Dante’s Inferno (1935)

I was originally attracted by this film because it stars Spencer Tracy – and I’m fascinated by his early work after seeing movies like 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, which I’ve reviewed here in the past, and Man’s Castle and Riff Raff, both of which I hope to review in the future.

Spencer Tracy and Henry B Walthall

Spencer Tracy and Henry B Walthall

In this movie, directed by Harry Lachman, Tracy once again plays a tough, arrogant character who is nonetheless  more vulnerable than he at first appears. This time he is cast as a ruthless fairground worker who won’t let anyone or anything get in his way, as he rises to wealth by taking over and massively expanding a hi-tech attraction based on, you guessed it, Dante’s Inferno.

However, Tracy has nothing to do with the most striking scene in this movie – an amazing eight-minute vision of hell based on Gustav Doré’s famous illustrations to the great poem, showing the torments of the damned as they writhe in lakes of fire. I have read the poem (in translation!), and this section of the film does recall it, though the rest of the movie has little or nothing to do with Dante. It’s a stunning sequence and I find hard to imagine quite how it could have been made.   Unfortunately, it seems to be difficult to find out exactly who did make it and when.

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Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1931 and 1941)

Following on from my posting about the silent 1920 version starring John Barrymore, here are some thoughts about the two talkies made in 1931 and 1941, starring Fredric March and Spencer Tracy.

SPLIT PERSONALITIES: Fredric March, above, and Spencer Tracy with Ingrid Bergman and Lana Turner, below

After watching the two talkies, I definitely think the Rouben Mamoulian version from 1931, starring Fredric March, is by far the stronger of the two, largely because, as it’s pre-code, it can be a lot more daring in sexual terms. This version amounts to a powerful attack on oppressive Victorian morality, making the story all about sexual repression. It’s suggested that Jekyll, who in this version, as in the Barrymore one, is again young and beautiful, is being driven to despair by being forced to undergo a long engagement to the virtuous Muriel (Rose Hobart).
He is tempted to take on his second identity in order to have a sadistic affair with music hall singer/prostitute Ivy, leading to murderous violence. Something I liked about the movie was that it is sympathetic to Ivy, played by Miriam Hopkins, who is shown as beautiful and alluring and does her best to tempt Jekyll, but certainly isn’t dismissed as a “bad girl”. The scenes with Jekyll and Ivy in this version are the sexiest scenes in any of the three, I’d say – a shadowy outline of her swinging bare leg is still there in the next scene, showing how he is haunted by her. This is just one of the scenes which uses striking experimental effects, with another being the one where Jekyll first transforms into Hyde, a moment which is also one of the greatest sequences in the Barrymore version .

The film might seem anti-feminist in that Muriel’s refusal to enter into a sexual relationship before marriage drives Jekyll/Hyde to his crimes – but, complicating this, she only rejects her lover because she is too dutiful a daughter to her overbearing father.
Unlike Barrymore or Spencer Tracy, whose features are still clearly there when transformed into Hyde, March looks unrecognisable. His heavy ape-like make-up is apparently to suggest that he is turning back into the beast beneath man’s civilised surface.

There’s a lot of interesting discussion of the 1931 movie in ‘Dangerous Men’, by  Mick LaSalle – unfortunately I’ve taken this back to the library, but I remember that he looks at the film in the context of March’s other pre-code films, which often see him suffering from alcoholism, in tears and caught in a spiral of self-destruction. I’d be fascinated to see a few of these. LaSalle says that March says the line “I’m in hell”, which in this film he speaks to Muriel, in several other movies too. I do find his performance powerful and can see why he won the Oscar, though for me Barrymore is even better.

The Victor Fleming version of 1941, starring Spencer Tracy, seems rather weak and watered-down by comparison – there isn’t as much openness about sexual repression, although the opening, with a man screaming out abuse in a church, struck me as quite disturbing. Again, Jekyll is torn between “good” and “bad” women, but in this version Ivy (Ingrid Bergman) is a barmaid and singer without any suggestion that she is a prostitute, something made clear in the pre-code version.

For me the biggest problem with this version is that Tracy is miscast. I do usually like him as an actor, and think he is fine in the scenes as Jekyll, where basically he just plays the sort of character he usually plays – tough and slightly world-weary, with a sort of abrupt charm. But things go wrong as soon as he turns into Hyde. Unlike both Barrymore and March, he doesn’t have the sort of volatility to make him believable as a snarling psycho – he just seems to be going over the top, and it doesn’t help that he hardly has any make-up and still looks like himself! I feel pretty much the same about Tracy in this film as I do about Bogart (one of my very favourite actors) in another horror film, The Two Mrs Carrolls, where Bogie plays a tortured painter with a split personality – he too is fine in the more realistic scenes, but not where he has to chew the scenery and turn into a psycho. There’s the feeling of the studios shoe-horning both these fine actors into roles which just weren’t suited to their talents.

At first I thought Ingrid Bergman had been miscast, too – her attempt at a Cockney accent is wildly unconvincing, with every third word sounding Swedish. (Tracy sticks to his usual accent.) But after a minute or two, it’s clear this doesn’t matter – I think she is brilliant as Ivy, giving a shimmering intensity to her role, and seeming so terrified of Hyde that she makes him frightening to the audience. I’ve read that Bergman was originally supposed to play the good girl, Jekyll’s fiancee Beatrix, but wanted more of a challenge and swapped parts with Lana Turner. If this is true, then I definitely think Bergman made the right choice – for me this version is her film all the way. Turner is also fine as Beatrix, but has far less scope.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920)

I’m intrigued by the idea of watching different movie versions of classic novels and seeing how they vary, but often come unstuck when doing this, because I find I’ve forgotten one version by the time I watch another! However, I’ve managed to watch three versions of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in a relatively short space of time, so they are still all quite fresh in my mind.
The earliest of the three – though the third version I actually saw – is the silent 1920 movie starring John Barrymore, directed by John S Robertson. Having mainly seen the somewhat wrecked figure of Barrymore in talkies like Grand Hotel and Dinner at Eight, when years of alcoholism had taken their toll, I was half-startled to see just how weirdly beautiful he was in his silent heyday. As this early version hasn’t been released in Britain on DVD, and I can’t fork out for imports of everything I’d like to see, I watched it online at the public domain site  www.archive.org . I’m sure it would be much more striking if seen on a larger screen – but, even peering at a smaller picture, it still makes a powerful impression, full of eerie light effects. Barrymore’s face is strikingly white, almost ghost-like, during the scenes he plays as Jekyll. By contrast, as Hyde, he is always in darkness, and wanders through crumbling Victorian streets full of sinister shadows.

John Barrymore as Jekyll, with Martha Mansfield as Millicent Carew, and Barrymore as Hyde, with those creepy prosthetic fingers.

Since Barrymore was so strikingly good-looking at this point, with that “great profile” at its greatest, it’s all the more unnerving when he somehow twists his face into a hideous caricature of itself to become Mr Hyde. The first time he undergoes his transformation, he hardly uses any make-up, doing most of it with expression and posture – although he does have prosthetic fingers, which, in close-up, suggest how his whole being is becoming deformed. Later on, as Hyde’s evil grows, he does acquire heavy make-up, as well as ghastly false teeth. He walks hunched up as Hyde, shrouded in a black cloak – I found myself reminded of Olivier as Richard III, so was interested to read that Barrymore was actually playing Richard III on Broadway at the same time as filming Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. I wonder how much the two performances influenced one another – and also whether Barrymore influenced Olivier?

Barrymore has a spidery quality as Hyde, with those long fingers… and there’s a remarkable dream sequence where he goes to bed as Jekyll, then a giant spider steals on to his bed, moves towards him and somehow envelopes him, and he wakes up as Hyde.  I’ve only seen a handful of silent movies as yet, but have been surprised to see how much experimentation they include with things like this dream sequence… and how many special effects film-makers did manage to achieve so many decades before the advent of CGI.

In Robert Louis Stevenson’s original novel, there is no love interest at all. However, all the three movie versions I’ve watched feature central love plots, involving “good” and “bad” women, with Jekyll clinging to his virtuous fiancee in a desperate hope she might save him from himself, while Hyde glories in dominating and terrifying the “bad” and sexy woman. Also, in all three versions, the “good” woman is rich and the “bad” woman is poor! I’ve read that all three versions draw on an early stage adaptation.

In this early movie version, Jekyll is a saintly doctor who spends all his time concentrating on his work with the poor, until his sophisticated friend, George Carew, persuades him that he should really delve into other areas of experience. Reviews at the imdb point out that Carew seems to be based on Sir Henry Wootton in Wilde’s The Portrait of Dorian Gray – and I noticed that Carew actually uses a line taken straight from Wilde: “The only way to get rid of temptation is to yield to it.”  Ironically, Jekyll is in love with Carew’s daughter, the virtuous Millicent (Martha Mansfield), but the father’s suggestion destroys his daughter’s chance of happiness.
When Jekyll transforms himself into Hyde, he embarks on a destructive relationship with an Italian singer, Gina (Nita Naldi), but then discards her – there’s a chilling scene where he looks at her with contempt and turns to a new, fresh-faced young girl who he plans to corrupt in turn. I thought this version gives the feeling of Hyde carrying out a whole career of hidden corruption better than the  later versions – but the women are really just cardboard cut-outs and not developed as characters.

I was quite surprised to see that the parallels between the central character’s split personality and drunkenness are already brought out in this early version – there’s a scene where Hyde sees a man in a bar who is squirming around in agony, and is told that he thinks he is being attacked by red ants. Very similar to the spider.

The melodrama and the exaggerated movements of silent movies have now stopped worrying me, but  the jangling musical box-style soundtrack accompanying this version is definitely an annoyance, often sounding unseasonably jolly at a scary or agonising moment. I found the film improved a lot when I turned the sound off!