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Cult Movies: 'Daughter of Dr Jekyll' (1957)

By Edited Aug 23, 2016 0 0

Many films remain remembered for their critical reception; a select few are recalled for a single critical comment. Andrew Sarris, founder of the auteur theory of film studies, remarks in his The American Cinema (1968) “anyone who loves the cinema must be moved by Daughter of Dr Jekyll,” suggesting to me that Sarris spent a lot more time at the art-house appreciating, rather than the grindhouse, enjoying. For an august critic such as Sarris to hurl a pithy bon mot at Daughter of Dr Jekyll (1957) is a case of killing a fly with an elephant gun; one feels this ammunition is better aimed in a different direction. Sarris' point is valid in one sense however; it's tough on the emotions to see a film so intent on beating itself up and overwhelming its own, few, good intentions. 

Gloria Talbott
On the other hand, a film unworthy of close examination can buckle under a positive appraisal, such as that of Gary Don Rhodes, who claims the film’s lead character Janet Smith (Gloria Talbott), exemplifies the search for a new feminine identity in the face of masculine containment and aggression during the straight-laced 1950s. Sarris and Rhodes reminds one of David Wingrove’s remarks on King Kong vs. Godzilla (1963) in his 1985 Science Fiction Film Source Book: “it is possible to read this symbolically, as a clash of Japanese and US cultures, but it’s also possible to see it as...very silly.”

Daughter of Dr Jekyll irked Sarris in that the film's title gives away a main plot point, Smith’s shock discovery that she is the offspring of the infamous scientist. I suspect Sarris’s annoyance only grew during the opening sequence where a narrator assures us neither Dr Jekyll, nor his demonic alter ego Mr Hyde, will ever prowl the streets again, at which point a suspiciously hirsute and be-fanged gentleman turns from profile towards the camera, says “are you sure?” and laughs like a lunatic. Before the opening credits then, we know the lead female character is the late Dr Jekyll’s daughter, and as soon as the fellow with whiskers shows up, we’ll also know the killer's identity. Some movies, you feel, don’t care if we like them or not.     

Daughter of Dr Jekyll is also one of those Hollywood period films that despite all its efforts to convince us of its setting (southern England, around 1905), can never shake off the certainty of being shot in contemporary Los Angeles. In the opening scene proper, where a vintage car pulls up outside a foggy country house, one can discern the croaking of frogs, the familiar sound effect Hollywood ladles over every night-time scene to make sure the viewer knows just how much at night a scene is set. Alas, the Pacific Tree Frog, of the world-renowned ‘ribbit,’ isn’t found outside the Americas; British frogs are naturally more reserved than their transatlantic cousins, and do not carry in such a fashion.

Adding to this unmistakable American air are the two visitors, Janet Smith and her fiancé

John Agar
George Hastings (John Agar). Gloria Talbott’s accent is pure cut glass, but although born in England, we learn she has spent her life in America since orphaned as an infant; now turned twenty-one, Janet is returning to learn of her legacy from her legal guardian. Whereas Janet never lost her upper class accent, her fiancé never had one; George Hastings is a very English name, but he’s played by John Agar, who couldn’t be a more 1950s American if came he chrome-plated with tails-fins, drinking a malted and reading Archie comics.  

The accent is on accents, for greeting Janet and George are the obligatory sullen handyman, Jacob (John Dierkes, the preacher in the memorable climax to 1963’s The Man with the X-Ray Eyes) and housekeeper Mrs Merchant (Martha Wentworth, the voice of Nanny in Disney’s 101 Dalmatians [1961]); the latter informs the newcomers she isn’t local, but “comes from near Liverpool,” when really her voice would send a needle spinning to all points of the compass. To make matters worse, both Jacob and Mrs Merchant are employed by a Dr Lomas, played by Arthur Shields with his distinctive Irish brogue. The other maids seen in the film seem to have undergone a Pygmalion transformation from cockney sparrows to royal ladies-in-waiting. Adding to the unreal air of the setting, an unconvincing miniature model stands in for the house in all the exterior shots, arguably the worst performance in the film.

No sooner has Janet arrived then she retires to her room for a gratuitous corset scene as she gets ready for dinner with the help of a maid named Maggie, who frets at the lateness of the hour. Laying it on somewhat thick, Maggie is both scared of the rising moon, and of staying at the house at night and makes for the village as soon as she can. Maggie is a Star Trek red shirt in prototype, although Janet doesn’t know this of course, with Star Trek still ten, sorry, sixty years in the future.     

Janet and George (who is now wearing a quite horrid striped rowing blazer), meet Dr Lomas, Janet’s guardian; unaware of the engagement, he experiences one of the film’s last remaining surprises. As her legal guardian, Janet believes the money she has received while growing up in America is Dr Lomas’, but he reveals it is all part of her inheritance as heiress of the property and its lands, due to her now she has turned twenty-one. Dr Lomas adds there are other important details, but it can all wait until tomorrow, as if to compensate the viewer for giving away the plot before the film began by eking out what little tension remains.

Later, Janet and George (why does that sound like a children’s book?) investigate one of the upper rooms for a secret room, because houses like this always have a secret room and wouldn’t you know it, they find a secret room and it’s what else but a secret laboratory. Dr Lomas is on hand to explain the test tubes and Bunsen burners where all used by Janet’s father in experiments long before her birth. And at last Dr Lomas can tell Janet the truth, because it’s now the tomorrow he mentioned earlier or, noting the film’s title, Dr Lomas sees it's pointless in keeping the secret.

The director at least spares us the scene where Janet learns her father's identity (and if you need me to tell you it’s Dr Jekyll, I will hunt you down and pour cement down your throat); instead, Janet confronts George and tells him the marriage cannot go ahead. To help explain Janet's decision, Dr Lomas takes the pair to the family crypt, where he explains Dr Jekyll and he were medical students together, with Jekyll becoming increasingly obsessed by his experiments in separating the bad and good sides of humanity, resulting in the nasty Mr Hyde. In what sounds like mashed-up horror fan fiction, Dr Lomas tells the pair he saw Dr Jekyll’s death at the hands of a baying mob which hunted Jekyll/Hyde drove a stake through his heart. “All this,” says Dr Lomas, “took place twenty years ago.” Maybe, but George’s “Let’s get outta here!” in the next scene as he tries to persuade Janet to leave, has a distinct Eisenhower-era lilt. Dr Lomas knows the villagers still fear Dr Jekyll is afoot and George, as sure as mom’s atomic apple pie, doesn’t want to stay and find out. However, as Janet is a woman who has received surprising news, Dr Lomas checks her nervous system before prescribing hot milk and bed-rest.

The night brings another full moon and, uh-oh, a dream sequence, where Janet hunts and kills Maggie in the misty woods. Now, because the dream sequence is overlaid upon Janet tossing and turning in her bed, we know she can’t really have killed anyone. Janet doesn’t realize this, waking up to find bloodstains on her nightgown and mud on her feet.

Over the breakfast bacon and eggs, George again insists on leaving, at which point Jacob brings in Maggie’s body. Jacob growls “a werewolf, Miss Jekyll,” which proves Jacob has seen at least two horror films but has gotten them confused. Jacob explains in a gruff American accent to Mrs Merchant how he’s “been talking to the boys down at the pub” about the killing; nice try Jacob, but the English grammatical syntax when it comes to pubs is beyond the grasp of the most learned academic, let alone an American b-movie scriptwriter.

Daughter of Dr Jekyll
The rest of the day passes in a non-existent manner and so another night and another full moon sees Dr Lomas again administering to Janet. Once more she suffers a Hollywood dream sequence, this time killing a young woman who’d rejected her lover’s advances with a good honest slap across the chops. Janet awakens with blood on her hands and an ongoing ignorance of how dream sequences work.

The time arrives, according to George, for reasonable explanations; after all, “we’re living in the twentieth century!” (It is oddly comforting to think of people saying “we’re living in the twentieth century” in 1905, as we might have done in 1999). Taking a scientific, if misdirected approach, George reads a book about werewolves, just as Janet asks if he wouldn’t mind driving a stake through her heart, if it’s not too much trouble. Before George can point out that’s the cure for vampires and not werewolves, Dr Lomas appears with the news of the coroner’s summons for Janet to attend Maggie’s post mortem. This extra vexation to the nervous causes Janet to go walkabout, and she is later found laying next to the entrance to the crypt, with Jacob, not one for discretion, whittling a wooden stake nearby. 

In a film much concerned with sleep and sedation, Dr Lomas drugs Janet up to the eyeballs, what with yet another full moon and all (never mind England, I’m starting to think this film isn’t set on Earth). Dr Lomas is taking no chances this time and nails the windows shut and stations himself at Janet’s bedside.

During the night however, Dr Lomas places Janet under hypnosis and leads her up to the attic. George follows the pair into the not-very-secret laboratory. Dr Lomas commands Janet to kill, and then to kill herself. The good doctor’s bad side comes to the fore as amid some nasty pukey sound effects, Lomas changes into something less comfortable. The werewolf/Mr Hyde/vampire Dr Lomas attacks George, knocking him out cold, and runs away for a spot of rampaging.

The monstrous Dr Lomas (what would his transformed name be? ‘Dr Lomas and Mr Sloughbottom’ has a ring to it) spies on a woman getting dressed (Marjorie Strapp, listed in the credits as ‘woman getting dressed’); the village technology geek, she listens to a gramophone record as her telephone rings. Woman Getting Dressed has subscribed to some sort of village monster warning system, as the operator warns her to look out for trouble. Too late, of course, and the operator asks "is something wrong?" to a freshly mauled corpse. May she forever Dress in Peace.

The loss of the only person in the village who'd know what to do when internet pornography gets invented is too much for the men to bear, and they form a gun-toting mob. Back at the crypt, George comes round to find Janet attempting to end it all, and sedates her by explaining the plot of the movie; Lomas attempted to frame Janet for his alter ego's murders and so claim the estate for himself.

Dr Lomas returns with the villagers not far behind, and beats up George for old time’s sake. George gets in a lucky punch, knocking out the doctor and Jacob proves his point by ramming a stake through Lomas’ heart. The monster, the narrator returns to tell us, will “never prowl the night again,” only for Dr Lomas to turn to the camera with “are you sure?” and heaven help us, we’re back to the start with a film that serves as its own sequel.

Overseeing this nonsense, director Edgar G Ulmer tarnishes a reputation for making silk purses

Detour
from cinematic sow’s ears. Ulmer began his directorial career with the respected Poe adaptation The Black Cat (1934) starring Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, but soon found himself consigned to Hollywood’s Poverty Row studios as a result of an affair conducted with the wife of a film producer, a nephew of Universal president Carl Laemmle. Ulmer brought a touch of class to low-budget features such as Detour (1945), The Man from Planet X (1951) and The Naked Dawn (1955), but with Daughter of Dr Jekyll having so little going for it in the first place, there’s little Ulmer can do other than point the camera. Despite this experience, Ulmer returned to science-fiction with Beyond the Time Barrier (1960) and The Amazing Transparent Man (1960), the latter featuring in a 1995 edition of Mystery Science Theater 3000.         

As an actor who appeared more than once in MST3K, John Agar is one of the poster boys of the 1950s monster movie. Starting out as part of John Ford’s repertory of actors, Agar starred in the director’s Fort Apache (1948) and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), both times co-starring with John Wayne. A few years on, Agar received top billing for some of the last films in Universal’s original horror cycle, starting with Revenge of the Creature (1955) and one of Universal’s box-office hits of 1955, Tarantula. Fed up with science-fiction, Agar left Universal, only to make Daughter of Dr Jekyll his first film made outside of a studio contract. As ever, Agar is his affably cheesy self, holding his own over the bizarre goings on around him without ever convincing the viewer he’s anyone other than good old John Agar in another one of those crazy pictures they keep making.  

Gloria Talbott enjoyed a productive career during the 1950s in both films (appearing with such box office stalwarts as Gene Autry, Abbott & Costello and Boston Blackie) and television, often in weekly ‘prestige’ productions such as Pepsi-Cola Playhouse and Fireside Theater. 1958 saw perhaps her most fondly remembered film, the unforgettably titled I Married a Monster from Outer Space, although by then Talbott had appeared in the Humphrey Bogart comedy We’re No Angels (1955) and the classic social drama All That Heaven Allows (1955). Concentrating on television in the 1960s, Talbott played guest roles in almost every primetime show you can think of: Lassie, Gunsmoke, The Untouchables, Perry Mason, Wagon Train, and so on, all with her characteristic resilience, and more than a match for whatever bullying, villainous male characters placed in her way.

Irish character actor Arthur Shields, already a veteran by 1957, came, like Agar, from the John Ford stable, co-starring with Agar eight years before Daughter of Dr Jekyll in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. Ford also cast Shields in Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) How Green was My Valley (1941) and The Quiet Man (1952), where he starred alongside his brother, Barry Fitzgerald. Usually cast as clerics or doctors, Shields also turned to television in his later career, making a memorable appearance in the One Step Beyond episode ‘The Stone Cutter’. 

In all, Daughter of Dr Jekyll isn’t the worst film ever made; it’s not even the worst film ever made starring John Agar (check out the 1966 shocker Zontar, The Thing from Venus, for instance). But, if you were a film lover of a certain persuasion, then yes, Daughter of Dr Jekyll will move you to tears; for everyone else, it is hard to care much for a film that doesn't care too much about itself. 

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