A Couple of Bum Raps

Some people just don’t like the Spencer Tracy version of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” Among the charges laid on its doorstep are that it is too long, too talky and it’s not really a horror film. True it is longer that the Fredric March version, and it’s not as visually exciting, and unlike March’s almost simian Hyde, Tracy’s Hyde isn’t a monster. That’s true as well. Tracy’s Hyde is not hairy and fanged–he’s is simply pure, undiluted evil. All the evil that lies within the soul of Dr. Henry Jekyll has been freed, with no trace of residual goodness or pity to hold it in check. Tracy’s Hyde does rely upon makeup. It’s not quite as elaborate as March’s but it’s equally effective in its own way. With shadowing, wild fly-away hair and bulging, staring eyes, Tracy suggests not a Jekyll transformed but rather a negative image of the good doctor. While March appeared so monstrous as to make you wonder how he ever got admitted to even Victorian dives, Tracy initially just looks like a powerful bad man, a thug out for a night on the town. But as the film progresses, Tracy’s stunt-double (Gil Perkins?) comes to the fore as Tracy’s Hyde also becomes increasing simian–not in appearance, but in movement, especially in his spectacular swinging, swooping, loping escape from the rooms of the murdered Ivy Peterson. Now I certainly don’t want to take anything away from the legendary March-Rouben Mamoulian horror film, I simply want to suggest that the Tracy-Victor Fleming version, more of a costume film noir than a horror film, is also deserving of respect.

What 1941 Universal horror film directed by George Waggner and starring Lon Chaney, Jr. regularly gets a bums-rush from fans? Hint–it’s not “The Wolf-Man.” That’s right–it’s “Man-Made Monster.” Now, for the next question: why is that? I find it a perfectly acceptable Universal product. It’s short–a mere sixty minutes in length–it’s an interesting fusion of science-fiction and horror, and it’s perhaps more successful that the studio’s earlier attempt–the Karloff-Lugosi vehicle “The Invisible Ray.” Why am I speaking such blasphemy? O.K., consider–Karloff’s Dr. Janos Rukh never really wins the audience’s sympathy. From the start he is presented as angry and aggrieved, perhaps a little paranoid, that the rest of the scientific community scoffs at his theories. Once he discovers the powerful new element Radium-X, and becomes contaminated by it, his delusions of persecution only deepen. It doesn’t help his cause that the usually villainous Lugosi here plays the kindly Dr. Felix Benet who actually uses Rukh’s “invisible ray” to cure the sick and has never claimed credit for its discovery. In short no one has stolen Rukh’s glory, except in his own mind, so his murderous vendetta against the “thieves” who stole his work never rises above mere madness. Now by contrast, Chaney’s Dan McCormick is a likeable bozo whose acquired resistance to electrical shock, the product of his job as “Dynamo Dan, the Electric Man” at a travelling carnival, lands him in the sights of Lionel Atwill’s not-very-likeable Dr. Paul Rigas who openly expresses his contempt for everyday-Joes like McCormack and actually believes that the former carny performer will serve a more useful purpose as an electricity-fueled zombie under Rigas’ control. Only Lugosi was better than Atwill at playing malevolently mad scientists, and as soon as Atwill shakes Chaney’s hand you know that it’s all over for the big guy. The studio’s special effects team was on the ball as well and, despite the occasional annoying cut-in of stock footage of Kenneth Strickfadden’s Frankenstein lab equipment when Atwill is treating Chaney, the final effect of an ominously glowing Chaney, his face pinched and shrunken, is quite effective. Because we liked Dan McCormick in a way that we never liked Janos Rukh, this hour-long B-picture becomes a real tragedy of innocence betrayed and destroyed by heartless intellect, all in the name of Science.

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