a straight-to-dvd version called "The Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde Rock n' Roll Musical," which is DEFINITELY going to be reviewed on the site very soon!

Prof. Grewbeard said...

the Nutty Professor?...talkin' Jerry Lewis, natch.

just kidding. Fredric March is the man/men for me. plus the fact Miriam Hopkins is in his version is a plus!

Prof. Grewbeard said...

i still like The Nutty Professor, though...

Samuel Wilson said...

Of all people, Jean Renoir did a version, The Testament of Dr. Cordelier, in which he transplants the story to 1959 France, changes all the names, and sticks far more closely to the structure of Stevenson's story than most movie versions. That is, no transformations until what's meant to be a big reveal near the end of the movie. Renoir's "Hyde" is a vicious prankster who behaves like a character out of Keystone comedies. He's quite happy to trip up cripples in the street along with doing the nastier work. The film doesn't quite work as a horror film, but it is an interesting variation on the theme.

Pierre Fournier said...

Yes, TESTAMENT DU DR. CORDELIER is a gem. It was done for TV with very little money. Jean-Louis Barrault (France’s Olivier) plays the Hyde character (called Opale) as a perversion of Charlie Chaplin’s Little Tramp, complete with loose-fitting clothes, the swinging cane, and the shuffling walk. No makeup except dark hair (Cordelier’s is white) and cotton stuffed in his cheeks. As Samuel said, Opale is truly vicious. He’s very violent, knocking people down and kicking them, even attacking a child.

Barrault’s performance is fantastic. The difference between the tall, cold and snooty Cordelier and the diminutive, furtive and animalistic Opale is so great that it feels like two different actors at work.

The Vicar of VHS said...

@prof. grewbeard--The Nutty Professor is TOTALLY a Jekyll/Hyde story! And I'm with you on Miriam Hopkins...rowr!

@Sam & Pierr3--Thanks for the tip! I've never heard of Cordelier, but clearly I need to watch it for the betterment of my film education. It sounds like a very interesting take indeed. It is hard to remember, after all the film adaptations that go from Jekyll's pov, that in the book it's a bit of a shock that J & H are the same person. I'd be interested to see this on film.

And Pierre--doesn't March's Hyde also beat a child in the street? Or was that Spencer Tracy?

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