Thursday, March 18, 2010

100th Anniversary Special: Edison's Frankenstein (1910)

Hiya, Kiddies! So today we're gonna take a break from our regular round of films and celebrate a true milestone. Today is the 100th anniversary of the debut of the first filmed version of Mary Shelly's acclaimed Frankenstein.

In the early days of filmmaking, one of the most famous names associated with the productions was that of Thomas Edison. Although he actually had little to do with the production company that bore his name, Edison had been instrumental during the early years of filmmaking, both inventing new ways of filming and projecting images, and developing and improving on other patents. By 1910 his film company was putting out some 30 short films per week. Generally these films would be shot in less than a day, so the fact that the men behind this one actually spent three days making it indicates that they perhaps knew thay had something special on their hands.

The film is actually a fairly impressive display of early special effects work, especially when it comes to the creation of the monster. Rather than the electrical apparatus that has been associated with this scene ever since the 1931 Universal version of this story, this film actually hews closer to Shelly's original with a combination of the scientific and the supernatural. In order to film the scene, a dummy was made up to look like the monster. It was even given a movable arm to help with the illusion of life. The dummy was then set afire and allowed to burn to ash. When the film was afterwards reversed, it appears to be assembling itself from the constituent parts its scientist "father" has assembled.

Here is a synopsis of the plot taken from the Edison Kinetogram, an advertising catalog (pictured above):

Frankenstein, a young student, is seen bidding his sweetheart and father goodbye, as he is leaving home to enter a college in order to study the sciences. Shortly after his arrival at college he becomes absorbed in the mysteries of life and death to the extent of forgetting practically everything else.

His great ambition is to create a human being, and finally one night his dream is realized. He is convinced that he has found a way to create a most perfect human being that the world has ever seen. We see his experiment commence and the development of it. To Frankenstein's horror, instead of creating a marvel of physical beauty and grace, there is unfolded before his eyes and before the audience an awful, ghastly, abhorrent monster. As he realizes what he has done Frankenstein rushes from the room, only to have the misshapen monster peer at him through the curtains of his bed. He falls fainting to the floor, where he is found by his servant, who revives him.

After a few weeks' illness, he returns home, a broken, weary man, but under the loving care of father and sweetheart he regains his health and strength and begins to take a less morbid view of life. In other words, the story of the film brings out the fact that the creation of the monster was only possible because Frankenstein had allowed his normal mind to be overcome by evil and unnatural thoughts. His marriage is soon to take place. But one evening, while sitting in his library, he chances to glance in the mirror before him and sees the reflection of the monster which has just opened the door of his room. All the terror of the past comes over him and, fearing lest his sweetheart should learn the truth, he bids the monster conceal himself behind the curtain while he hurriedly induces his sweetheart, who then comes in, to stay only a moment. The monster, who is following his creator with the devotion of a dog, is insanely jealous of anyone else. He snatches from Frankenstein's coat the rose which his sweetheart has given him, and in the struggle throws Frankenstein to the floor, here the monster looks up and for the first time confronts his own reflection in the mirror. Appalled and horrified at his own image he flees in terror from the room. Not being able, however to live apart from his creator, he again comes to the house on the wedding night and, searching for the cause of his jealousy, goes into the bride's room. Frankenstein coming into the main room hears a shriek of terror, which is followed a moment after by his bride rushing in and falling in a faint at his feet. The monster then enters and after overpowering Frankenstein's feeble efforts by a slight exercise of his gigantic strength leaves the house.

When Frankenstein's love for his bride shall have attained full strength and freedom from impurity it will have such an effect upon his mind that the monster cannot exist. The monster, broken down by his unsuccessful attempts to be with his creator, enters the room, stands before a large mirror and holds out his arms entreatingly. Gradually, the real monster fades away, leaving only the image in the mirror. A moment later Frankenstein himself enters. As he stands directly before the mirror he see's the image of the monster reflected instead of his own. Gradually, however, under the effect of love and his better nature, the monster's image fades and Frankenstein sees himself in his young manhood in the mirror. His bride joins him, and the film ends with their embrace, Frankenstein's mind now being relieved of the awful horror and weight it has been laboring under for so long.
As was typical with films of the era, Edison's Frankenstein would have gone through the exhibition circuit, being shown in various locales in the US and England, and then most of the prints would have been returned to the production company and destroyed, so that the silver used in making them could be recycled. Thus it was thought for years that this was a "lost film" and that modern viewers would never be able to see it. However, in 1963 a copy of the Kinetogram quoted above was discovered, and the synopsis was quoted, among other places in Forrest J. Ackerman's magazine Famous Monsters of Filmland. This was enough to ignaite the fires of film buffs, horror buffs, and history buffs, and soon the search was on to see if a copy of the film still existed. Eventually a collector named Alois F. Dettlaff Sr cam forward to announce that he had a complete print of the film. It was eventually restored, and is available today for all to view.

So, without further ado, I give you, direct from 1910, Edison's Frankenstein:

And now, the Skinny:
Title: Frankenstein
Release Date: 1910
Running Time: 12min 41sec
Black and White / Tinted
Starring: Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle
Directed By: J. Searle Dawley
Produced by: J. Searle Dawley
Released by: Edison Films

Frankenstein (1910) is available to watch or download for free here.
It has not yet been released on DVD, though a release has been promised for later in the year in celebration of the movie's centenary.

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian


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