Saturday 25 July 2009

The Son of Dr Jekyll (1951)

Director: Seymour Friedman
Stars: Louis Hayward, Jody Lawrance and Alexander Knox

This 1951 Columbia picture starts as it means to go on, with a bunch of guys with torches chasing the monster. This time out it isn't Frankenstein's monster, it's Edward Hyde, who has murdered his wife in their Soho flat and is trying to get home to turn himself back into respectable Dr Henry Jekyll that nobody will suspect. He manages it too, though the mob sets his house on fire in the process so that while he escapes from the mob he doesn't escape their vengeance. He takes a tumble off the roof to his death, dying in front of everyone by the light of their torches.

Now there wouldn't be much of a story if the focus of it dies at the beginning of the film, and with the title is about as obvious as it could be. Sure enough, the moment after Dr Curtis Lanyon pulls the sheet over the corpse of Dr Jekyll, he's summoned back to Hyde's place in Soho to spirit away his son, Edward, out the back way to avoid the mob. Lanyon is Jekyll's best friend and trustee to his estate, but as he's a bachelor he leaves it to his friend John Utterson, a prominent attorney to bring him up, unknowing of his heritage.

And we promptly skip forward 30 years to 1860, the time when young Edward Jekyll inherits his father's estate, after already having been kicked out of the Royal Academy of Science. Lanyon and Utterson, now Sir John, are wary of telling Edward about the history of his father, especially as he's about to marry Sir John's niece, Lynn, but they feel that they must. So Lanyon fills him in and he heads over to take a look at the family house. It doesn't take long for him to get fully back on his father's track. He cleans up his house, equips his lab and restarts his experiments. He even hires his father's butler, who turned up one night and asked to be rehired.

Of course it took less than one night to stir up the first incident and these naturally escalate quickly. The papers smother the front page with stories like 'Mad Doctor's Son at Jekyll House'. Journalists sneak into the house to snap pictures of him trying to throw them out. Little boys throw stones at his windows and old men run away when he says boo. He even meets the Sorelles, a family of actors who know his mother, show him scrapbooks and tell stories about how bad his father was. And while he initially wants to get his father out of his system because, as he says, 'legends don't die, they have to be killed,' the more this idiocy happens, the more he wants to clear his father's name. Given that this is a horror movie, you can't be too surprised that this attempt leads him to court, Lanyon's sanitorium and the danger of being mobbed himself.

Very much in the old Universal vein, this tries to elevate itself above the B picture level and doesn't do a bad job about it. The story is formulaic with a predictable ending and more than a few conveniences, but it still has some interesting takes on the Jekyll & Hyde story and it's shot and acted professionally. There's only one transformation scene and it's a really good one, Jekyll's head moving from side to side as he lies on the floor and becomes Hyde. It isn't the rapid fire genius transformation that I still can't explain from Sh! The Octopus but it's similar in style and very nicely done indeed.

Best and most obvious on the acting front is Louis Hayward, with Rhys Williams and Alexander Knox solid in support. Hayward plays the double role of Jekyll and Hyde, actually a triple role given that he's both Jekylls, father and son both. He's a decent actor and a forceful Jekyll, reminding very much of Patrick MacGoohan with maybe a hint of Orson Welles. He was no strange to the romantic pulp lead, having the first man to play the Saint on film and one who played everyone from Captain Blood to the Count of Monte Cristo, from the Man in the Iron Mask to Dick Turpin. He also played the Lone Wolf, Michael Lanyard, but not on film, instead taking the part for a 39 episode TV series in 1954. This may not be the feather in anyone's cap but it's a sold entry in a solid filmography.

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