Drink Tank cover by Mo Starkey!
While I desperately try to recover my voice (it's better, but still not recordable!) I figured I should re-run an article from The Drink Tank, my old Hugo-winning fanzine now gone a year-and-a-half, that ties in to the latest 52 Episodes to Science Fiction Film Literacy on Frankenstein (and let's be honest, the serial The Phantom Empire is taking a LOT of willpower to make it through!).
So, here's the article on the first screen Frankenstein!
52 Weeks to Science Fiction Film Literacy Week 2- Thomas Edison’s Frankenstein
Thomas Alva Edison invented the modern world. It’s impossible to overstate how important he was to what we’ve managed to become in this strangely modern world of ours. His innovations including the incandescent lightbulb and the mimeograph all made this world we live in realistic instead of an image cast against some far-off wall of Future. The invention of his that I most appreciate is his contribution to film.
While there are many people who could have claimed that they invented the movies, Edison is the one who would most likely sue you if you made that claim. His Kinetoscope, and later Kinetophone, were important parts of what introduced moving pictures to the American public. Edison’s company established the production techniques that defined the first two decades of film production. It should be no surprise that many of the firsts of filmmaking were done under the Edison banner.
Edison’s men like KWL Dickenson and Edwin Potter are responsible for many of the early advancements in film, including the introduction of sound, color, and editing. It shouldn’t be much of a surprise that Edison’s studio was the first to bring one of the most iconic of all early science fiction films to the screen.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein had been hugely popular for almost a century by the time that Edison’s people put it to celluloid in 1910. There’s no need to go into the story of the actual Frankenstein, but the way it was presented by the Edison company, which noted that it was ‘liberally adapted from Mary Shelley’s novel’, is very different, certainly a more traditional storyline for audiences of the day. It was a simple story, sort of, and while certainly science fictional, with a far more fantasy slant. Good Doctor Frankenstein goes off to college, and like many young people who leave home to study, discovers the secrets of life and death. He uses this secret to create a new life home, a monster. He thinks it will be a thing of grace and beauty, but instead it’s a monster the likes of which a more generous god would never allow. The story is really about Frankenstein and his beloved and the Creature who is insanely jealous of her. Of course, once the Doctor is fully into the love of his girlfriend. The Monster runs to the Doctor’s house, looks in the mirror and disappears.
Trust me, it’s better than I make it sound.
The performers here are really good. Dr. Frankenstein was played by Augustus Phillips, a well-known actor of the day who was in more than a hundred films in a decade. Of all his films, only about 10 are known to still exist in their whole form. Mary Fuller, a big time player from about 1913 through 1917 who then crashed and burned, played the love interest. The Creature was played by Charles Ogle. Ogle was a big name of the stage who came and did a ton of movies, mostly as a character actor. He did almost 300 films, a fair number of which still exist.
There is a lot to learn from Edison’s Frankenstein. The first is it is never east to adapt an existing property. This is a very very very different project than Shelley’s novel. It’s much easier to be grasped and much less spooky. It’s a tale of jealousy and the Doctor is shown to be a much more sympathetic character than he is treated as in the book. The presentation of the monster is much different from any other Frankenstein. He is something of a misshaped conglomeration, far more organic and vegetal than any other version I can think of. He’s not the hardened industrial monster of Whale’s Frankenstein, nor the parts-is-parts monster than Mr. Robert DiNero portrayed in Branaugh’s Frankenstein in the 1990s. While it’s hard to judge Ogle’s performance in the light of 100 years of acting progress, it’s easy to see that he was in the vein of acting in the 1910s. There’s none of the quiet pathos that many of those who have tackled The Creature instill in their performances, but Ogle does his level best to get the over-the-top emotion that only a monster can experience.
For many years, it was believed that Edison’s Frankenstein was a lost film, that all copies of it had gone out on that lonely ice floe. It wasn’t until the 1970s when Alois Detlaff came forward and let the world know that he had a Nitrate copy. Not in perfect shape, it was the only existing full copy (no more than a few feet were known to exist otherwise). He allowed a copy to be made on safety film, and later authorized a DVD release. This was a big deal, as it was one of the few films that had been known as a ‘lost film’ to be found and then released on DVD. Sadly, I don’t think Alois lived to actually see it hit the streets.
There is so much more to this film. The techniques used for the creation of the monster are pretty lame, even for the times. It was done by making a wax figure, putting it into a furnace-like situation and then filming it and showing it backwards. It was a technique that takes back as far as the Destroying and Building Up the Star Theatre short from 1901 where the destruction of the building was captured in time-lapse and then played backwards, making it look like it was being re-built. The Star Theatre was something of a sensation, but by 1910, the technique was old hat. Still, it’s kinda creepy to see the results. The static shots are typical of films of 1910, though the settings are simpler than most. It wasn’t shot in the Black Maria, which Edison had stopped using as the shooting location a few years prior, but was shot in The Bronx, supposedly in one of the more modern studios that had started popping up.
The Edison company’s list was huge, and literary adaptations were popular, but it might be fair to say that this was one of the most important pieces of early American science fiction. It was a sensation in the 1910s, shown around the world and considered one of the best films of 1910, but it lost importance after the release of Frankenstein in 1932 because that version was seen as far more important and closer to the novel, and therefore should be seen as the canonical version. This happened many times, as films like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea or the Snow White which inspired Walt Disney as a child, when a better version would become available, would see the older one largely discarded. That practice led to the loss of many of the most important early literary adaptations. One of the rare examples was the Wizaed of Oz, where the release of the new version led to the older, silent versions getting more attention.
You can find Edison’s Frankenstein on YouTube and there is a recent release of a preserved version on DVD to celebrate the Centenary of its release. It is a significant piece of film history and should be viewed not only as an important part of the story of science fiction’s filmic evolution, but as a part of a story of the study of film history.
Klaus at Gunpoint
A Film Journal dedicated to all film.A segment of Office Supply Publishing.