One of the most famous silent movies during the 1920s was John S. Robertson’s adaptation of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. No theatre show or film, not even the novel, ever became as popular as this film adaptation. Ever since the book was released in 1886, hundreds of adaptations had been made up until this day, yet Robertson’s silent adaption, with the famous acting of John Barrymore, is still considered to be ‘the film’ about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Accordingly, the success of the film adaptation bases on the opportunities enabled by the roaring twenties feminist movement and the post-world area, as well as Barrymore’s perfect depiction of identity in the form of a monster. All this together, the work is both benefiting from the changes in American culture of the time, as well as shaping itself with its successful work.
First and foremost, the addition of two leading female star roles with Martha Mansfield as the innocent Millicent Carewe and Nita Naldi as the dancing, forbidden Ms. Gina, enabled a new great aspect to the storyline. By matching the ‘good’ lead girl to Dr. Jekyll it amplifies his innocent nature and identity, in the same manner as Ms. Gina enhances the bad aspect of Mr. Hyde. Hence, this successful directing move was only possible because of the changing times in the roaring twenties. In 1920, the same year as the film’s release date, women were given the right to vote through the 19th amendment, stating a great win for the feminist movement as it enhanced empowerment among women as they felt more in control of their own lives. This widespread sexual liberation movement was known as the age of the flapper. Nita Naldi, Mr. Hyde’s girl, depicts precisely the type of liberal movement that was happening during this decade among young women. Jordan Rosenberg describes the flapper (picture to the left) in his HIST 110 hack as “a new, innovative young woman who wore short skirts, […] and flaunted her disdain for socially acceptable behavior”, establishing this bad, yet desirable doppelganger aspect of a lead lady. Rosenberg continues, “[the flapper] rejected strict Victorian gender roles […] and flouting sexual norms by dancing provocatively with men in underground alcohol clubs”, describes exactly the way setting as the film first introduces Ms. Gina (picture to the right) to the viewers. Thus, by adding the two female leads, the film benefits and rides on the feminist liberation wave, as well as accepting the changes in culture and normalizing the movement and the flapper age through its work.
Moreover, the film is released less than two years after the end of WWI. It was a time when the economy was booming and the middle class was rising. Because of that, you could perceive this film as part of the changing industry movement. From making movies, watched by the few in the urban storefront Nickelodeons, to movies about the American Dream, about upward mobility, depicting a narrative of quality, greater than those simply aimed for the lower-class audience (Sternheimer). The movement is the most evident in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’s meticulous crediting of every character throughout the film, as well as in the beginning and end of the film. According to Sternheimer in her book Celebrity Culture and the American Dream, the very first movies of the 1900s were considered of such low standards that the actors, called players, were not even credited in the movie (Sternheimer). Instead, they were treated in the same manner as prompt, while the movie and technology behind filming was the phenomenon. However, Sternheimer also stated “the proliferation of movies during the first decades of the twentieth century bore a special bond with the American Dream and upward mobility” and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as a consequence of riding that industry revolution, the movie had just the right timing and were seen by many, distributed widely around the world and won many, many prices as a result of excellent acting and stunning directing (33). The aspect that the movie functioned as one of the first filmings of a horror movie, an excellent one as well, evidently enhanced and increased the spread of the movie, the prices won and the positive public response greatly.
Now, after expressing how the feminist liberation movement perfected the cast of the film, and the post world war area enabled the ultimate timing of the film, the final element of the film’s success is, simply enough, the film’s very own content. Fundamentally, the story examines the aspect of identity through the battle between the good and evil depicted in the creation of a monster. Regardless if its 1886, 1920 och 2018, the battle between good and evil within our identity will always continue to amaze us in our cultural. Consider the greatest famous books and movies of our times, they all depict a fight between good and evil in some manner. What is so cleverly done in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, however, is the depiction of good and evil within oneself. Sir. George Carewe, played by Brandon Hurst, expressed in the movie, “Which self? A man has two – as he has two hands. Because I use my right hand, Should I never use my left?”,
enhancing the theory of two selves (0:14:46). Shortly after, as Dr. Jekyll is contemplating Sir Carewe’s two very different natures, he decides to come up with a way to separate the good and evil nature within the self through science. Nonetheless, by doing so, by taking the potion and enabling his dark side Mr. Hyde to come out, he creates a monster. What is so fascinating about this monster is that he created it himself, through him
self. Thus, rising the question whether we all have a monster within us. According to Jeffrey Cohen’s sixth thesis of monsters, “fear of the monster is really a kind of desire”, where the monster attracts forbidden practices through its freedom, that we end up envying (16). He explains that the popularity of the monster roots in its function as safe expression of aggression and inversion for us. Dr. Hyde became such an infamous monster, because we all fear that we have such a monster within, a monster we unknowingly envy or desire because of its freedom to do forbidden practices. Further, Cohen presents the seventh thesis that express “the monster stands at the threshold… of becoming” which concludes the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde as it highlights the amazement of the monster that begin with us as the creator of the monster (20). Bringing us back to the very first scene of the 1920s movie, to tie the bag up all together.
“In each of us, two natures are at war– the good and the evil.
All our lives the fight goes on between them, and one of them must conquer.
But in our own hands lies the power to choose —
what we want most to be, we are.” (00:00:35)
Consequently, considering the monster theory together with the aspect of identity in a form of a battle between the good and the evil is imperial to reach the greatest understanding of this film. Accordingly, the film tells us about American cultural socially, economically and philosophically. By adding two female leading roles as two good/evil doppelganger to the already complex story the film tells us about the social reforms that was happening within our culture to enabling such a thing. By becoming one of the most profitable silent films of all times, the film tells us about the economic conditions during the post-WWI area that enabled just that. Lastly, by so geniusly depicting the aspect of identity, the good and the evil and shaping the monster and horror genre at the same time, it not only tells us about American culture but it shaped it and our way of perceiving early American film by adding quality content to a genre that was not even defined yet, in a movie industry that was just making its way from the lower-status Nickelodeons to the middle class theatres.
Sternheimer, Karen. Celebrity Culture and the American Dream: Stardom and Mobility.
Cohen, Jeffrey Jerome. Monster Theory: Reading Culture. University of Minnesota Press,
Robertson, John S., director. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Paramount Pictures, 1920.