A while ago I reviewed the 1932 version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and I claimed that about half the film was great, and half the film was utter garbage. Well, this star-studded Victor Fleming directed version eliminates most of the garbage, and in so doing eliminates a good deal of what made that original film great. It's much smoother than the earlier version - by the early forties Hollywood had learnt to add that protective sheen to everything. And, to be perfectly honest, I think that the gloss here actually does make the film better.
After all, this movie is a love triangle between Spencer Tracy (his usual charmingly charmless self) as Dr. Jekyll, Lana Turner (fiance) and Ingrid Bergman (mistress); both of the women have never looked better. All three of these people are much, much more interesting than the three protagonists of the earlier film. And while the Mr. Hyde stuff is a little less viscerally thrilling in the 1941 film, the Dr. Jekyll stuff is just so much better. It's actually competent, entertaining filmmaking in and of itself. The love scenes between Jekyll and his fiance aren't cloying and horrible, because you actually feel like these are people who legitimately care about each other, rather than two actors who don't give a shit. And Ingrid Bergman's first scene is... well... it's probably the sexiest seduction scene ever put on film. There. I said it.
Another reason this film is better than its 1932 counterpart is that, though the film is less visceral, it is actually more creepy. In the 1932 film, Frederic Marsh's makeup as Hyde was, quite frankly, a little silly looking. Here, Spencer Tracy is wearing hardly any makeup at all - he does it all with a creepy smile and some hair dye. After the first transformation, there is a moment when he looks into the mirror and asks himself, "is this the face of evil?" It's creepy and effective because it's not much different from his regular own face. Evil is in all humans, all the time, and it doesn't need bad sideburns and a monkey face to come out.
The editing also often adds to the overall creepiness of the film. there is a scene where Dr. Jekyll is walking through a park, whistling to himself. He stops, looks around, confused. He continues to walk on, still whistling. He stops again, looks around again, this time visibly scared. He starts to walk on again, but finds himself turning into Mr. Hyde. This scene as described is pretty much identical to a scene that occurs in the 1932 film. But the difference is in the editing. In the 1941 film, Jekyll walks in long shot, whistling. Then, without warning, the sound drops out, and we're on a close up of Jekyll, standing completely still. He then starts to walk away again in longshot, still whistling. Cut to silent close up, he's standing still, looking terrified. The film is dropping small amounts of time, intentionally dislocating us, making us feel as dislocated, confused and creeped out as Dr. Jekyll himself. It's an incredibly well done sequence, and something that the earlier film just did not have the maturity to pull off.
There are things that were great in the early film, that this film doesn't do nearly as well. the transformation sequences in the 1941 film all have an irritating Freudian pop-psychology veneer that makes them seem riduculous and over-thought, whereas the transformation sequences in the 1932 film are just hella cool looking. The 1941 film is also a tad overlong, moreso than the 1932 film. But these minor complaints are basically irrelevant - The 1941 film is just so much better.