Thursday, September 13, 2007

Silent Scream Series: The first filmed Frankenstein.

UPDATE: The broken link to the film has now been fixed. Sorry about that.

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Welcome, fright fans, to the second installment of a litlle something something your host likes to call the Silent Scream Series, a fan's tour of the roots of horror cinema.

Today we've got something extra special . . . read on, fright fan, read on.

For me, the Holy Grail of silent film horror has always the Edison Company's 1910 film Frankenstein. This 15 minute flick, shot in New York City at Edison's studios, was the first adaptation of the Shelly classic that became one of the cornerstones of cinematic horror. Presumed lost for decades, the film was known only through indirect evidence. Edison created an advertisement that featured an image of the monster: studio regular Charles Ogle in a long wig, fright make-up, and a suit of rags - a look modeled on then popular stage adaptations of Shelly's novel. Edison also produced a mailer intended to assuage any fears exhibitors might have had that the film would upset their patrons:

To those familiar with Mrs. Shelly’s story it will be evident that we have carefully omitted anything which might be any possibility shock any portion of the audience. 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. Wherever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of eliminating what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.

Modern horror buffs also had a handful of reviews. The picture was, if these surviving reviews are typical, well-received by critics.

Sadly, because Edison Studios only struck about 40 prints of any given film, their survival rate was not great. Frankenstein was among those thought lost forever. In 1980, the American Film Institute declared Edison's Frankenstein one of the ten most "culturally and historically significant lost films."

What the AFI didn't know was that a single print had survived. In the 1950s, a Wisconsin film collector named Alois Felix Dettlaff Sr. purchased a stash of old films, of which Edison's Frankenstein was one. Dettlaff eventually figured out what he had in his possession and he's guarded it like a hawk. A DVD version of the film is available from Dettlaff's own production company – though I've never seen any copies for sale.

Happily, we live in the age of the Internet, were nothing stays safe and secure for long. Over on Google videos, you can catch the entire film for free. Check it out, Screamers and Screamettes.

Perhaps the coolest bit of this flick is the creation scene. Curiously, Edison, a name synonymous with electricity, did not have his Frankenstein create his monster by harnessing lightening – the method preferred by many later film Frankensteins. Instead, the monster is created in a vat of chemicals, its body slowly taking shape out of the mists rising from the cauldron. This special effect was created by building a model of the monster and then slowly burning it. The film was then run backwards, giving the illusion that the body was slowly materializing. It's pretty boss stuff as far as early SFX go.

4 comments:

Sasquatchan said...

Edison was a DC proponent and aside from being a notorious intellectual property thief, probably didn't want supporters/customers thinking they could raise the dead with his inventions..

CRwM said...

I prefer to think of Edison not as an intellectual property theif, but as an early proponent of the anti-copyright ideologies that forward thinking Net-savvy types currently peddle on their Directories of Wonderful Things.

SpaceJack said...

I find movies this old to be pretty fascinating to look at, whatever the subject matter. The monster creation scene and the mirror trick at the end are interesting special effects attempts, and it's weird to see the monster depicted that way, before the "standard look" from the 1931 version.

Funny about Edison, I was looking up Le Voyage dans la Lune on Wikipedia, which said:

"Méliès had intended to release the film in the United States to profit from it; however, Thomas Edison's film technicians secretly made copies of it and distributed it throughout the country, thus putting money into Edison's pocket. Méliès never profited from it and eventually went broke."

CRwM said...

He was a ruthless SOB, not doubt about it. But it needs to be understood in context. Most of Edison's most brutal competitive practices were well within the legal bounds of legit biz in his day.

Also, stealing the financial thunder of a French competitor would have had a special meaning to Edison. In the very early days of film, the global market was dominated by French and American products, with America playing second fiddle to the French. Even in the home market, American flicks often couldn't compete with French films. This caused a genuine panic in the fledgling American film industry (because a red rooster was the icon of one of the major French film producers, one film historian has jokingly called this panic "the first Red Scare.") To establish film dominance, American filmmakers basically blitzed their French counterparts, launching a three-pronged attack combining rapid technological advances, the establishment of a class of talented and professional producers who understood how to free film from the stage's conventions, and predatory competitive practices.

To a degree, the framework of American global dominance in the film biz was set with that push.