Updated: Aug 10, 2020
To continue with our series of silent film titles which you can access for free online thanks to a number international archives during these strange times of lock down we look at the first adaptation of one of most famous titles in film and literature. Our previous posts include the American drama The Italian (1915), D.W. Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909) and British drama Hobson’s Choice (1920). Mark Fuller introduces another classic American title, J. Searle Dawley’s Frankenstein (1910):
It seems suitable that the first screen version of the Mary Shelley novel is itself as much a concoction of disparate parts as the Monster we are most familiar with that of the Universal horror franchise of the 30s and forties. But, just as Boris Karloff’s Monster has little in common with Mary Shelley’s tortured creation, the creature, as he is referred to in this Edison production, is different again.
This ‘Liberal Adaptation’ as the opening titles of the film has it, is as one would expect, compressed to fit within the one-reel format of the majority of 1910 films; depending on the projection speed, this version lasts between twelve and fourteen minutes in total. The most basic elements of the plot are retained from the first part of the novel; a young gentleman called Frankenstein goes to University, experiments, and creates life; a giant humanoid creature that then pursues him home to bring destruction to his family house. But that is pretty much all that is retained from the novel.
Having said that the themes are at least topical for its time, the film itself is technically a curate’s egg. Stylistically the film looks even older; it is utterly studio-bound and static, the acting is over-dramatic; that does in fairness suit the material, but that style was already, by 1910, being discarded elsewhere for greater naturalism; the creation of the creature is indeed a spectacular special effect, powerful and well thought out, but nothing that Méliès could not have done ten years earlier; the props, such as the patently fake skeleton, or the painted flats, like the furnace-like cabinet in which the creature coalesces, also seem to be from an earlier era, as do the predictive intertitles, inherited from the Victorian chapter headings that tell you what you are about to learn in the forthcoming pages.
Fortunately one, just one, mildly damaged original nitrate print had survived in private hands, eventually landing with an eccentric US-based film collector called Alois Dettlaff. He all but held it for a ransom for a while; wanting all sorts of cash rewards, honour and recognition. Eventually he relented, of sorts, and made the film public by putting it onto a privately released DVD, and accompanying it to screenings, dressed as Father Time and giving lengthy rambling speeches. Nevertheless, thus it was that in 2002/3 people were finally able to see Charles Ogle in action, and the fabled Edison Frankenstein, for the first time in 90 years.
The print has now passed into the Library of Congress Archive, has been properly stabilised, cleaned and restored and is presented with an excellent piano score by Donald Sosin. Enjoy !!