Halloween has now passed, and with it many horror film screenings. Although this movie genre began in the late 19th century, the term “horror” wasn’t actually applied to motion pictures until the 1930s, when Universal Pictures’ profitable streak of monster movies firmly established American horror films. Then in 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code sent Frankenstein, Dracula, and their fiendish friends back to their coffins.
While the 1934 Code, or rather the Production Code Administration’s (PCA) enforcement of the Code, didn’t ban horror films, it slowed down their output by insisting that violence be minimal and evil be punished. As a result, most ensuing horror films were subtle. Violence could be implied, but the lurid raciness in earlier horror stories was removed from Code remakes and sequels.
One unfortunate exception is “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” from 1941, starring Spencer Tracy. MGM’s take on this 1886 Gothic novella was at least the 12th English-language film adaption of the story, following the John Barrymore (1920) and Fredric March (1931) versions. It was, however, the first Code version.
One would expect the 1941 Code film to be a restrained, tame telling of the tale, trading the horrific elements of earlier versions for a more cerebral approach. Instead, it’s a shocking film that was, in some ways, more suggestive than its predecessors.
Why was such a film approved by the PCA? The answer is a fascinating story in itself.
Doctor Jekyll in 1941
When British physician Dr. Henry “Harry” Jekyll (Tracy) encounters a worker (Barton MacLane) who was shocked into insane depravity by an accident, Jekyll is inspired to pursue his theory that man’s two natures—good and evil—are separable. When he rashly describes his experiments at a dinner party, his future father-in-law (Donald Crisp) is disturbed by his ideas.
Although deeply in love with Beatrix (Lana Turner), Jekyll is reluctant to give up his experiments. Walking home that night, he and his friend Dr. Lanyon (Ian Hunter) rescue lovely barmaid Ivy Peterson (Ingrid Bergman) from a violent suitor. Jekyll helps Ivy to her flat, nearly forgetting his engagement during their flirtation; his momentary temptation makes him resolve to complete his experiment.
Jekyll creates a successful formula, which turns him into a menacing embodiment of evil, Edward Hyde. When Beatrix’s father takes her on a trip, away from the increasingly unconventional Jekyll, the frustrated scientist visits Ivy as the lustful Hyde. He proceeds to get Ivy fired and instead abusively supports her himself, secretly maintaining a dual life. However, when Beatrix returns, Jekyll realizes that Mr. Hyde is difficult to destroy.
Common elements of this story used in stage and screen adaptions originated in early movies, not from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” For instance, there were no female characters in the book; Thomas Russell Sullivan’s successful stage version from 1887 created Jekyll’s fiancée. The Barrymore film first added a looser woman as Hyde’s companion. Beginning with Sullivan’s play, many adaptations have painted Dr. Jekyll as more thoroughly “good” when the story begins, heightening the contrast with Mr. Hyde.
Instead of doing a new take on the novella, MGM decided to buy the 1931 script’s rights, trying to re-create the Oscar winner’s success. This is a shame since so many different approaches could have been attempted.
One of the 1941 film’s only contributions was the popular pronunciation of Dr. Jekyll’s name as rhyming with “heckle.” According to the author, this is incorrect, since he stated, “’Let the name be pronounced as though it spelt ‘jee-kill’; not ‘jek-ill.’”
Although Spencer Tracy is widely considered miscast as Jekyll and Hyde (and was considered as such even by himself), he fit Stevenson’s description of Dr. Jekyll better than most interpreters of the part. The 41-year-old Tracy was more like the book’s description of Jekyll as a “large, well-made, smooth-faced man of 50 with something of a slyish cast” than the younger, handsomer actors who have played the part.
Tracy hoped to explore the story’s deeper philosophical meaning, such as the dual nature in everyone. Instead of a typical horror or science fiction movie about a scientist who unleashes a monster, Tracy wanted to tackle a more realistic story of a doctor performing violent crimes in a strange neighborhood after taking alcohol or drugs. Instead of using makeup and prosthetics, he wanted to rely on facial expressions for the transformation.
The only substantial change was Jekyll’s motivation for experimenting: He hopes to cure a madman but takes the formula himself when said lunatic dies, instead of, as in the book, planning from the start to sample the drug himself.
Although called horror films, neither the 1931 nor 1941 film features substantial violence. The two murders in each occur offscreen. The most frightening element in each is Mr. Hyde’s appearance, although Spencer Tracy’s is not terribly scary.
The most horrifying thing about the 1941 film is its unrestrained suggestiveness. Overall, the 1931 film is raunchier, with more risqué dialogue and indecent female costumes approaching upper nudity. Such content was standard in Pre-Code (1930–1934) films. However, similar content was shocking 10 years later, since the Code had forbidden salaciousness. Although there is less immodesty in the latter film, the suggestive dialogue, while less blatant, is more lurid in its veiled obscenity.
The main Code change was that Ivy is a barmaid instead of a prostitute, but she is still very flirtatious and undeniably loose. Her first meeting with Jekyll is one of the most simmering scenes in a Code film.
In addition, Tracy’s Hyde lost the primitive, Neanderthal appearance of March’s Hyde, just looking like a scarier version of the actor, which added a deeper depravity to the character. The 1931 Hyde looks more like an animal than a man, so his bestial behavior is expected. The ’41 Hyde just looks like a man, albeit a rough one, so his inhuman, wicked behavior is even more shocking and repulsive. The climax in the ’41 version is the Freudian hallucination sequences during the transformations, where the sadomasochistic imagery seems psychedelic.
How did this film manage to get away with murder? It took advantage of the PCA’s weak spot: Geoffrey Shurlock. Joseph Breen had headed the organization from its formation until his retirement in 1954. However, during these 20 years, there was a yearlong breach, from 1941 to 1942; let’s call it the “Non-Code Era.”
On June 17, 1941, Joe Breen started working at RKO, leaving his assistant, Shurlock, to unofficially head the PCA. By the time Breen returned to the PCA in 1942, countless “Non-Code” films had been passed by the weakened PCA, reflecting Pre-Code standards or eerily foreshadowing the post-Breen era, when Shurlock would take over permanently. The PCA file for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” confirms that Geoffrey Shurlock worked on it; although production began months before Breen’s departure, Shurlock had been taking more authority in preparation for his absence.
As on most films that Shurlock regulated, he requested in early PCA letters to filmmakers that this movie’s less than moral content be removed. However, the filmmakers, knowing Shurlock was in charge, ignored most of the warnings. Neither did Shurlock enforce his authority. The filmmakers disrespect of Shurlock is evidenced by how many cuts he requested before issuing a Seal. (When a movie was properly self-regulated during production, few or no post-production edits were necessary.)
Most notably, cuts were ordered in the hallucination sequence. But even then the film was only lightly trimmed; most of the disturbing imagery was left intact.
If Joseph Breen had overseen this film, it could have been very different.
A Missed Opportunity
It’s unfortunate that MGM decided to just remake the Pre-Code version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” If it had committed to making a truly Code-compliant version of this story, the filmmakers could have found new, subtle facets and made a unique masterpiece. After all, when one is adapting a story for the 12th time, one ought to bring something new to it.
Because of the rigid insistence on a strict remake, the excellent cast was not fully utilized. The very American Spencer Tracy would have flourished if they had updated the story to 20th-century America. Ivy’s characterization could have been revised to make her a decent girl, who is abused and corrupted by Mr. Hyde. As many good Code films show, mature topics like addiction, abuse, and promiscuity can be included in decent movies if handled properly.
Although the film was profitable, it is remembered as a failure because of its horrible critical reception. Critics were particularly rough on Spencer Tracy’s performance. As fan magazine “Hollywood” pointed out:
“In the ten years that have elapsed since Fredric March won his Academy Award, … movie-goers have become too sophisticated for the sort of medical hocus-pocus on which the Stevenson story is based. Too many ‘Frankensteins’ and bogey-men have stalked across the screen in the interim for ‘Mr. Hyde’ to be a convincing monster. While Spencer Tracy does a grand job in his dual role, his ‘Mr. Hyde’ is inclined to be more humorous than terrifying.”
Contraindicative though it seems, the 1941 “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” was behind the times. If truly modern and sophisticated, it would have opted for the relatively new standards for decency and depicted a nuanced story about a scientist who goes too far in his quest for advanced discoveries, becoming a slave to addiction. Instead of exploring a social problem with moral implications, this movie was doomed to failure because it was a “Non-Code” film. The results are truly horrifying.
Tiffany Brannan is a 20-year-old opera singer, Hollywood history/vintage beauty copywriter, film reviewer, fashion historian, travel writer, and ballet writer. In 2016, she and her sister founded the Pure Entertainment Preservation Society, an organization dedicated to reforming the arts by reinstating the Motion Picture Production Code.