The Forgotten: Torture a Duckling

Hammer spoof Jekyll and Hyde, dance hall culture, and themselves, in a long-unseen, justly-neglected horror comedy.
David Cairns
It's safe to say that The Ugly Duckling (1959), a decidedly weak Hammer films comedy, would have been utterly forgotten, except that it was rumored to be lost for decades. This always seemed both weird and unlikely for a film from the latter half of the twentieth century, and one that had been released by Columbia in the U.K. and U.S., but the film was a flop and was certainly unavailable after its initial release, which granted it a certain mystique (rather like the genuinely M.I.A. London After Midnight, always supposed to be rather a dull film, but the source of great intrigue due to its invisibility).
Though a Hammer film, directed by Lance Comfort (who would also make the more earnest horror flick Devils of Darkness), and though based on "ideas stolen from Robert Louis Stevenson"—specifically The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—this is a broad, childish comedy, without many actual laughs, but it does have historical interest, and illuminates certain tendencies of Hammer and British films and society.
Hulking comic actor Bernard Bresslaw plays clumsy, dopey Henry Jekyll, descendant of the original schizoid scientist, now working in the family chemist's shop. The chance rediscovery of his grandfather's formula transforms him into suave, pencil-mustached Teddy Hyde, who gets involved in a jewel heist run from the offices of the local dance hall. Hilarity fails to ensue.
It's quite odd: Hammer had just struck it rich with Curse of Frankenstein and Horror of Dracula, but their first attempt at a Jekyll/Hyde narrative is a spoof and an update. A year later they would make The Two Faces of Doctor Jekyll, a proper color Gothic version, recycling the idea of Hyde as the more attractive figure, and re-using actress Norma Marla, who isn't in any other film. I guess if you're going to specialize in appearing in handsome Hyde pictures, you won't get much work.
There's more weirdness afoot: despite hardly anyone going to see it, it looks very much like Jerry Lewis or his frequent co-writer Bill Richmond did, because not only is the suave Hyde/Buddy Love idea recycled (to much better effect) in The Nutty Professor (1963), but details like his intimidating a barman as his first evil act are reproduced in the later, better film.
Then there's names: the "youth" figures have strange, grotty nicknames like Snouty and Bimbo, the crooks have generic/wrong handles like Peewee and Fish, but Henry's kindly uncle is called Victor. Victor and Henry are the main characters of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, but the Universal version swapped them around to make Henry the creator and Victor his love rival. Hammer swapped them back but made Victor a ruthless villain. Duckling writers Sid Colin and Jack Davies (looong careers, never did anything good) probably weren't consciously trying to pastiche their studio's more serious works (they could have had a lot more fun parodying the new horror conventions)—I suspect they just fecklessly plucked the names from the air, and the names were in the air due to Curse of.
Though the movie is mostly studio-based, the dance hall scenes offer an educational if dismal view of the entertainment on offer to young people in post-war Britain: convening in reverberant, barn-like structures to shuffle despondently about to Joe Loss (the name is apt) and his big, bad band. Hey, they could always go down to the Roxy and see The Ugly Duckling instead.
With the name "Teddy," movie seems to be playing on anxieties about "Teddy boys," the first juvenile delinquent figures to alarm the tabloid press, but Hyde's age and criminal tendencies ally him more naturally with the figure of the "spiv," the slick black marketeer types who arose as a reaction to wartime rationing (which continued in the U.K. until 1954!), a figure which could be darkly glamorous (Harry Lime) or comical (Flash Harry in the St. Trinians films). At any rate, the film doesn't seem eager to do much with the idea, and Jekyll stops transforming long before the climax anyway.
Hammer's "sexual politics" are in evidence: the otherwise sympathetic uncle scolds Bresslaw for getting involved in burglary while under the influence, rather than "throttling a blonde," like his distinguished forebear. Interestingly, the Terence Fisher movies' leering attention to plunging necklines is absent, in favor of tight slacks and low angles to show off the female characters' shapely posteriors. Absolutely all other Hammer films are breast-centric, to almost Russ Meyer levels.
The most obvious Hammer attribute here is an irruption of James Bernard's three-note Dra-cu-la theme to score the blurry transformation scene. This is clearly an afterthought, and the film's most enjoyably peculiar moment is when the scene changes to downstairs and the music drops in volume as if it were literally playing in the room with Jekyll/Hyde.
British film comedy was suffering under the long, dark aegis of Norman Wisdom, whose gormless "gump" character was the U.K.'s inane answer to Jerry Lewis. Had this film been made with Wisdom in the lead and a more helpful title, it might have made sense as a commercial proposition and even gotten a few laughs. But the low-wattage casting, the radio-style script where characters constantly describe what we can already see is happening, the worthless heist subplot, all conspire to scupper comic energy and invention. And one doesn't necessarily expect logic, but having established that (under the Clark Kent rule) nobody can identify Jekyll and Hyde as the same person despite them looking the same and both being enormous, but suddenly, in the third act, a character with no inside knowledge is able to do just that. It's almost as if nobody cared.
Star Bresslaw, who would go on to appear in innumerable entries in the Carry On series, including as lugubrious butler Sockett in the excellent horror parody Carry on Screaming! (1966), had been up for the role of the Creature in Curse of Frankenstein, owing to his impressive 6'7" height. Film history could have been very different if he'd taken Christopher Lee's place: Hammer gave no thought to Lee's handsome looks when smearing him with putty for that movie, but were able to slide him into the role of Dracula a year later where the actor's distinguished, faintly exotic appearance and magisterial manner propelled him to stardom and the movie to classic status. Bresslaw was a funny man, but I'm not sure he'd have had the same impact.
The rest of the cast is worth noting: Hammer stalwart Michael Ripper is present and correct as a henchman; Jon Pertwee, later lead in TV's Doctor Who, is Victor. Reginald Beckwith, memorable as a medium in Jaques Tourneur's Night/Curse of the Demon, exists to be driven into apoplexy by Bresslaw's well-meaning incompetence. You could almost make a proper horror movie with this lot. See also What a Carve Up! (a.k.a. Home Sweet Homicide!, 1961) which is graced with horror legends Michael Gough, Dennis Price, Michael Gwynn and an unblinking Donald Pleasance. Poorly written but stylishly directed. Best of all, see Carry on Screaming! which, trying to parody Universal's horrors, winds up looking exactly like a Hammer film through sheer limitation of resources, and borrows its plot from Warners' Mystery of the Wax Museum, with a spooky "regeneration" scene presided over by Pertwee which seems to parody The Creeping Flesh, which would be made for another nine years... now that's spooky.
The Forgotten is a regular Thursday column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.


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