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Produced by Thomas Edison's very own Edison Studios, J. Searle Dawley's
'Frankenstein' has been widely considered the first American horror
film. Thought to be lost up until the 1970s when it was recovered from
the infamous Alois Dettlaff's private collection, 'Frankenstein' has
slowly established itself as one of the greatest silent shorts within
the early horror genre.
The story quickly progresses, beginning with a scene of Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) leaving his fiancée Elizabeth (Mary Fuller) to attend college. Some two years later, Frankenstein learns "the secret of life" whilst working in his study one day. He immediately writes a letter to his fiancée, telling her his intentions of creating the perfect human being. Frankenstein proceeds to perform the now-famous experiment and The Monster (played by the wonderful Charles Ogle) is born. The Monster takes shape in a giant vat, located in a sealed off room which is viewed by Frankenstein through a single viewing window. As the once lifeless monster rises from the vat, Frankenstein becomes terrified of his seemingly ghastly creation. The Monster quickly breaks out of the barricaded room and into the laboratory. After a close encounter with The Monster; Frankenstein makes the decision to return home to Elizabeth. As Frankenstein and Elizabeth's wedding begins, they become aware that The Monster has followed Frankenstein back home and a night of horror ensues.
Our beloved genre's debut is filmed in the non-moving camera fashion typical of early 1900s films, inherently giving the impression of a stage play. The plot of this little short does not closely follow the plot of Shelley's novel, nor does it reflect that of the later Universal version, but none the less a startlingly unique and entertaining outcome it is. The photography is excellent and does well to continuously and tactfully reflect the mood being established. As seen in (most notably) John Barrymore's version of 'Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde' (1920) many of the laboratory scenes were shot using a brown tint whereas in the later part of the film, when the dark or horrific happenings begin to occur, a blue tint is used. Charles Ogle's take on The Monster is strikingly innovative and original, especially when compared to Boris Karloff's familiar 1931 portrayal. The makeup is excellent and apparently was applied by Charles Ogle himself (Ala Lon Chaney, eh?). The long fingernails, hunched back, and distorted face give Ogle's Monster quite a threatening aura as do his various facial contortions and arm-movements. Ogle's Monster is one fit for the ages and has become something of an icon of early horror cinema. Augustus Phillips does an excellent job portraying Frankenstein, with a broad range of emotions throughout the film and Mary Fuller proves to be a superb actress, playing the "damsel in distress" role superbly. One of the many qualities which stand out in Dawley's take on the tale was not only the innovative portrayal of The Monster, but the ending sequence. The defeat of The Monster is far more psychological and fantastic rather than scientific, which one wouldn't expect of a movie based around scientific advancements. Furthermore, beneath the surface of this incredible little short lies a premeditated philosophical meaning, one that is quite reminiscent of R.L. Stevenson's familiar tale of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Essentially, the film emphasizes the dual nature of man and his urge to unleash his inner-self. The Monster essentially represents the evil and unforgivable aspects of Frankenstein's persona. The mysterious ending sequence stresses this insightful use of symbolism. The outcome is a beautifully shot film, with convincing actors, innovative effects (for the time), excellent makeup, and a substantially intelligent and charming finale.
The very deepest roots of horror can be found in this little 16 minute gem. From the terrified look on Frankenstein's face when the first monster in U.S. cinema history comes to life, to the last moments of footage, the film leaves one captivated in its grasp. Myself being a long-time fan of the genre, thought it crucial to finally track this window into the past down. It is bewildering to look at this little atmospheric and strikingly intelligent take on Shelley's novel and to then look where the genre has come, with modern classics such as 'The Shining', 'Psycho (1960)', and 'Rosemary's Baby'. Edison Studios produced a true gem of early cinema - and the beginning of an epic genre and what an excellent beginning it is.
Although the 1931 Boris Karloff film is generally remembered as the
original "Frankenstein," many people don't know that this film, made by
Thomas Edison's production company in 1910, is really the first
adaptation of Mary Shelley's novel. This is an interesting film to
watch for historical reasons alone, but there are some other elements
that caught my attention. First of all, the creation of the monster is
handled differently from other versions; in this film the monster is
created not through science (or rather science fiction) but through a
technique that one could read as almost mystical. Frankenstein mixes a
number of ingredients together in a large metal cauldron. The monster
grows out of the cauldron in an interesting scene that was achieved by
taking footage of a dummy being burned and playing it backwards. As
many people know, Mary Shelley never states how the monster is created
in her novel, but I'm sure she didn't intend on it being created
through magic or alchemy.
The second thing that I thought was interesting was a pretty big departure from the themes of the original story. In the book, the monster starts off as a benevolent and gentle being who is driven to commit murder by the ill treatment that he receives from his creator (and everyone else, for that matter). The implication is that evil isn't innate but something that is learned from the cruelties that one experiences throughout his or her life. In this film however, it is explicitly stated that the monster is evil. The only time he feels anything other than hatred for his creator is at the end, when he vanishes after apparently being moved by how much Frankenstein loves his wife. We therefore have a transformation of a sad story about an unloved monster who becomes bitter and hateful after being rejected by the world around him into a much more simple story about the dangers of man playing God. Without the complex themes of the novel, the story is far less interesting (then again, one cannot expect any real depth in a twelve-minute film version of this story).
I guess my one real complaint about this film is that it is visually uninteresting aside from the cool monster creation scene. Most of the scenes consist of one shot from a stationary camera of the actors acting their scenes out as if they were on a stage. The monster really looks quite menacing in this film, but it comes off as far less menacing when he is shown simply walking into the same shot as Frankenstein and Elizabeth before attacking them. The only thing that keeps this film from becoming really boring in that respect is its brief length. Then again, it was made in 1910, and in the end it really is quite impressive for its time. In the end, it's still worth a look for anyone who wants to see the first true "Frankenstein" film.
This short film version of Mary Shelley's FRANKENSTEIN, made in 1910 always appeared in monster magazines, especially with the picture of actor Charles Ogle as the monster. He appears like an overweight court jester. I became lucky enough to get a copy of the film on videotape. This is like most films made before World War I, resembling filmed stage performances, with an unmoving camera. First we see the monster's creation, which takes palce in a vat, where his flesh fuses onto his bones like cotton candy on a paper cone. Next we see the monster claw at his creator, and frighten the creator's bride. No, it won't scare you (If it does frighten you, please seek therapy) but this is a unique chance to catch the actual birth of the horror film.
Over the years I've watched and enjoyed loads of early Biograph and
Vitagraph one and two reelers, but this was my first time with Edison's
take on Frankenstein which I understand was a lost film for decades. A
century later and it's on YouTube for all, such is progress! At this
time Film was changing from a collection of unconnected images to
having a coherent narrative - pre WW1 many exhibitors had to use
lecturers to help explain to the audience the film they were watching
delightedly. In movies nowadays when cameras aren't usually static for
more than a second but deliberately shaking or flying off in all
directions I could sometimes do with plot explanations too - if I could
The narrative in Frankenstein is crushingly simple: man goes to college, creates a monster, which in the end can't live with its evil self. The trick shot creation scenes hold up well, less so Frankenstein's excited peeping in at it happening through a tiny trap window. There's nice tinting for the most part, although the blue shots were very blue indeed! The final mirror scene was a pleasant surprise, although because they used to churn these shorts out from start to finish in less than 3 days I wonder if a heavy message was intended. And the ugly monstrous horror reminded me of the rock band Kiss.
Well worth spending 13 minutes sampling a slice of movie history.
By 1910, motion pictures already had 30 years of continuous improvement
since the time of its invention. What started as simple shootings of
common events in human life had turned into a brand new way of
storytelling thanks to the efforts of early pioneers like Georges
Méliès, Edwin S. Porter and Ferdinand Zecca. However, it was a new
batch of pioneers who finally completed the creation of the new art,
and gave birth to cinema as we know it. Among this new group of
filmmakers, the name of J. Searle Dawley is probably not as well known
as D.W. Griffith or Thomas H. Ince, however, Dawley was probably the
first professional director in the history of cinema, as given his
experience in theater, was hired by Edwin S. Porter specifically to
direct films. And in this position, he would be the first one to bring
to screen the horrors of Mary Shelley's immortal novel: "Frankenstein".
In this first version of the novel, Victor Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) is a young student of medicine, who moves to college in order to continue his research. He is looking for the ultimate secret of life and death, and has as a goal the creation of the most perfect human being the world has ever seen. After months of constant research, he thinks he has discovered the secret and sets his final experiment in motion. With a mix of science, alchemy and black magic, Frankenstein creates his creature, but to his surprise, the creation is far from the perfect being he had hoped to make, as his creature (Charles Ogle), is a deformed monster who disgusts and horrifies the young scientist. Frankenstein decides to abandon his creation and return home hoping to rebuild his life, however, the creature has followed him, and is now envious of Frankenstein's bride (Mary Fuller).
Adapted to the screen by J. Searle Dawley himself, the story in this adaptation is very simple, although considering its short runtime (aproximately 16 minutes), it captures fairly the novel's core plot. Dawley's version of the novel introduces a notable element of psychology, as in this film the monster is literally the living physical representation of the evil in Frankenstein's soul. This original take on the novel's plot is really interesting as it not only deviates from the novel but is also completely different than the better known version done by James Whale for Universal in the 30s. While of course the movie lacks the more complex themes of the original story, this interesting addition certainly makes up for it and makes the film to stand out among other early horrors.
Being a professional of theater, it was natural that Dawley's films carried that feeling of being filmed plays; however, one has to praise the fairly original visual composition of the movie, and of course, the very inventive use he gave to the many tricks and special effects of his time. Particularly notable is the scene when Frankenstein creates his creature, as even today, almost 100 years after its shooting, remains an amazing and very suspenseful moment of silent cinema. Of course, given his background it is his work with the cast what separates Dawley's work from other pioneers. Certainly what he lacked in cinematic vision, he compensated for with a good domain of his cast, pulling off great performances from his actors.
While Augustus Phillips is perhaps a bit over the top in his role, he is quite good considering it was his debut on film, and makes a nice portrait of the Doctor as a young man. The mysterious Mary Fuller (who would leave the industry in 1917 at the peak of her fame) plays Frankenstein's bride, in one of her earliest works as an actress, and Charles Ogle completes the cast as the monster. While certainly not a Boris Karloff, Charles Ogle's performance as the Creature is extremely good, and his talent shines in many memorable scenes. Story says he also made his own make-up, as probably he had performed the Monster before on theater during the early years of his career. Ogle's performance is certainly the film's highlight, and through his interpretation one can see why this role is one of the finest horror characters ever written.
The first version of "Frankenstein" is not only valuable for its enormous historical importance, but also for its artistic qualities as a version of the novel. While many may disregard it due to it's unimaginative visual quality and its stagy style, it is one of the films that show the progression of cinema as a narrative art form. Despite its short runtime, it is a very entertaining movie that still manages to be impressive after all these years. Decades before Christopher Lee and Boris Karloff, Charles Ogle became a monster and brought the immortal classic to life with terrifying power. Fans of the novel and horror fans in general, this is a must-see. 8/10
This twelve minute adaptation of Mary Shelley's tale has an element
that the later versions don't have. In this version Frankenstein
apparently uses some kind of potion to create the monster in a large
pot. You then get to see the monster emerge from the pot, first as a
skeleton, and then skin and even clothing form over the skeleton. This
was filmed by starting with a model of the monster, melting the form,
and then filming the reverse of this melting as the creation of the
The story starts with Frankenstein going to college. Here he never becomes a doctor, but apparently two years into his studies he has discovered the secret of life and death and is ready to create a perfect human being. Instead he forms an extremely mishapened creature. The creature then follows Frankenstein around, even becoming jealous of Frankenstein's bride-to-be. How the monster is eliminated is very odd, and I'll let you see it for yourself to find out how it ends. Just let me say that there are no crowds of villagers with torches and pitchforks in this one. Instead the ending is very Victorian and even magical.
This is very much worth looking at if you get the chance.
The first time I had viewed excerpts from this film was a re-broadcast
of the 1970s British anthology series "The Amazing Years Of Cinema,"
hosted by Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. It had been produced before the AFI
listed the Edison Company's "Frankenstein" on its Top-Ten "Most Wanted"
list. I taped a number of episodes of this series in the mid-1980s from
the Discovery Channel, on the Beta format (anybody got a Beta VCR they
can spare?). Viewing the creation scene was beyond fascinating, and has
imprinted itself upon my mind even to this day. I presumed that
eventually the film would be archived, restored, and made available
upon home video (the then-current, and future formats), but was
dismayed in the early years of this century to find this was not so.
Even the video/DVD "releases" of the late 90s were (from what I
understand) of such horrible quality (the imposition of "time codes,"
for starters) because Aldois Detalff refused to make the print
available to professional celluloid preservationists...he was paranoid
about not being paid enough to have this important cinematic document
claimed and preserved into perpetuity, so he hoarded the battered
print, gave it only sparse public screenings, and refused any bid under
$1-2 million to relinquish it into the hands of those better qualified
to save this work.
Now, Alois Detlaff is dead (as of 2005). Which (at risk of sounding cold and disrespectful) begs this question....
What will become of the sole remaining "Frankenstein" print? If there are any silent film buffs or insiders that have knowledge to this question, I would very much appreciate an answer and/or updates. I really, really hate to say this, but sometimes (for human history's sake) the survival and fate of one very, very important physical artifact should place priority over "respecting" the misguided ego of the last person known to have shielded it from the rest of the world (especially if the concern was largely about money, collector ego, and a mild strain of blackmail/greed).
It would be tragic if the only source print of this film were kept under lock and key until it disintegrates beyond repair because of its final owner's rapacious whims.
Again, any feedback is more than welcome...
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The first adaptation of Mary Shelley's classic horror novel,
'Frankenstein,' this 16 minute short by Edison Studios remains a hidden
cinematic gem, brimming with imagination and clever production values
for its day. The film was considered long-lost for many decades, the
only remaining traces of its existence emerging in 1963, when a plot
description and stills were discovered in an old Edison film catalogue.
However, in the mid-1970s, it was revealed that a Wisconsin film
collector, Alois F. Dettlaff, had been sitting on a print of the film
since the 1950s, unaware of its rarity. Though deteriorated to a
certain extent, the print was completely viewable, and included the
original tints and titles. Nowadays, with the advent of the internet
and the digital age, "Frankenstein" (1910) can be seen and enjoyed by a
wider audience of film buffs.
Though keeping with Mary Shelley's basic premise, the film deviates quite significantly from the source material. A young, brilliant student, Victor Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips), returns from college, fascinated with the concepts of life and death. It isn't long before he has discovered the secret of life, and so he attempts to create the "most perfect human being that the world has yet known." Unlike later adaptations, this 1910 version is unique in that it is the only film in which the Monster is truly created; as opposed to being constructed from various assorted body parts, he is formed from a bubbling mixture of chemicals or "potions." The birth of the Monster itself is a surprisingly frightening spectacle. As Frankenstein observes expectantly through a hole in the chamber, the hideously-disfigured shadow of the Monster rises ominously from the fiery cauldron, wreathed in flames and flailing violently amidst the heat. This scene was created by filming a monster-dummy burning, and then playing the footage in reverse. The look of sheer terror upon Frankenstein's face, as he realises that his experiment has gone so horribly wrong, memorably signposts the beginning of cinematic horror a terrifying and exciting genre has just been born.
The Monster (Charles Ogle) breaks free from its fiery prison, and Frankenstein flees in horror. As the stunned scientist gathers his nerves on the bed, the Monster emerges from behind a curtain, and we receive our first solid glimpse of the creature. The use of makeup effects is stunning, and the Monster, somewhat reminiscent of John Hurt's "The Elephant Man" Merrick (1980), is revealed to be a non-violent creature, attempting in vain to comfort his master and creator. As Frankenstein faints to the floor, his Monster retreats out of view. Some time later, Frankenstein returns to his home to marry his sweetheart, Elizabeth (Mary Fuller). To his horror, however, his faithful Monster, driven by love and devotion, has followed him home. There is a poignant moment in the film when, during a violent scuffle between the two, the Monster glances up to peer at his own reflection in the mirror. Horror-stricken by his appearance, the Monster recoils from the reflection and flees the room.
The film's carefully-planned final scene, played out in front of the same mirror, is also very memorable. Rejected for the final time by his "father," the hideous Monster stands before the mirror with its arms wide, as if imploring the reflection to consume him. He eventually fades from existence, though we can still clearly see his likeness in the mirror's reflection. Frankenstein rushes into the room and peers into the mirror, stunned to discover, not his own likeness, but that of his Monster, suggesting the tantalising possibility that his Monster represents the "evil" side of the scientists' personality, the monster within the man, almost as in the "Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde," by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886). Welcome to the horror genre!
(UPDATE: I've since discovered the existence of an earlier horror film, Otis Turner's "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1908)." I am unable to find a copy of it, though...)
Edison's production of Shelley's _Frankenstein_ is, for its time, groundbreaking. While it doesn't have the ingenuity of some of its predecessors, _A Trip to the Moon_ comes to mind, it is nonetheless a short that attempts to make effective use of lighting, smoke, and splicing. Thematically, it offers a Faustian approach to Victor Frankenstein. The actor who portrayed the Monster was, of course, overacting and part of that is due to the fact that this film is a silent feature that relies more on physical out-takes than dramatic monologues. I gave the film 9 out of 10, basing most of this score upon its clever use of effects and interesting (although only somewhat effective) use of themes.
This short film features Frankenstein leaving for college, discovering
the secret of life, and then creating what he hopes will be the perfect
human being. But, of course, it goes horribly wrong and instead out of
his experiment comes a monster! This film is seriously pretty great. Of
course, due to technology in 1910, it is very short and some of the
footage is grainy. It is also silent. But this does not in any way take
away from its watchability. The acting is very good, the costumes are
superb, and one must single out the special effects.
The effects have Frankenstein throwing chemicals into a vat, and the vat smokes to life... half science, half magic. And then when the monster emerges, it is an effect that even today would be considered respectable. Flesh clings to bone as the flames roar from the vat... what a hideous creature comes out! The film has historical worth for a number of reasons. Obviously, it's the first Frankenstein film, but also it is a great example of early one-reel Edison filming in general. And for horror historians, it has a unique feature in the Frankenstein mythology: this version has the doctor using chemicals to create life, not spare limbs and electricity. It may be alone in that distinction.
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