Director: J. Searle Dawley
"Instead of a perfect human being the evil in Frankenstein's mind creates a Monster..."
Lost and forgotten for decades, this hidden treasure was finally unearthed more than ninety years since it first graced a cinema screen. From the studios of Thomas Edison comes the first cinema version of Mary Shelley's classic tale, in which the young medical student Victor Frankenstein attempts to create a living being through artificial means...
After years of study at college, Victor Frankenstein believes he has stumbled upon the Mystery of Life itself. He writes to his sweetheart Elizabeth that "...in a few hours I shall create into life the most perfect human being that the world has known!..." In his laboratory, Frankenstein adds chemicals to a huge vat within a bolted chamber, and watches as meat and bone coalesce into human form. . .
To his horror, the thing that finally emerges is not a perfect human, but a hairy, misshapen creature that haunts his nightmares. Frankenstein returns home to marry Elizabeth, followed by the jealous monster who menaces his bride-to-be on their wedding night...
Part 1: The Revenge of Topsy
|Topsy's doom, 1903|
Thomas Edison's involvement began when the owners realised it would be almost impossible to hang a ten-foot-tall, three-ton elephant. Instead, Edison offered to set up an electrocution using Luna Park's lighting generators, on the condition that his studio's cameras could be there to record the event. This not only provided Edison with an arresting film subject, but also with a convenient demonstration of the lethal effects of the AC power supply championed by his business rival George Westinghouse. In his ongoing efforts to discredit Westinghouse's system in favour of his own company's DC supply, Edison had staged (and often filmed) the executions of dogs, cats and even a horse.
Crass sensationalism and animal cruelty had been grist to Edison's mill since 1895. One of the very first subjects that his studio had presented to a thrill-hungry public was The Execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, a seventeen second long depiction of a beheading which would set the tone for much of what came later. A glance at any Edison catalogue would reveal such delights as terriers savaging rats, cockfights, grisly real-life battlefield footage and a host of re-enacted lynchings, scalpings, assassinations and executions.
But those heady days were not to last. In 1903 Edison Studios moved from the old "Black Maria" property in Orange, New Jersey to an expanded facility in the Bronx, mirroring a need to move away from exploitative Nickelodeon fodder to more sophisticated fare. At the new premises, Edison pioneered the division-of-labour production methods which helped to establish the specialised roles of the film industry. Then came Edwin S. Porter's ground-breaking The Great Train Robbery (1903), whose innovations rendered the rest of Edison's output old-fashioned almost overnight. Things changed rapidly in cinema's infancy, and Edison never again quite managed to catch up with the tastes of the movie-going public.
|Charles Ogle as the Monster|
This somewhat timid approach is perhaps understandable given the political climate at the time. Edison's response to the industry's rapid growth had been to persuade the competition to join him in setting up the Motion Picture Patents Company ("The Trust") in 1909. This merger of film producers, distributors and affiliated manufacturers created a great deal of autonomy for the developing movie business.
But with its new-found power came responsibility. Churches and reform groups sought to halt the perceived moral decline that the new moving pictures represented, so to deflect the looming moral backlash, the Trust had opted to self-regulate. The first Board of Censors was set up in 1910 and ironically, it was the proto-horror Frankenstein that was among the first films produced fully under the board's watchful eye.
But what about poor Topsy? By 1910 all that was left of her was a few ornamental body parts decorating the offices of various Luna Park executives. Her celluloid martyrdom had lasted only a few seconds -- nervous officials had made sure of that, placing conductive boots on her feet and lacing her last meal with massive doses of potassium cyanide -- but her legacy outlived her by more than a lifetime. For years Edison continued to screen her demise as propaganda against the evils of AC current, and the film is still regularly shown to the public as part of the Coney Island Museum's historical archive.
Topsy's only starring role was a forerunner of the 1910 Frankenstein, as that film in turn was a forerunner of the torrent of Frankenstein stories and images that have flooded our cultural consciousness ever since. She was, it could be argued, a prototypical Man-Made Monster, a creature destroyed and then made immortal by the inventions of a scientist flawed by intellectual vanity. A symbol of primitive destruction brought down by the collective forces of social order.
The original Luna Park, Topsy's home and the site of her execution, burned to the ground on August the 12th 1944. The cause of the fire was thought to be an electrical short circuit.
Part 2: '...When this marvellous work is accomplished, I shall then return...'
For many years, the only evidence that the silent Frankenstein even existed was a copy of the March 15th, 1910 edition of the "Edison Kinetogram" trade catalogue, discovered in 1963 by film researcher Edward Conner. The publication featured a lengthy synopsis of the film illustrated by two grainy pictures, and a cover featuring the Monster, later identified as Charles Ogle, captioned "Scene from FRANKENSTEIN, Film No. 6604". There were no details of the cast and crew, and this tantalising snippet described a film that everyone assumed was lost to history.