Frankenstein 1910

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 " 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
Seven years before Frankenstein was made, Edison Studios produced a documentary short called Electrocuting An Elephant. It showed the execution of Topsy, a former top attraction at Luna Park, the grand amusement complex at Coney Island in New York. An enraged Topsy had recently killed one of her keepers, the third fatal incident in three years, and in an effort to defuse the inevitable bad publicity, the park's owners staged a mock trial sentencing her to death by hanging. A little unfair perhaps, considering that she had only become enraged in the first place after her late keeper had flicked a lit cigarette into her mouth for a lark.

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
By the time Frankenstein was produced in 1910, Westinghouse's despised AC electrical system had become the accepted standard, and still is today. Yet the embittered Edison's preoccupations didn't percolate through to the film made under his supervision. Electricity played no part in the Monster's creation, and unlike later versions, the tale's psychological aspects are emphasised at the expense of the visceral. The Monster is portrayed instead as a Dorian Gray / Mr Hyde-like personification of it's creator's baser nature, an avatar of a guilt-ridden conscience which rarely poses a physical threat.

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 Frankensteinas 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.

The enigmatic Edison trade
catalogue,  re
discovered in 1963
There had been other attempts at Mary Shelley's story prior to James Whale's famous 1931 version. In 1915, Ocean Pictures produced Life Without Soul, starring Percy Darrell Standing as the Monster and William Cohill as the scientist "Victor Frawley". The film flopped spectacularly on it's initial release, and a re-vamped version with spliced-in scientific stock footage flopped again a year later. An Italian production, Il Mostri di Frankenstein, was produced by Albertini Films in 1920. Details of the latter production are scarce, and both films are assumed to no longer exist.

Animator Willis O'Brien was involved in developing a stop-motion version of the story with First National studios around 1928, which unfortunately never got beyond the planning stages. Another dead end was the intriguingly-titled
Frankenstein's Trestle, made by Edison's studios in 1899. This film had nothing to do with Mary Shelley's saga but was a travelogue about a rail bridge over the Frankenstein Cliffs in New Hampshire.

In the early eighties, pieces of the 1910 Frankenstein began to appear on TV and home video. It transpired that film collector Alois Dettlaff had inadvertently acquired a print in the mid-1950's but had not realised its significance until decades later. For several years the distrustful Dettlaff licensed out short segments of the film for a few thousand dollars a time, and it wasn't until 2002, just three years before his death, that he finally consented to releasing the full version.

Rumours had long circulated that the film was considered too shocking for turn of the century audiences, some going so far as to say it had been deliberately suppressed. It seems more likely that in an age when films were not expected to have any longevity, it simply got lost in the crowd. Though contemporary reports suggest that the film was well-circulated, Edison Studios alone churned out over 100 'features' that year, and there was no established market for horror movies as the genre didn't exist yet.

Not surprisingly, there is little actual horror in evidence in Frankenstein. The creation scene, where the creature is brought to red-tinted life in a seething vat of chemicals, does look quite startling by 1910 standards. The effect of tissue and skin forming over a bare skeleton seems to have been concocted using a life-size dummy photographed in reverse. The rest of the film, however, is much tamer. The plot summary in the 'Edison Kinetogram' is at great pains to emphasise the "mystical and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale", going so far as to state that "...we have carefully omitted anything which might by any possibility shock any portion of an audience."

Nevertheless, director J. Searle Dawley invests his drama with all the flair that a three-day shooting schedule and a $500 budget might conceivably allow. Scenes where the Monster and his creator confront each other in Frankenstein's home make inventive use of a mirror to draw parallels between the two protagonists, continuing to a lyrical finale where the Monster fades out of existence, leaving only his reflection behind. Dawley had begun his career with Edwin S. Porter's crew in 1907, and managed to deliver over 300 movies during his time with Edison. He was among the first to fulfil the role of 'film director' as we know it today, and gave a young D.W. Griffith his first acting job in Rescued From The Eagle's Nest in 1908. 

Portrait of the Monster as a
Young Man: Charles Ogle
The Monster itself, as portrayed by Charles Ogle, is pitiable rather than frightening. He's closer in some ways to Shelley's original concept than later incarnations (he is clearly seen to speak on a few occasions), but lacks the murderous impulses of his literary predecessor. Ogle himself can reasonably take credit for the Monster's look and mannerisms, as it's highly likely that he created the costume and make-up himself. Ogle was forty-five years old at the time, and well into a long career as a character actor. He moved to Universal in 1915, where he continued to perform in quite prominent roles, often opposite long-time friend Mary Pickford, and starred with Lon Chaney Sr in the 1920 production of Treasure Island.

Playing the Monster's creator is Augustus Phillips, a respected Broadway actor previously part of the Spooner Stock Company, though he's not particularly impressive here. The third of the named cast members is Mary Fuller as Elizabeth, a talented player and one of the first actresses to get an on-screen credit (in Aida, 1911, opposite Ogle again). Fuller became disillusioned with the film industry and abandoned her career for good in 1916, her whereabouts unknown until a reporter tracked her down in Washington over a decade later. She died alone and penniless in 1973, in the mental hospital where she'd spent the last twenty-five years of her life.

Despite claims to the contrary, Frankenstein was not the first American horror film. That distinction most likely belongs to a long-lost 1908 production of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Furthermore, it cannot be described as influential when even its existence was doubted for decades. Even so, the film's landmark status is nowadays beyond dispute, thanks mainly to its enigmatic history; thematically though, it was a false start. Like Victor Frankenstein himself, it had the misfortune to be just a little ahead of it's time.

End Credits:
Augustus Phillips (Frankenstein), Charles Ogle (The Monster), Mary Fuller (Elizabeth)
Writer/Producer: J. Searle Dawley, Photography: James White. From the novel by Mary Shelley.
Edison Studios, New York USA
Running time 16 mins

Information in this article is taken from Frederick C. Wiebel's exhaustive and highly recommended book 'Edison's Frankenstein', which is available on a CD-ROM along with a DVD of the film itself. For a real horror story, follow the heroic Mr Wiebel's attempts to wrest this precious film from the scaly clutches of it's paranoid and monomaniacal "owner". I guarantee it will send a shiver down any film buff's spine.

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