Frankenstein

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(6/10) In a nutshell: This supposedly first Frankenstein movie of 1910 turns the monster metaphysical rather than physical, but the gruesome special effects in the creation scene is fleshy enough. 

Frankenstein (1910, USA).  Written and directed by J. Searle Dawley. Based on Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein (1818). Starring: Charles Ogle, Augustus Phillips, Mary Fuller. Produced by the Edison Company. IMDb score: 6.5 Tomatometer: N/A. Metascore: N/A. 

Promo still of Charles Ogle as the monster, in make-up of his own invention.

Promo still of Charles Ogle as the monster, in make-up of his own invention.

Although the Americans and the Edison Company was a bit slow to jump on the sci-fi bandwagon, mostly leaving it to the French and the Brits, they ultimately did so in style in 1910 with the much fussed about adaptation of Frankenstein – often cited as the first Frankenstein film. Or did they? In this trimmed down and altered version on Mary Shelley’s novel, not much science remains.

Granted – Mary Shelley herself was pretty vague on the science part, but nonetheless claimed that Victor Frankenstein’s creation was achieved through scientific means, although verging on alchemy. The novel was also, among other things, a cautionary tale about man playing god with science. In the 1910 film, there is no science in the mix other than that Victor Frankenstein is presented as a scientist. The creation of the monster is more akin to magic and alchemy, and we are told through inter-title cards that it is the ”dark thoughts” of Frankenstein that turns the creature into a monster. The monster is also projected more as a metaphysical than a physical being. In this sense the 1908 version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, made by the rival Selig Polyscope Company, was more sci-fi than this Frankenstein. Anyway, since this is the first(?) movie outing of a monster that has since inhabited so many science fiction films, I have chosen to include it in the blog.

Here’s some background. The Edison Company was owned by the same Thomas Alva Edison who held over 1 000 US patents in his name and was highly influential in the invention of the light bulb, the movie camera, the x-ray, the phonograph, and revolutionized electrical distribution. He also happened to create the largest film company in the USA. In 1909 the film branch of his company was the most profitable of all his ventures – and a lot of the money came from patents that other companies had to pay for. But the Edison Company’s monopoly was shrinking, partly due to the popularity of foreign film makers, such as the special effects magician Georges Méliès, and partly due to the fact that ever more American film companies were springing up with their own patents. This Edison solved by creating a ”movie trust” with many of the larger companies, effectively creating a monopoly on the US market.

Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) and his skinny assistant in his lab.

Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) and his skinny assistant in his lab.

Another problem was that the growing film medium was catching the attention of religious and other groups, that were starting to voice their opposition to this new ”vulgar medium”. This did not bode well for the movies, and Edison didn’t want to fight moral groups, especially since he had just built a huge, expensive studio in Bronx, NY. On the other hand he knew that horror and shock sold the most tickets. So now there was a conundrum. There would have to be a new major production to celebrate both the studio and the trust, that would sell tickets, but not be too lewd for the critics. The answer: Frankenstein.

Well, a very watered down Frankenstein, that is. In addition to pleasing the critics, Edison as a scientist naturally didn’t want to paint a bleak picture of science. Hence the change from science to metaphysics. Edison also promised the public that this 14 minutes long ”epic” had been stripped of all the horror bits, and was presented as a moral play. That wasn’t exactly true, though, and the film was censored or banned in some places, mostly due to the pretty gruesome creation scene.

This is how it goes: In 14 short minutes we get the bare bones of the story. The young Victor Frankenstein goes to college – and ”after two years he has discovered the secret of life”, the inter-title cards simply tells us. Did he then attend a frat party, or just go for a cup of coffee, before discovering the origins of the universe? Anyway, then follows the most remembered part of the film: the creation of the monster, done very well in reverse-photography. The film makers first build up a skeletal being, then add flammable material to make a lifelike dummy, which they set of fire and let it burn down. Then they reverse the film, making it appear as though it is built up from scratch, rather than burned down. Add a single skeletal arm that is constantly flapping up and and down, and the effect is both gruesome and hopelessly, unintentionally comedic. The following film deals with the monster as a manifestation of Frankenstein’s doubts and dark thoughts, and not until he loves his fiancée unconditionally and has purged all impure thoughts, does the monster disappear into a mirror.

The gruesome and inventive creation scene.

The gruesome and inventive creation scene.

Charles Ogle as the monster – an unkempt cross between Ozzy Osborne, Nosferatu and Quasimodo – has since become an iconic figure, and it is obvious the Edison company did not spare expenses to make the movie. The creation scene must have been painstaking to make at the time, although it does seem like a pretty simple process in retrospect. But it was quite possibly the most impressive special effect of its kind to date, even outdoing the wizardry of Méliès (although the giant octopus in his partly lost 1907 film 20 000 Leagues Beneath the Sea was almost equally impressive). Frankenstein also features some pretty clever mirror effects, although one gets the feeling that more could have been made of it. On the downside is the fact that a substantial portion of the film is taken up with pretty meaningless wanderings in and out of rooms, and a lot more could have been done with the sets. Now it very much resembles a theatrical Kammerspiele with pretty unimaginative rooms, outside of which we never move.

The film was directed by J. Searle Dawley, who had a reasonably successful career at the Edison Company. The title role was played by Augustus Phillips, by all accounts a well employed bit part player throughout his 10 year long contract with the company. Mary Fuller, as Frankenstein’s bride, had a short, but successful career as both an actress and a screenwriter. Failing to bring the studio any money with her last films, she was kicked out in 1917, suffered several nervous breakdowns, withdrew from the public, and spent the 25 last years of her life admitted to a psychiatric institution, where she died alone in 1977. The monster, Charles Ogle, went on to become a respected character actor both on and off screen, perhaps best known as Long John Silver in the 1920 version of Treasure Island and for his lesser role in The Ten Commandments from 1923. Some sources name Thomas Edison as the producer of the film, but there is little evidence that he had much to do with the production, although the films is often referred to as “Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein“.

The film gained cult status because it was considered a ”lost film” for many years. This was the fate for many early films, as the value of preserving and archiving films was not always understood. It was officially labelled as a lost film in 1950, when the preservation of old American films started, but was rediscovered in a private collection in the seventies.

Janne Wass

Frankenstein, 1910, USA: Written and directed by J. Searle Dawley. Starring: Charles Ogle, Augustus Phillips, Mary Fuller. Produced by the Edison Company (possibly produced by Thomas Edison). Creature make-up: Charles Ogle. Also known as Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein.

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