Ancient Rockets

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…


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