(J. Searle Dawley, 1910, USA, 16m, BW)
Directed by J. Searle Dawley
Written by J. Searle Dawley
Based on Frankenstein
by Mary Shelley
Starring Augustus Phillips
Edison Manufacturing Company
Distributed by Edison Manufacturing Company
Release dates March 18, 1910
Running time 16 minutes
Country United States
Frankenstein is a 1910 film made by Edison Studios. It was written and directed by J. Searle Dawley. This 16-minute short film was the first motion picture adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The unbilled cast included Augustus Phillips as Dr. Frankenstein, Charles Ogle as the Monster, and Mary Fuller as the doctor's fiancée.
Frankenstein, a young student, is seen bidding his sweetheart and father goodbye, as he is leaving home to enter a college in order to study the sciences. Shortly after his arrival at college he becomes absorbed in the mysteries of life and death to the extent of forgetting practically everything else.
His great ambition is to create a human being, and finally one night his dream is realized. He is convinced that he has found a way to create a most perfect human being that the world has ever seen. We see his experiment commence and the development of it in a vat of chemicals from a skeletal being. To Frankenstein's horror, instead of creating a marvel of physical beauty and grace, there is unfolded before his eyes and before the audience an awful, ghastly, abhorrent monster. As he realizes what he has done Frankenstein rushes from the room as the monster moves through the doors Frankenstein has placed before the vat. The misshapen monster peers at Frankenstein through the curtains of his bed. He falls fainting to the floor, where he is found by his servant, who revives him.
After a few weeks' illness, he returns home, a broken, weary man, but under the loving care of father and sweetheart he regains his health and strength and begins to take a less morbid view of life. The film's story emphasizes that the creation of the monster was possible only because his normal mind was overcome by evil and unnatural thoughts. His marriage is soon to take place. But one evening, while sitting in his library, he chances to glance in the mirror before him and sees the reflection of the monster which has just opened the door of his room. All the terror of the past comes over him and, fearing lest his sweetheart should learn the truth, he bids the monster conceal himself behind the curtain while he hurriedly induces his sweetheart, who then comes in, to stay only a moment.
The monster, who is following his creator with the devotion of a dog, is insanely jealous of anyone else. He snatches from Frankenstein's coat the rose which his sweetheart has given him, and in the struggle throws Frankenstein to the floor, here the monster looks up and for the first time confronts his own reflection in the mirror. Appalled and horrified at his own image he flees in terror from the room. Not being able, however to live apart from his creator, he again comes to the house on the wedding night and, searching for the cause of his jealousy, goes into the bride's room. Frankenstein coming into the main room hears a shriek of terror, which is followed a moment after by his bride rushing in and falling in a faint at his feet. The monster then enters and after overpowering Frankenstein's feeble efforts by a slight exercise of his gigantic strength leaves the house.
When Frankenstein's love for his bride has attained full strength and freedom from impurity, it will have such an effect upon his mind that the monster will not exist. The monster, broken down by his unsuccessful attempts to be with his creator, enters the room, stands before a large mirror and holds out his arms entreatingly. Gradually, the real monster fades away, leaving only the image in the mirror. A moment later Frankenstein himself enters. As he stands directly before the mirror he sees the image of the monster reflected instead of his own. Gradually, however, under the effect of love and his better nature, the monster's image fades and Frankenstein sees himself in his young manhood in the mirror. His bride joins him, and the film ends with their embrace, Frankenstein's mind now being relieved of the awful horror and weight it has been laboring under for so long.
The development of the “horror” film, although as genre, it didn’t really get going until the advent of German Expressionism after the First World War. Still, a few examples and influences before, but for the theme this Edison movie is perhaps the best place to start, because, of everything made 100+ years ago, it is probably the most recognizably a horror movie. Edison no longer dominated the market at this time, but they were still producing some innovative films, as this demonstrates. The use of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s novel would return, of course, and arguably be done better in the sound period. But, this movie is not to be underrated. I particularly enjoyed the creation sequence and the emergence of the monster through an elaborate animation sequence. The creature itself is downright creepy, although maybe the poor quality of the print explains why I was able to imagine that some of the rags it wore were actually strips of skin. The end, in which the monster looks into the mirror and fades away, leaving behind its reflection, which Dr. Frankenstein walks up and sees, may be a kind of statement about the degree to which the creature is a projection of Frankenstein’s twisted genius, which, the movie suggests, is overcome by love.
Many silent films are early adaptations of material later made iconic in the sound era. It was silent cinema that first gave us The Ten Commandments and Cleopatra; The Great Train Robbery; Hamlet; Robin Hood, and The Thief of Baghdad. Nosferatu preceded Dracula by nine years, while there were two versions of The Wizard of Oz before Judy Garland donned her ruby slippers in 1939. Now, comparing a silent film to its sound remake isn’t a wise use of time if one is only interested in judging absolute quality—silent and sound films face different challenges in telling a story. But it is worthwhile, and enlightening, to compare films that treat the same source material in different ways. Such is the case with Frankenstein. The original Frankenstein film has no castle, lightning storm or shrieks of ‘It’s alive!” (not even through an intertitle). No stitches, green skin, or bolts in the neck. Its Monster is a lumpen hulk, wild haired and sneering; conjured in a cauldron of boiling chemicals, just like Mary Shelley intended him to be. Actor Charles Ogle tries for none of the sympathy Boris Karloff would win for the character 21 years later. Instead, he’s a boogeyman—a direct product of Frankenstein’s hubris. Perhaps he’s not even real.
That you can even debate the Monster’s realness says much for Frankenstein. Few films made in 1910 had much complexity at all, partly because they were so short. Frankenstein itself is less than 15 minutes long, and bears all the limitations of its period: intricate but theatrical sets; a fixed camera set at medium range; no dialogue; intertitles that describe the scene before it is shown. Audiences of the time still saw the moving picture as a spectacle unto itself; part of the entertainment was seeing a story they knew well portrayed in this unusual way.
Frankenstein is more than a novelty, though. It speaks plainly of the catastrophes that result from bad intentions, and by never clarifying the reality of the Monster, it achieves something almost no film from that period could: subtlety. Just who is Victor Frankenstein in this film? Early scenes depict him as the son of wealthy parents, headed to university to study anatomy. He has a fiancé, whom he intends to marry after completing his life’s work. We know all of this before the five-minute mark, but none of it tells us about the man himself. Are we to supply the rest? Viewers in 1910 would have known about Frankenstein’s arrogance and obsessive nature from Shelley’s book. Today’s viewers might add elements of Colin Clive’s 1931 mad scientist. But this is all the silent film tells us:
Instead of a perfect human being, the evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a monster.
This intertitle leads to the creation scene—a remarkable bit of special-effects that still works today (imagine tender meat falling on, rather than off, the bone). Upon being born, the Monster immediately attacks Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips), who faints upon his bed. The Monster then hovers over him for a moment, looking like a bad dream that’s still being dreamt.
Does the simultaneous appearance of Frankenstein and the Monster confirm that the Monster exists? All we know is that it has been created by ‘the evil in Frankenstein’s mind.’ This could mean (a) the Monster is a by-product Frankenstein’s evil nature, i.e. a dream, hallucination or split personality, or (b) Frankenstein’s evilness prompted him to build a being of flesh and blood. Without proof to the contrary, most viewers will assume (b).
But the matter proves very tricky. This Frankenstein has no Igor to help him—he works alone, and other than one, dubious exception, he is the only character who sees the Monster. We viewers see him all the time, of course. We witness the Monster following his creator home, confronting him in otherwise empty rooms, then hiding behind curtains when other characters appear. We are the only ones who see the Monster alone, as when he recoils before his own image in a full-length mirror.
Shelley left no doubt that her Monster was a fully independent, living thing. But consider the subtext of the 1910 film’s scenes involving Frankenstein, the Monster, and Frankenstein’s fiancé, Elizabeth (Mary Fuller). At home, away from the lab, in the gentle arms of his wife-to-be, Frankenstein seems at peace. However, the moment Elizabeth leaves the room, the Monster appears, and Frankenstein is again angst-ridden. When she returns, the Monster is out of view, and we read this intertitle:
On the bridal night, Frankenstein’s better nature asserting itself.
How are we to interpret this? We see the wedding guests departing the home, leaving only the new husband and wife. They embrace happily, and she precedes him to the bedroom (off-screen). He pauses, then walks off-screen in the opposite direction. The Monster now appears and skulks into the bedroom. Frankenstein returns and is nearly knocked down by the terrified Elizabeth as she flees the bedroom. She faints; Frankenstein and the Monster briefly struggle over her prone body. The Monster escapes.
Elizabeth, it seems, has seen a Monster on her wedding night.
The last intertitle reads:
The creation of an evil mind is overcome by love and disappears.
Fleeing his creator, the Monster tries to hide in the room with the mirror. He is again horrified by his own appearance, but this time, he doesn’t shy from it. The Monster then disappears, but his reflection remains, as Frankenstein now enters the room. For a moment, Frankenstein’s reflection is the Monster’s, not his own. Only when the reflection of Frankenstein matches the man himself does Elizabeth appear and embrace him again.
As different as Shelley’s novel is from the 1931 version of Frankenstein, they share an assumption that the Monster is real. The novel’s Monster embodies Frankenstein’s arrogance and folly—his flaws literally come back to haunt him. The 1931 film has the Monster interact with (and kill) so many people that his physical presence is undoubted. Only the silent version approaches it as pure abstraction.
Edison made this first movie adaptation of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN. The film was just fourteen minutes long and starred Charles Ogle as the monster. When I first heard about the film it was considered a lost film. There were stills of Ogle's make-up and some descriptions left--that was all. So many old films were lost forever, it was not surprising that this one was also.
Most Frankenstein films assume the title character built a monster of dead bodies and animated them with electricity. But the films have been made in an age of science. Mary Shelley is very vague about how the monster is created, but the approach seems to be more alchemy and mysticism than the rationalistic approach taken in the films. Shelley had the monster be more a mystical creature, created like the medieval mystics created homunculi. That is the approach of the 1910 film.
As far as the technical aspects, the cinematography ranks right up there with Nosferatu, Phantom of the Opera, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. There is simply a level of eeriness that only a silent movie can emit. The main difference between this film and other Frankenstein films, was the fact that the monster was not created from the dead's body parts. Instead, he was created in a gigantic witch's cauldron through some sort of primordial ooze. This was the very first "creation" film. At the time, the religious zealots thought the film was making a mockery of God, so the film was banned very shortly after its release. After that, it was condemned to obscurity, until a man named Alois Dettlaff resurrected it.
Like many films of its time, this version of Frankenstein is shot with a static camera, framed like a stage play. However, director Dawley has a few tricks up his sleeve; the sets are well crafted and there's innovative use of doors and a mirror to expand our perspective. No effort has been spared in decorating the sets, so that we're thrust into the hero's world, location instantly established and full of character. This means the film is free to concentrate on action - vital given its short running time (and the expense involved in making it).
This action takes a few liberties with the original story but has plenty of respect for the evolving Frankenstein myth. It draws on other gothic novels including The Strange Case Of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde and The Picture Of Dorian Gray, emphasising the connection between the monster and his creator, who seem at times to be almost the same being. In other scenes there's a notable homoerotic undercurrent, with Frankenstein swooning onto a bed at the mercy of his creature, though of course there's a beautiful heroine (Mary Fuller) on hand to help him recover his traditional virtues.
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