By: Nick Elliott
Often referenced as the first great American horror movie, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was well received by audiences in 1920. It was directed by John S. Robertson and featured John Barrymore as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Two movies based on the story of Dr. Jekyll were released in 1920, however only John Barrymore did the character any justice and the other film flopped. Part of the success of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is owed to World War 1 having ended only two years before it released. German expressionism spawned many great horror films, but the US Government still refused to allow many German goods to cross the border, including German art. History shaped Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde beyond just eliminating competition. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was a reflection of America’s shifting cultural identity.
A key component in understanding the cultural significance of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is its monster: Mr. Hyde. Abject Theory (Kristeva 1982) is more appropriate for this film than the apparently obvious Monster Theory. Mr. Hyde is a product of British culture and isn’t an American creation, so the monster isn’t as representative of American culture as his abject display is. The appearance of Mr. Hyde: the long cracked nails, crooked dirty teeth, and domed greasy head; all help to create the abject persona separate from Dr. Jekyll. Kristeva claims that the abject disturbs our distinctions between the other and self. Few works accomplish this so literally as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As the viewer sees the righteous Dr. Jekyll transformed into the grotesque Mr. Hyde, they may wonder at their own identity and the abject within them.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was released at the dawn of a new era: the roaring twenties. With the new decade came a changing American identity. The western frontier was thoroughly tamed and technological advancement changed the shape of the American city. Our involvement in global affairs in the aftermath of World War 1 was unprecedented. The insular nation of farmers our founding fathers had dreamed of was disappearing. The twenties saw women gain the right to vote and the Harlem Renaissance. Yet many Americans still clung to the puritan ideal. Prohibition and the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan demonstrated the gaining popularity of fundamentalist groups. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde illustrates this identity crisis. Americans resonates with a protagonist split by opposite ideologies.
The fear of changing times appears in some themes of the movie. Around the turn of the century scientific advancement yielded horrors many Americans saw on the battlefield: tanks, battleships, mustard gas, and flame throwers to name a few. Dr. Jekyll’s experiment gone wrong reflects a darker side to science that many had seen first-hand. The potion and poison that cause the transformation goes well with the prohibitionist fear of mind altering substances. Many of Hyde’s actions reflect the fears of the fundamentalists at the time: frequenting pubs, sleeping around, attacking the elderly/wealthy. The abject Mr. Hyde was something very dreadful indeed for many Americans and, with the foil of Dr. Jekyll, reflected America’s “split personality” at the time.
The American identity crisis of the 1920’s is characterized by progressive leaps and fundamentalist resurgence. While the story of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde predates this era of uncertainty, its popularity demonstrates its value in American culture at the time. Through presenting an abject view of the transformation of Dr. Jekyll into Mr. Hyde, this movie reflected the fear of a changing culture.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Dir. John S. Robertson. Perf. John Barrymore. Famous Players-Lasy Corp., 1920.
“Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920).” IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 14 Feb. 2017. <http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0011130/>.
Rosenberg, Jordan. “The Roaring Twenties.” HACK It! WordPress, 20 Mar. 2015. Web. 14 Feb. 2017. <https://hackintohistory.org/2015/03/19/essay-topic-the-roaring-twenties/>.
Kristeva, Julia. “Approaching Abjection.” Oxford Literary Review 5.1-2 (1982): 125-49. Web.