Jan 26 2009 11:59am

Ancient Rockets: Frankenstein

You talking to me?

In a perfect world, the next in this series would be an examination of the 1908 Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but I have been unable to determine whether a copy still exists. The odds aren’t good, given the low cultural value accorded to cinema at this time. For example, a lot of Georges Méliès’ films were recycled to make celluloid bootheels for the French army. Even if a copy of the 1908 J&H lay forgotten on a shelf somewhere, it would have taken a miracle—or a Company operative working on the sly—to prevent it from deteriorating into a mound of rusty flakes during the century since its release.

For years, it had been assumed that the same fate had befallen cinema’s first-ever depiction of the creation of an artificial life form, Edison’s 1910 Frankenstein. As late as the 1970s, only a plot outline and some stills were known to exist. Then a single print was found in the collection of a Wisconsin film collector, who had had the foresight to back it up on a 35mm copy. As a result, we get to see the missing link between Frankenstein’s 19th-century stage tradition and Boris Karloff’s iconic role.

As you might expect, the Edison Company messed with Mary Shelley’s plot, to make it fit both their filming budget and American post-Victorian sensibilities.  Briefly: Frankenstein leaves home and sweetheart to go off to college, invents a way to create an artificial human being, does it, is horrified by the results, goes home and marries his sweetheart. The jealous Monster barges in on the bride but is chased out. The Monster sees himself in a mirror and, overwhelmed by his own ugliness, vanishes away, leaving only a reflection in the mirror. Frankenstein enters, sees the Monster’s reflection gradually replaced by his own, and damn near faints, but his bride enters and they embrace. All in just over 12 minutes. A few thoughts:

Rather than have Frankenstein dig up corpses and piece together the usable bits to create his Monster, this version has him simply tossing a few chemicals into a huge vat and standing back to see what grows. Presumably the director thought the American public wouldn’t stand for  the grisliness of the original plot, but his alternative is still one of the creepiest scenes ever filmed. A crude figure of the Monster was made, most likely out of paper and rags, and set on fire. The result was filmed and then run backward.

We see Frankenstein close the doors—on some kind of furnace?—and peer eagerly through a peephole. The camera shifts to Frankenstein’s point of view and we see a nasty-looking mass rise slowly from the vat. The misshapen thing jerks upward, and begins to take on skeletal features; almost at once its right arm twitches, rises, and begins to flail around.  A head grows on the shoulders. Another arm begins to wave. Patchwork flesh clothes the skeleton like moss, unevenly.  James Whale’s Monster is a draped nonentity until his one-two-three closeup on its dead face, and the Bride of Frankenstein is born in unearthly beauty, but this one is really the stuff of nightmares.

And then here’s the Big Guy, as portrayed by Charles Ogle, blundering into frame for the first time in cinema history. Despite his chemical birth, he is given the general appearance of a decaying corpse. His costume and wild mass of hair seem arbitrary and bizarre, until you see engravings of the first stage interpretations of the Monster, from 1823: clearly the costume and makeup owe something to the work of some long-forgotten London stage tech. And, with all due respect to Whale’s makeup man Jack Pierce, he did not invent the Monster’s flat-headed skull, as the illustration above makes perfectly obvious. Ogle is a better actor than the rest of the cast, managing to convey the Monster’s unnatural strength and speed. Not bad, considering that his only previous film role was Bob Cratchit in a long-lost silent Christmas Carol.

We must never forget, though, that the title of the story is Frankenstein. The real villain is not the Monster but his creator, the first-ever Mad Scientist. Edison’s version renders the moral with a unique twist: Frankenstein seeks to create perfect life, but because his mind is evil, his creation is therefore evil too. When his “better nature” is strengthened by his love for his bride, his evil creation must logically cease to exist. Oh, really? The Monster is just going to fade away? Happy ending?

This is without question the easiest Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card ever handed to a Frankenstein, or any other Mad Scientist. Subsequent toilers amongst the Bunsen burners and test tubes will have to pay for their arrogance by being thrown off burning windmills, chased over ice floes, or (as in the case of Blade Runner) just getting their heads squished. Even Frank N. Furter gets zapped to death with a ray gun, for God’s sake. We who grew up with “drop and cover” drills know all too well what wonders Science can bring us, and we like to see the guy in the white lab coat suffer a little. Or a lot.

But 1910 was a more innocent age...

1. joelfinkle
so where's the YouTube link?
Michael Grosberg
2. Michael_GR
Perhaps the redemption of frankenstein was not just due to the innocent 1910. It could have been an order from the big boss himself - Edison might have not wanted inventors presented in an unfavorable light...
Kage Baker
3. kagebaker
Regarding Edison: nothing would surprise me about that man. He had one of his techs bootleg Melies' "A Voyage to the Moon" and exhibit it, depriving Melies of the revenues he had hoped to earn in America. Look up "Louis la Prince" for a more sinister take on how Edison dealt with rival inventors. As for the YouTube link-- dude! Surely you have the energy to look it up yourself? Besides, with the next entry we're moving out of the realm of 12-minute films and into feature-length silents.
4. Pop-Monkey
I don't recall Dr. F actually doing any grave-robbing and corpse stitching in the original novel. The method behind Frankenstein's creation is left intentionally vague as the doc did not want to relate his process for fear of it being repeated, as the bulk of the novel is Frankenstein's telling of the tale to the captain of the ship that discovered him chasing his creation across the ice, no?

Was it ever even vaguely inferred that the monster was created from spare parts of dead corpses? This would seem the most logical explanation, but I can't recall any hint of the science behind the monster's origin in the novel. Anyone?
Torie Atkinson
5. Torie
@ 4 I remembered it as such, but I had to check the story itself to make sure. Looking at the text up on Gutenberg, he says (emphasis all mine):

Who shall conceive the horrors of my secret toil as I dabbled among the unhallowed damps of the grave or tortured the living animal to animate the lifeless clay? My limbs now tremble, and my eyes swim with the remembrance; but then a resistless and almost frantic impulse urged me forward; I seemed to have lost all soul or sensation but for this one pursuit. It was indeed but a passing trance, that only made me feel with renewed acuteness so soon as, the unnatural stimulus ceasing to operate, I had returned to my old habits. I collected bones from charnel-houses and disturbed, with profane fingers, the tremendous secrets of the human frame.

He then goes on to describe the monster as the "demoniacal corpse to which I had so miserably given life." So it looks like he got parts from dead animals, dead humans in graves, AND bones from crypts. He goes to all the hip places. (Yes, I went there. *ducks*)
6. Nentuaby
Unfortunately, no Youtube link is forthcoming.

From what I can find, though the 1910 film has lapsed into the public domain, unfortunately the sole surviving print remains in private hands. The owner hasn't been able to get the price he's looking for, so he simply hasn't allowed it to be copied. There are a couple of truly awful-quality videos-of-videos and excessively copy-protected bootlegs floating around, but nothing as good as what's in his hands, let alone a restoration.
7. Pop-Monkey
Thanks, Torie. I guess the subtlety of the wording had slipped my mind. Grave-robbing is indeed inferred. I guess I was confusing my uncertainty about the method of his animation of the monster with his method of "materials procurement". The whole "animated via electrical stimulus" thing seemed to be made up purely for the Karloff film. I am anxious to see this Edison film now, having had it described so well. Hopefully it will be made public soon.
Kage Baker
8. kagebaker
Well, if you go to YouTube and search for "1910 Frankenstein" it will pop up; one version in three parts, one full-length version. I can't say it's a viewing pleasure, because it certainly hasn't been restored; it's in the same state of semi-decay the Monster is in, especially the opening frames.

The print is crudely tinted, with an overlay of blue in some scenes and amber in others. The piano soundtrack begins with "Welcome Sweet Springtime"!!

I doubt that digital restoration is exactly going to dress up the Big Guy in silk hat and tails, given the original material, but it's worth watching from a historian's point of view.

Damn... now I wish I'd captioned the picture PUTTIN' ON THE RIIIIITZ!
Sandi Kallas
9. Sandikal
ROFLMAO!!! "Young Frankenstein" is on of my favorite comedies ever!

As far as the materials that Mary Shelley had Dr. Frankenstein use in the original, illegally obtained body parts would be the obvious. Grave robbing for medical research was rampant during that time period.

I'm off to YouTube to check this out. In my opinion, the Frankenstein story has probably influenced more modern science fiction and fantasy than any other classic literature. I don't think it gets half the credit it deserves. In my college English Lit classes, it was mentioned dismissively. Mary Shelley was always portrayed as a hanger-on. She was overshadowed by her husband and Lord Byron and her mother. "Frankenstein" was given the status of a fanciful story made up around the campfire instead of the insightful work of young genius that it is.
Sandi Kallas
10. Sandikal
Wow! The scene where the monster is animated was pretty creepy. Great special effects when you consider that it was made in 1910. The ending was a bit abrupt though and I don't know if you'd know what was happening if you hadn't read the book.

Subscribe to this thread

Receive notification by email when a new comment is added. You must be a registered user to subscribe to threads.
Post a comment