“Which One Is He Playing Now?: Somerset Maugham, Spencer Tracy & MGM’s Jekyll and Hyde”.

Lawrence Bennie
10 min readFeb 5, 2023
“Looking surprised, Dr Jekyll?”. A cut scene from the 1941 film of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde

When Somerset Maugham visited the set of MGM’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in 1941, the esteemed English writer approached George Cukor during the filming of a pivotal scene. “Which one is he playing now?”, Maugham asked. Little could he have foreseen the implications of his inquisitive quip.

The question, of course, hovered over the film’s star, 41 year-old Spencer Tracy. By 1941, Tracy was one of MGM’s top stars, having won consecutive Best Actor Oscars for Captains Courageous (1937) and Boys Town (1938), and adored by audiences and critics alike. Now cast in fiction’s most famous dual role, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was to be the actor’s first (and, as it turned out, only) foray in the horror genre. Ten years earlier, matinee-idol Fredric March had pursued a similar change-of-direction with his lauded performance in Rouben Mamoulian’s production of Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic novella for Paramount. However, rather than a new variant on the oft-filmed tale (the story had already been adapted 17 times for the screen since 1908), MGM, on this occassion, decided to directly remake the earlier picture. Mamoulian’s film was met with acclaim and Oscar succes. March won for Best Actor (famously tying with Wallace Berry for The Champ) whilst the film received nominations for Best Cinematography and Best Writing Adaptation. Furthermore, Maumillion’s innovative cinematic techniques, including the film’s ground-breaking transformation sequences, left audiences and critics dazzled.

A decade on, MGM were hoping to trump March, Maumillion and Paramount. Their new Dr Jekyll was already a double Oscar-winner and venerated as one of America’s greatest actors. Co-starring alongside Tracy were two of the industry’s most glamorous and popular rising starlets; 20 year-old leading lady Lana Turner and 26 year-old Swedish star Ingrid Bergman. Directing the trio of exciting talents was Victor Fleming, who had enjoyed huge success in 1939 with Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz, as well as having directed Tracy on Captains Courageous. Of course, there was also a proven crowd-pleaser with the source material (Troy Howarth has noted that Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was “the most filmed work of literature in the silent era”). And, as if all that wasn’t enough, MGM had no need to worry over the inevitable comparisons to Mamoulian. The studio had acquired full rights to the 1931 film from Paramount and simply buried it to prevent any competition. The definitive Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde seemed ready to come out roaring.

The Spider and The Ape

John Barrymore (left) and Fredric March (right) as Mr Hyde

Yet, there had been that remark from Maughan, which ultimately evolved into what film historian Greg Mank has called “a harbinger of doom for the film and Tracy’s performance”. In retrospect, Maugham’s perplexity is perhaps understandable. There was never certainly any mistake in distinguishing the Jekylls of John Barrymore and Fredric March from their demonic alter-egos. In 1920, critic Frederick James Smith had condemned John Barrymore’s spider-like Hyde as “a terrible being”. Elsewhere, Burns Mantle quoted a friend who had been left profoundly shaken by the Barrymore film:

“…Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde gave her a most terrific attack of the movie blues, from which she has not yet recovered, nor expects ever fully to recover. Its very excellences as an acted horror, says she, have set her advising all the mothers she knows to keep their children away from it and to guard themselves accordingly as their condition and belief in pre-natal influences may suggest”.

Famous Players-Lasky, the producers of the film, must have raised a glass to Barrymore. One is reminded of the scene from Scrooged (1988) where Bill Murray’s ratings-obsessed TV executive receives news that an old lady has been scared to death by his over-the-top promo for a Christmas Eve Dickens special. “This is terrific! You can’t buy publicity like this!”, Murray exclaims. Nevertheless, as enduringly chilling as Barrymore’s performance proved, the game-changing arrival of sound in 1927 to theatres meant that Paramount (the distributors of the 1920 film) soon eyed up Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for a talkie update.

It came in 1931. For Mordaunt Hall, writing in The New York Times, the latest picture surpassed the Barrymore film as “a far more tense and shuddering affair”. Particular attention was given to Hyde’s appearance:

“In physiognomy, this Hyde has the aspects of an ape, with protruding teeth, long eye-teeth, unkempt thick hair leaving but a scant forehead, a broad nose with large nostrils, eyes with the lower part of the sockets pulled down, thick eyebrows and hairy arms and hands — a creature that would make the hairy ape of O’Neil’s play a welcome sight”.

Two Sides of a Man

Spencer Tracy as the Hyde of the 40’s

After two overtly monstrous Mr Hyde’s, it was perhaps inevitable that the new production would attempt a more psychological interpretation. Decades later, Katherine Hepburn revealed the approach of her famous partner to the role:

“I had always been fascinated by the story and saw it as a story of the two sides of a man…Every once in a while, Jekyll would go on a trip. Disappear. And either because of drink or dope or who knows what, he would become — or should I say turn into? — Mr Hyde. Then in a town or neighbourhood where he was totally unknown, he would perform incredible acts of cruelty and vulgarity. The emotional side of Jekyll was obviously extremely disturbed”.

Keen to avoid elaborate make-up, Tracy was more interested in echoing Barrymore with his own facial distortions to depict the monstrous Hyde. When Variety previewed the film in late July 1941, Tracy’s performance found some attention:

“…Tracy plays the dual roles with conviction. His transformations from the young physician…to the demonic Mr. Hyde are brought about with considerably less alterations in face and stature than audiences might expect, remembering John Barrymore and Frederic March in earlier versions”.

However, the top plaudits were given not to the new Mr Hyde, but to his victim:

“What is likely to happen when the new “Jekyll” moves into general distribution after Sept. 1, is more generous recognition of Ingrid Bergman as a screen actress of exceptional ability….In every scene in which the two appear, she is Tracy’s equal as a strong screen personality”.

Faced with the powerful legacy of both Barrymore and March, and with Bergman stealing the top plaudits in the preview, the impact of the new Hyde already seemed subdued from the outset. Worse was to come, at least for Tracy, after the film’s release on 12th August 1941. Hollywood aimed to be its considerate in its summary but, unlike Mantle’s friend, they clearly weren’t shaken much: “While Spencer Tracey does a grand job in his dual role, his Mr Hyde is inclined to be humorous than terrifying”. Others were not so sensitive. Modern Screen questioned the point of remaking the film and the casting of Spencer Tracy, calling it “quite the oddest picture of the year”. The New York Times went further — “Mr Tracy’s portrait of Hyde is not so much evil incarnate as it is the ham rampant”. Harry Hirshfield joked that Abbot and Costello had suddenly been substituted for Spencer Tracy. The joke proved prophetic. Abbot and Costello Meet Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1953) would be released twelve years later. Just like Jekyll’s ill-fated experiment, MGM’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde had become a production that, for all its promises, had ended in apparent disaster.

Back to the Lab

Tracy’s role in the 1941 left him deeply dissatisfied with his performance and the film

History is, often, very kind to film. F.W Murnau’s Nosferatu (1922) is one of the great examples of restoration in film history. An unofficial German adaptation of Dracula, the filmmakers incurred the wrath of Bram Stoker’s widow, who ordered all prints to be destroyed. Nevertheless, some copies did survive and the film today is a revered masterpiece.

Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde underwent a similar process of persecution, survival and redemption. MGM had every print of the 1931 film that could be located destroyed and, for decades, the film was believed lost. After resurfacing from obscurity in 1967, it would be 37 years until a fully restored version debuted on DVD in 2004. All the lost and censored scenes were back in and the film was also given a commentary by Greg Mank. Today, it is the most acclaimed version of the story. Kim Newman has called it “a true cinema classic”. Johnathan Rosenbaum calls it “a remarkable achievement”. Derek Malcolm says it “still the best version there is, far more frightening than the glossy MGM version Victor Fleming made a decade or so later”.

Mank disagrees. For him, the 1941 film is not only “one of the most controversial horror films of all time” but the better of the two versions. Devoting a whole chapter to coverage of the Tracy film in his latest book, Mank argues that the 1941 film was largely misunderstood and, contrary to popular opinion, was exceptionally daring for its time, a fact recognised and corroborated at the time by the filmmakers and those within the industry. “It was seen as an embarrassment for Tracy and MGM”, explains Mank. “In fact, it was a fastidiously put-together movie and MGM were very experiemental”. In the second volume to his successful The Very Witching Time of Night, Mank delves beyond the film’s beleaguered reputation to reveal a fascinating behind-the-scenes story of a production which, on paper, had everything going for it but, ultimately, failed to strike a chord. “The evolution of the movie was enormous. They started at A and ended up at Z”. Tracy’s own dismissal of the film, and particularly his performance, certainly complicated the film’s legacy from the outset. “There were so many things that bothered him about the film. The addiction angle bothered him. It was also an incredible flip of a coin, after his previous work, and he probably questioned why he was doing the film”.

Furthermore, following its initial screening, the film was heavily cut. 127 minutes were snipped following the Variety preview. Eventually, more was excised until the final version ended up at 108 minutes. It is this version which has been widely circulated since . When the film was released on a double-feature DVD (alongside the 1932 film) in 2004, there was no commentary. Also, the many cuts to the film were not restored, with a chunky 20 minutes still left out, despite the existence of a complete “German version” which was even broadcast on BBC2 in the mid-1990’s. In an age of constant restorations, special editions, director’s cuts and extended editions of films both adored, and previously dismissed, one would have expected the same to have happened by now to this film, given the prominence of its source material and cast. Yet, it hasn’t. “So much of it was being altered as it was shot”, Mank adds. “The film is way ahead of its time and greatly under-appreciated. I think a restoration would really knock people out”.

Ironically, two of the most notable removals were perhaps Tracy’s best scenes and the most thematically significant in the film. Following the first transformation, Hyde delivers a monologue into a mirror, questioning his identity before coming to the chilling realisation “Can this be evil then?”. In the official print of the film, only this last sentence is retained and the impact is evidently stilted. Similarly, another mirror scene occurs at the film’s climax. This time, having turned back to Jekyll in his laboratory, Hyde appears in place of Jekyll’s reflection as taunts him incessantly. Remarkably, this whole exchange was cut from the film, effectively eliminating an additional appearance of Hyde from the film.

However, for Mank, the unfortunate editing decisions are only part of the complicated legacy of the film. Critical, and audience response, has often beleaugered the 1941 Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde for lacking the Pre-Code edge of Maumillion’s film. Yet, there were some who, at the time, felt differently. “Sadism in this degree seldom finds expression on the screen”, wrote Donald Kirkley, referring to a scene where Tracy’s Hyde forces a hysterical Bergman to sing before throwing a bunch of grapes in her face. Elsewhere, Nelson B. Bell’s appraisal of the film couldn’t be further from its lukewarm reputation, calling the film “a stark and disturbingly realistic study in human cruelty and depravity…executed in the present instance with such frank, such unrestrained and such relentless actuality as to become questionable entertainment”.

For Mank, this is exactly what the film is — “the saga of a sexual sadist and his victim”, admittedly lost within the framing of the conventional Stevenson story. Furthermore, he makes a persuasive case that the film, contrary to widely-held opinion, was actually daring for its time, or at the very least was intended to be. Mank’s book reveals a ton of omissions from the script. There is also the blockbuster-style aspect of the film’s marketing, complete with a gimmicky experiment, where the appearance of Hyde was kept under wraps and emphasis was placed on not spoiling the secret, foreshadowing Hitchcock’s strategies with Psycho nineteen years later.

Indeed, Mank makes clear the case that the film, if not cinematically innnovative as Mamullion, was certainly potentially ground-breaking in other ways. It is “a dual nature film — perceived as either a sexy, pioneering, all-stops pulled super-version of a classic story, or an overstuffed faustian bomb”. Maybe Somerset Maugham did ask the right question after all?

Gregory Mank’s book can be purchased here:

Angles and Ministers of Grace Defend Us: More Dark Alleys of Classic Horror Cinema.

www.gregorymank.com

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Lawrence Bennie

Teacher & Theatre tour guide. Interested in Arts & Culture, Film, History, Psychology, and the odd mystery!