To continue with our series of silent film titles which you can access for free online thanks to a number international archives during these strange times of lock down we look at the first adaptation of one of most famous titles in film and literature. Our previous posts include the American drama The Italian (1915), D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909) and British drama Hobson’s Choice (1920). Mark Fuller introduces another classic American title, J. Searle Dawley’s Frankenstein (1910):
It seems suitable that the first screen version of the Mary Shelley novel is itself as much a concoction of disparate parts as the Monster we are most familiar with that of the Universal horror franchise of the 30s and forties. But, just as Boris Karloff’s Monster has little in common with Mary Shelley’s tortured creation, the creature, as he is referred to in this Edison production, is different again.
This ‘Liberal Adaptation’ as the opening titles of the film has it, is as one would expect, compressed to fit within the one-reel format of the majority of 1910 films; depending on the projection speed, this version lasts between twelve and fourteen minutes in total. The most basic elements of the plot are retained from the first part of the novel; a young gentleman called Frankenstein goes to University, experiments, and creates life; a giant humanoid creature that then pursues him home to bring destruction to his family house. But that is pretty much all that is retained from the novel.
The main concept in the film, however, seems to be borrowed from another Gothic novel; this creature is explicitly described in an intertitle as being a monster created from “The Evil in Frankenstein’s Mind”…. this creature is not merely the result of the use of a damaged brain as in the Universal films, or a lost amoral creation as in Shelley’s novel, but an overt reflection of part of its creator’s personality; the Mr Hyde to Frankenstein’s Dr Jekyll. Like Hyde, this creature is a more primitive aspect of its creator, a missing link-type creature in his physicality. In 1910 there was much interest in the workings of the mind, but this psychological reading of Frankenstein was more than topical; it would be another ten years before Freud would publish his theories, for instance. The Evil Doppelganger/Twin take on the creature in this film will be made yet more explicit in the film’s ending, but I won’t spoil it for you.
Having said that the themes are at least topical for its time, the film itself is technically a curate’s egg. Stylistically the film looks even older; it is utterly studio-bound and static, the acting is over-dramatic; that does in fairness suit the material, but that style was already, by 1910, being discarded elsewhere for greater naturalism; the creation of the creature is indeed a spectacular special effect, powerful and well thought out, but nothing that Méliès could not have done ten years earlier; the props, such as the patently fake skeleton, or the painted flats, like the furnace-like cabinet in which the creature coalesces, also seem to be from an earlier era, as do the predictive intertitles, inherited from the Victorian chapter headings that tell you what you are about to learn in the forthcoming pages.
But I will absolutely say that if you are intrigued by silent film, and/or a fan of later horror films, then this film is well worth fourteen minutes of your time; not the first horror film, but very early and a step along the way to the films you are more familiar with. And we are lucky to have the opportunity; for decades the film was surviving in cultural memory only through a publicity still of Charles Ogle in his creature costume, looking faintly ridiculous in a static pose that doesn’t actually occur in the film itself. It was in Denis Gifford’s 1970’s Pictorial History of Horror Movies that I and many others first saw this photograph; it’s referenced in the first season of The League of Gentlemen; but for the text Gifford had to rely on the publicity synopsis from Edison’s newsletter; the film itself was long lost.
Fortunately one, just one, mildly damaged original nitrate print had survived in private hands, eventually landing with an eccentric US-based film collector called Alois Dettlaff. He all but held it for a ransom for a while; wanting all sorts of cash rewards, honour and recognition. Eventually he relented, of sorts, and made the film public by putting it onto a privately released DVD, and accompanying it to screenings, dressed as Father Time and giving lengthy rambling speeches. Nevertheless, thus it was that in 2002/3 people were finally able to see Charles Ogle in action, and the fabled Edison Frankenstein, for the first time in 90 years.
The print has now passed into the Library of Congress Archive, has been properly stabilised, cleaned and restored and is presented with an excellent piano score by Donald Sosin. Enjoy !!