Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde, and John Keats

Poetry hit the big screen in some big and lasting ways in the 1930s. James Whale, for example, opened 1935's Bride of Frank- enstein by staging a discussion between Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, and Mary Shelley about the nature of Mary's horror story which Whale himself had brought to movie theaters in 1931. (That's Byron, who in the film calls himself "England's greatest sinner," pictured above.) Then, in 1936, Frank Capra made small-town poet Longfellow Deeds (played by Gary Cooper) the center of Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, a story which pitted the values of earnest, small-town poetries against the cynicism and condescension of New York and its literati. If we think of Bride of Frankenstein—with its campy black humor and extravagant hair-dos—as an unpredictable sequel to the 1931 flick, then we could do worse than think about Mr. Deeds Goes to Town as a sort of Depression-era warm-up for Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life.

Before Whale and Capra, however, there was 1931's Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, brought into being by director Rouben Mamoulian and starring Frederic March as the famous doctor who morphs back and forth between respectably professional Jekyll (he of the pent-up aching rivers who is kept from the affections of his fiance Beatrix by a future father-in-law who insists on postponing the marriage) and lustful, simian Hyde who abusively takes out Jekyll's sexual frustrations on a local dancer named Ivy.

Three-quarters of the way through the film, Jekyll swears off his addiction to Hyde. He destroys the bubbly potion. He gets rid of the key that allows him secret, back-door, after-hours entrance into his laboratory. He heads off to a social event at which his impending nuptials with Beatrix will be announced, but then disaster strikes. The potion is still in his bloodstream. Jekyll is unable to control its effects. He transforms into Hyde, misses the social event, kills Ivy, transforms back into Jekyll, denies himself his fiance's love, turns into Hyde again, clubs his future father-in-law over the head with a cane, and leads the police on a chase through London that ends at his laboratory and with his death.

But there's more to the story than that. There's also the poetry of John Keats. As the resolute, newly sober Jekyll heads off to meet his fiance at the social event celebrating their impending marriage—and before he loses control and turns back into Hyde—he walks through a park where, hearing a bird singing, he stops to contemplate life and death and the possible meanings of the bird's song. If Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde were a musical, this is the moment when the good doctor would launch into song. But this isn't a musical, and so he launches into a poem instead, quoting the first two lines of stanza seven from Keats's "Ode to a Nightingale":

Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird!
No hungry generations tread thee down...

No sooner does Jekyll thoughtfully repeat that first line then he sees a black cat lurking in the tree. He watches the cat slink down a branch. "Oh no! No!" he cries as he watches the cat kill and eat the bird. He again repeats, "Thou wast not born for death, immortal Bird" and immediately morphs into Hyde.

Like Jekyll's high spirits and resolution, the romantic moment is fleeting. Perhaps appropriately so because life in the bird world is different from life in the human world. Not only does everything go pear-shaped for Jekyll from there on out, but the Keats quotation itself disappeared from the story in 1941 when Victor Fleming remade the film with Spencer Tracy playing a far inferior Jekyll, Ingrid Bergman playing Ivy with a mixture of accents, and Lana Turner playing Jekyll's fiance. (In 1941, instead of quoting Keats in the park, Tracy goes a-whistling down the boulevard only to be interrupted by his gullet-clutching transformation into Hyde.)

As brief as it is, the moment is a spectacular articulation of the film's central tragedy, for while Jekyll quotes "Ode to a Nightingale" correctly, he quotes it to a bird that is not—not as far as the amateur ornithologists in the P&PC office can tell, at least—a nightingale. (Elsewhere in the movie, Jekyll, appearing as Jekyll, calls Beatrix a "starling," so it's not unreasonable to think the "nightingale" in the park was, in fact, a starling). In the act of speaking Keats to the wrong bird, Jekyll inadvertently queers what have been—up to that point at least—two separate discourses, and it is the queering or misapplication of these discourses and their respective subject positions that precipitates the identity crisis that leads to his own demise. That is to say that his loss of control and subsequent breakdown occurs in the realm of language before it does in body or mind. It's as if in misapplying or misidentifying the referent of the Keats poem, the walls separating the dichotomies of his life—Beatrix and Ivy, body and mind, man and ape, sexual appetite and social bearing, starling and nightingale, Hyde and Jekyll—come tumbling down as well. He is, for better or worse, unable to integrate these aspects of his experience into a new subject position: the "sole self" of the poem's final stanza.

Mamoulian's movie was made before the full enforcement of the Production Code and contains a surprising if not shocking amount of skin, violence and sexual content. To quote my nephew, "It's a little bit scary." When Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer remade Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde in 1941, most of this material was cut—a cinematic repression analogous to Jekyll's repression of his sexual desire early on in the movie. But the 1941 film cut out Keats as well. Could it be that poetry is a sort of Mr. Hyde for the 1941 version? A human experience that, once given voice, precipitates all sorts of crises demanding the disintegration and reconstruction of the self? A dangerous tool in the hands of people who might misapply it, who might ask "do I wake or sleep" at the wrong time and thus see the world around them anew? We are not Keats scholars here at P&PC. Nor are we ornithologists or film critics or linguists or Lacanian psychoanalysts, but we can't shake the feeling that Mamoulian's use of "Ode to a Nightingale" is not only a sophisticated reading of the poem—an act of literary criticism taking place in Hollywood—but that other scholars and specialists would find this moment of poetry in popular culture to be rich and provocative as well, as so many are.