by Andrew Weltch
Think of the ‘original’ cinematic Frankenstein’s monster, and the image that comes to mind is probably Boris Karloff in James Whale’s 1931 Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein. But you actually have to go back a further two decades for the genuine original and the creature’s first appearance on film – played by Charles Ogle in a 1910 short by the Edison Company.
Until recently, my only knowledge of that film was a well-known still of Ogle’s monster, twisted and staring at the camera, with his wild hair and claw-like fingers. Out of context, it looks ridiculous, almost comical, and I had long dismissed this lost film as unworthy of any attention.
But now that short is available to view online, expertly restored and free. And what a treat it is!
Experts at the US Library of Congress added missing intertitles and a score by Donald Sosin, and have restored the print to a condition that is a vast improvement on earlier uploaded versions. Frankenstein can now be viewed free on YouTube (and below). There’s quite a story behind the restoration. The film had been thought lost until the American Film Institute named it among its top 10 most wanted lost films in 1980, when a certain Al Dettlaff of Cudahy, Wisconsin, revealed he had acquired a print (almost certainly the only surviving print) as part of a collection of old nitrate films in the 1950s.
Unwilling to release it for restoration, Dettlaff had his own 35mm copy made and eventually produced DVDs of the film, which he sold at conventions. Those became the source of the previous relatively crude online versions. In 2005, Dettlaff’s decomposed body was found at his home. The eccentric and reclusive character had been dead for a month – from natural causes, aged 84. The Library of Congress bought the Dettlaff collection in 2015, and the restoration of Frankenstein was completed in 2018 – fittingly 200 years since the publication of Mary Shelley’s novel.
The film was made at Edison’s studios in the Bronx, New York City, written and directed by James Searle Dawley, photographed by James White, and starring (uncredited) Charles Ogle as the creature, Augustus Phillips as Frankenstein, and Mary Fuller as his fiancée, Elizabeth. Described as “a liberal adaptation of Mrs. Shelley’s famous story”, Dawley shot the film in three or four days, and it was released in March 1910. The Edison Kinetogram, the Edison company’s film magazine, reported:
“In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Whenever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of elimination of what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.”
It may not be ‘repulsive’ – there are no severed limbs or unhealed wounds that would characterise later film versions of the story, but this debut appearance is no less scary. The scene in which the monster is created is eery and bizarre, as it gradually takes human form from some kind of potion, which Frankenstein has concocted – a technique apparently achieved by burning a puppet and running the film backwards. The film opens with Frankenstein bidding farewell to his father and fiancée, and heading off to college. An intertitle tells us that two years later he has discovered the secret of life. (That’s a good college and a smart student!)
But instead of building the perfect human as he intends, another intertitle tells us the evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a twisted creature, which will horrify its creator. Appalled by the sight of his creation, Frankenstein returns home to the loving arms of his fiancée. But, like some faithful puppy (but much less cute), the creature follows, only to become madly jealous at the sight of this rival for his creator’s attention, and shocked at the sight of himself in a mirror. The creature leaves, but returns to gate-crash the wedding night, before the story is resolved – and it’s all done, rather cleverly, with mirrors.
Hats off to Mike Mashon and the team in the Moving Image Section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division at the Library of Congress for restoring and preserving this piece of movie history. This is an important film for many reasons – not least because it was the first Frankenstein film and therefore the cinematic ancestor of the hundreds (or even thousands) which have followed. It’s also a fascinating and impressive film in its own right – especially for the sequences involving the creation of the monster and the mirror in Frankenstein’s study.
Definitely worth 12 minutes of your time.