“Instead of a perfect human being, the evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a monster…”
Director: James Searle Dawley
Starring: Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller
Screenplay: James Searle Dawley, based upon the novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Synopsis: Victor Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips), a young student, departs his home for college, leaving behind his fiancée, Elizabeth (Mary Fuller). After two years of study, Frankenstein discovers the secret of life. He writes to Elizabeth, telling her his dream of creating a perfect human being, and promising that, once he has succeeded, he will return home and marry her. In his laboratory, Frankenstein throws a number of mysterious compounds into a huge cauldron. He then closes two metal doors, sealing the cauldron within an alcove. Through a window in one of the doors, Frankenstein looks on in triumph as something begins to take shape… But what emerges from the alcove is far from Frankenstein’s “perfect human being”. As his creation stalks towards him, the scientist backs away in horror, then faints. The Creature (Charles Ogle) is hovering in confusion over the prostrate Frankenstein when the scientist’s servant approaches; it flees unseen. Regaining consciousness, Frankenstein looks around in terror, but there is no sign of his creation… Frankenstein returns home, joyfully reuniting with Elizabeth; but his happiness is short-lived: the Creature appears, berating him violently. Hearing Elizabeth, Frankenstein implores the Creature to hide behind a curtain. It complies, and the scientist manages to send his fiancée out of the room without her seeing the lurking Creature, who watches Elizabeth intently. When she has gone, the Creature attacks Frankenstein in a jealous rage, only to recoil in disgust and misery as it catches sight of its own reflection in the mirror…
Comments: Almost as old as cinema itself is cinematic science fiction. Although, unlike the man who would soon become their main professional rival, Georges Méliès, the pioneering Lumière brothers dealt predominantly in filmed realities, they also recognised the possibilities that lay in camera trickery; and sitting alongside their documentary short films of 1895 is to be found Charcuterie Méchanique, or The Mechanical Butcher, a gruesomely humorous piece in which a pig is pushed into one end of a certain apparatus, with various pre-packaged pork products emerging from the other.
This one minute piece of footage represents a defining moment in the history of film. Over the following fifteen years, countless similar short films would be produced in France, in Great Britain and in the United States; and although most of these were comic in tone, there was an uneasy quality to the laughter. Right from the beginning, the motion picture camera was used to express society’s equal fascination with, and ambivalence about, advances in medicine, science and technology.
During this period, the introduction of automation in factories, and the perceived loss of human control, was a clear cause of apprehension, and a version of the Lumières’ mechanised meat-processor would make an appearance in films made in both England and America, each one touched with the particular concerns of their country of origin. Thus, in Making Sausages, released by the George A. Smith Company, everything up to and including old boots is fed indiscriminately into the machine; while the Biograph Company produced The Sausage Machine, in which live dogs are forced into one end of the processor, and out of the other comes – what else? – hot dogs.
(A few years later, the Edison Company would come up with Dog Factory, an animal-friendly variant on this grisly theme, in which customers could have a string of sausages fed into a machine, and end up with a live dog of their breed of choice!)
Many films of this time dealt with polar exploration, and with the potential applications of electricity, while a number featured automata (not “robots”; the term hadn’t been invented yet); some display a startling prescience with regard to such things as flight, both earthbound and celestial – and, for that matter, about the possibility of wars being fought and decided in the air – and high-speed travel.
The recently discovered phenomenon of X-rays and advances in surgical technique were also popular subjects, while the controversy that raged over the theory of evolution made itself felt in works such as The Doctor’s Experiment, in which an ape-derived serum makes men behave like monkeys, and The Monkey Man, which features cinema’s pioneer human-ape brain transplant. What is very noticeable, even at this embryonic stage of science fiction on screen, is how often in these films something goes horribly wrong—although in this respect, the French seem to have been rather more optimistic about technological advancements than either the English or the Americans.
And given the peculiar obsessions of this website, we cannot close this look back in time without highlighting a certain release from the Biograph Company: 1910’s A Jersey Skeeter. This satire of New Jersey’s notorious infestation problem features a cider-sipping farmer being harassed and then carried off by an enormous mosquito—the screen’s very first giant insect.
But without question the most significant science fiction work of this era was the Edison Company’s 1910 production of Frankenstein. The discovery in 1963, not of the film itself, but a copy of the 15th March 1910 issue of The Edison Kinetogram advertising the release of this seminal production sent shockwaves through the cinematic world. Innumerable hunts for an existing print were instigated, but in vain. In 1980, the film was placed upon the American Film Institute’s list of “The Top 10 Culturally And Historically Significant Lost Films”, a depressing honour to say the least. At the same time, the picture of actor Charles Ogle as “the monster”, wild-eyed and threatening, continued to be widely reproduced, tantalising and tormenting movie lovers in equal measure, as Frankenstein began to be mourned right alongside London After Midnight.
But miracles do occasionally happen, and one did here; for there was one print in existence. In the 1950s, it had come by convoluted pathways into the possession of Wisconsin collector and archivist Alois F. Dettlaff. The copy had been originally the possession of Mrs Dettlaff’s grandmother, and had passed through at least three sets of hands before returning to Mr Dettlaff who, finding that the print was deteriorating, put it into storage and refrained from screening it. During the seventies, short clips found their way into a British documentary, but without any acknowledgement of their source; and for a time this effects of this slight looked like keeping Frankenstein from the general public in perpetuity. At length, however, Mr Dettlaff was persuaded to participate in the desperately needed preservation of his most precious print. The film’s first public screening in over eight decades took place in October of 1993; the production of a DVD version for commercial release followed another decade later.
With a running-time of only fourteen minutes, Frankenstein is necessarily a much pared-down version of Mary Shelley’s novel (“a liberal adaptation”, as the opening titles put it); yet what remains is a brisk and efficient compression of the novel’s main points. The film opens with Victor Frankenstein departing for college, leaving behind his fiancée, Elizabeth. A title card then informs us casually that, Two years later, Frankenstein had discovered the mystery of life. His doing so prompts him to strike a series of Hamlet-like poses with one of the many skulls that decorate his rooms.
Frankenstein writes of his wondrous discovery to Elizabeth, announcing his intention of creating “a perfect human being”, after which he will return home and marry her. In this we have, surely, one of the most historic moments in the development of the science fiction film: the first, although by no means the last utterance of famous last words.
And without any further ado, we plunge directly into the creation scene.
It is fair, I think, to say that this is sequence by which any version of Frankenstein will, perhaps must, be judged. Mary Shelley herself may have fudged the issue, but most adaptors of this tale have felt themselves compelled at least to try to flesh out the implications of her text. Perhaps the greatest surprise and pleasure of this film is just how well its creation scene stacks up against those of its better known successors – and not just visually. Although the Victor Frankenstein of the novel obtains his raw materials from “the charnel-house and…the unhallowed damps of the grave”, as Shelley unforgettably puts it, about the bringing to life itself there is, behind the abstruseness of the language, a clear inference less of science than of alchemy.
Here, in a laboratory decorated by a scattering of skulls, and with a fully articulated skeleton sitting companionably in a nearby chair, this Victor Frankenstein throws his ingredients into a mixing bowl and stirs them with a spoon, before emptying the result into an enormous cauldron and tossing is a few other odds and ends. (This portion of the film features a generous employment of Whooshing Powder©.) Frankenstein then seals the cauldron behind metal doors and leaves his mixture to “cook”. Thematically, this depiction of the creation of Frankenstein’s “perfect human being” is probably closer to Shelley than any version filmed subsequently.
Through a window in the metal doors, Frankenstein looks on, first in triumph and excitement, then in mounting horror, as his creation takes shape. To depict this, director-writer James Searle Dawley resorted to a scheme equally simple and clever: building a monster substitute, complete with internal skeleton, burning it, filming the burning, and then running the footage backward. The result is remarkably effective, with the formation of the Creature’s head being particularly eerie. The overall effect is only spoilt by some amateurish articulation of the Creature’s arms.
Although there is no evidence that James Whale ever saw this version of Frankenstein, and although the first two cinematic renderings have very little else in common, it is significant that both immeasurably heighten the impact of the disclosure of their Creature by delaying it. Here, a misshapen hand reaches out from behind the metal doors, and Frankenstein retreats in horror to his bedroom, fainting across his bed. (Our Victor faints more in these fourteen minutes than many later heroines would in ninety.) Then comes the great moment, our first clear look at the Creature, as it lunges through the curtains of the bed to hover over the unconscious Frankenstein. As with the series of shots that stunned movie-goers in 1931, this revelation must have launched the audiences of 1910 from their seats.
Yet with our perspective of very nearly one hundred years, we can see a difference here between the attitude of this Creature and that of its descendants. As it leans over Frankenstein, we see only confusion and concern; certainly no threat. Frankenstein revives, sees the Creature, and faints again – twice. At the sound of approaching footsteps, the Creature flees, and Frankenstein’s servant begins the task of bringing his master around. The scientist looks around apprehensively, but sees no evidence of his handiwork; and, still shaky, returns home to be reunited with Elizabeth.
And it is here that this version of Frankenstein parts company with both the novel and any other cinematic version of the story. That they were taking a big risk in filming this tale at all, the executives of the Edison Company were only too well aware, as the notes in that long-lost copy of The Kinetogram make abundantly clear:
“The Edison Company has carefully tried to eliminate all the actually repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems to be found in this weird tale,” runs the text, adding still more comfortingly, “We have carefully omitted anything which by any possibility could shock any portion of an audience.”
To an extent this is true. Certainly the film contains no murders, or executions, or grave-robbings; nor is the issue of Frankenstein’s hubris and his usurpation of God’s privilege in any way debated. Instead, a title tells us baldly, The evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a monster. From the beginning, the Creature is designated as “evil”, simply “evil”; not because of anything that it has done or will do – except for frightening Elizabeth into a faint and angrily snatching a flower from Frankenstein, this Creature is completely inoffensive – but because it was made by man and not by God. When Frankenstein returns home, the Creature inevitably follows. What comes next just begs for misinterpretation. From all we know of this story, we are almost certain to read the confrontation between Frankenstein and the Creature, and the latter’s angry gesticulation in the direction of Elizabeth, as a demand for the creation of a mate. It isn’t: as the Kinetogram notes explain, the Creature is jealous of Elizabeth; in its opinion, Frankenstein belongs to it.
And as we will learn, in an unexpected way it is quite right. This altercation ends with the Creature fleeing again, and Frankenstein proceeds to marry Elizabeth. (No version of the story has succeeded in making this credible.) The Creature reappears on the wedding night, terrorising both bride and bridegroom, before retreating to the drawing-room to gaze at itself in the mirror. It then simply vanishes – but its reflection doesn’t. Frankenstein enters and also looks at himself in the mirror—and sees the Creature reflected back at him…
While the Creature’s murderous stalking of Frankenstein in the novel holds intimations of the legend of the Doppelgänger, this climax to the film feels more like Stevenson than Shelley. As the titles make clear, it is Frankenstein’s love for Elizabeth that banishes the Creature, which becomes in these scenes the embodiment of the scientist’s baser nature. The Creature’s willingness to hide itself from Elizabeth, even as it rages jealously against her, indicates Frankenstein’s attempts to hide his darker side from the woman he loves. In this context, the creation sequence becomes, so to speak, Frankenstein’s bucks’ night, his last lapse into sinfulness before the triumph of a pure love and its sanctification in marriage.
Thus, even as Frankenstein stares in horror at his own capacity for evil, it fades away; and the film concludes as man and wife embrace. And if this happy ending seems an unlikely conclusion to the story of Frankenstein, it at least has the merit of feeling far less tacked on than the one that closes the 1931 version.
Charles Ogle’s “monster” is of course the centrepiece of Frankenstein. This ragged, shambling entity, with unkempt hair and claw-like hands that look forward to Nosferatu, is an oddly effective creation – not least because Ogle, responsible for his own make-up, did as Jack Pierce would later do for Karloff, and left his own expressive features visible. Augustus Phillips is adequate as Frankenstein (despite being, in what would come to be a grand horror movie tradition, at least fifteen years too old for his role), but shows a tendency towards what I am tempted to call silent film acting. It’s an unjust generalisation, but it conveys what I mean: Phillips’ habit of making a sweeping gesture with his arms whenever he enters a scene is disconcertingly reminiscent of the “actors” who give lessons to Prince George in the Sense And Senility episode of Blackadder. Mary Fuller is more natural as Elizabeth, but her screen time is very limited.
Technically, Frankenstein is an example of the kind of static, single-shot film-making still common at the time. This style – or lack of style – seems to have been typical of the films of James Searle Dawley; curiously, since the early portion of his career was spent under the supervision of Edwin S. Porter, the pioneering director who helped introduce such concepts as close-ups, panning, cross-cutting and editing within scenes. One point of exception is the use of the mirror, which opens up the action within the frame, allowing, as it were, a third person to be present in a two-person scene; while the implications of the constant framing and re-framing of Frankenstein and the Creature are both fairly sophisticated, and psychologically acute.
That I am in any position today to make these observations, positive and negative, on this version of Frankenstein is an astonishing thing. The plain fact is, the film was not a success. Whether, in spite of all the producers’ efforts, the public found it too horrible or frightening, or even too offensive, or whether they were confused by its subject matter, is unclear. Then, too, although some critics gave the production a positive review, others were quick to denounce the film as blasphemous, and on these grounds many areas banned it altogether. The irony here is that Thomas Edison himself had been amongst the first to agitate for a lifting of “the moral tone” of films, and even played a part in the establishment of America’s first censorship board.
In any event, Frankenstein was pulled from circulation; and while many productions of that era would be re-released during the following years, this one never saw the light again. Of course, only a miniscule fraction of the countless thousands of films produced during the first decades of cinema survive today. Heartbreakingly, it was the custom of the time to destroy films that were “done with”; stripping them for their silver content was a common practice. Others were put into storage, and simply rotted away over time. The Edison Company also suffered a warehouse fire in 1914, and many of its films not purposely destroyed were lost anyway. By 1918, Edison had closed down his studio, and what could not be sold was just thrown away. When we consider the survival of Frankenstein in light of all these facts, “miracle” begins to look like too small a word.
Want a second opinion of Frankenstein? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours – And Counting.