AND YOU CALL YOURSELF A SCIENTIST!
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|"Instead of a perfect human being, the evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a monster..."|
Director: James Searle Dawley
Starring: Augustus Phillips, Charles Ogle, Mary Fuller
Screenplay: James Searle Dawley, based upon the novel by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
Victor Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips), a young student, departs his
home for college, leaving behind his fiancée, Elizabeth (Mary Fuller).
After two years of study, Frankenstein discovers the secret of life. He
Comments: Almost as old as cinema itself is cinematic science fiction. Although, unlike the man who would soon become their main professional rival, Georges Méliès, the pioneering Lumière brothers dealt predominantly in filmed realities, they also recognised the possibilities that lay in camera trickery; and sitting alongside their documentary short films of 1895 is to be found Charcuterie Méchanique, or The Mechanical Butcher, a gruesomely humorous piece in which a pig is pushed into one end of a certain apparatus, with various pre-packaged pork products emerging from the other. This one minute piece of footage represents a defining moment in the history of film.
Over the following fifteen
years, countless similar short films would be produced in
(A few years later, the Edison Company would come up with Dog Factory, an animal-friendly variant on this grisly theme, in which customers could have a string of sausages fed into a machine, and end up with a live dog of their breed of choice!)
Many films dealt with polar exploration and the potential applications of electricity, and a number featured automata (not “robots”; the term hadn’t been invented yet); some display a startling prescience with regard to such things as flight, both earthbound and celestial – and, for that matter, about the possibility of wars being fought and decided in the air – and high-speed travel. The recently discovered phenomenon of X-rays and advances in surgical technique were also popular subjects, while the controversy that raged over the theory of evolution made itself felt in works such as The Doctor’s Experiment, in which an ape-derived serum makes men behave like monkeys, and The Monkey Man, which features cinema’s pioneer human-ape brain transplant.
What is very noticeable, even at this embryonic
stage of science fiction on screen, is how often in these films
something goes horribly wrong – although in this respect, the French
seem to have been rather more optimistic about technological
advancements than either the English or the Americans. And given the
peculiar obsessions of this website, we cannot close this look back in
time without highlighting a certain release from the Biograph Company:
A Jersey Skeeter.
This satire of
But without question the most significant science fiction work of this era was the Edison Company’s 1910 production of Frankenstein. The discovery in 1963, not of the film itself, but a copy of the 15th March 1910 issue of The Edison Kinetogram advertising the release of this seminal production sent shockwaves through the cinematic world. Innumerable hunts for an existing print were instigated, but in vain. In 1980, the film was placed upon the American Film Institute’s list of “The Top 10 Culturally And Historically Significant Lost Films”, a depressing honour to say the least. At the same time, the picture of actor Charles Ogle as “the monster”, wild-eyed and threatening, continued to be widely reproduced, tantalising and tormenting movie lovers in equal measure, as Frankenstein began to be mourned right alongside London After Midnight.
But miracles do occasionally happen, and one did
here; for there
one print in existence. In the 1950s, it had come by convoluted pathways
into the possession of
With a running-time of only fourteen minutes,
is necessarily a much pared-down version of Mary Shelley’s novel (“a
liberal adaptation”, as the opening titles put it); yet
what remains is a brisk and efficient compression of the novel’s main
points. The film opens with Victor Frankenstein departing for college,
leaving behind his fiancée,
Frankenstein writes of his wondrous discovery to
It is fair, I think, to say that this is sequence by which any version of Frankenstein will, perhaps must, be judged. Mary Shelley herself may have fudged the issue, but most adaptors of this tale have felt themselves compelled at least to try to flesh out the implications of her text. Perhaps the greatest surprise and pleasure of this film is just how well its creation scene stacks up against those of its better known successors – and not just visually. Although the Victor Frankenstein of the novel obtains his raw materials from “the charnel-house and....the unhallowed damps of the grave”, as Shelley unforgettably puts it, about the bringing to life itself there is, behind the abstruseness of the language, a clear inference less of science than of alchemy.
Here, in a laboratory decorated by a scattering of skulls, and with a fully articulated skeleton sitting companionably in a nearby chair, this Victor Frankenstein throws his ingredients into a mixing bowl and stirs them with a spoon, before emptying the result into an enormous cauldron and tossing is a few other odds and ends. (This portion of the film features a generous employment of Whooshing Powder©.) Frankenstein then seals the cauldron behind metal doors and leaves his mixture to “cook”. Thematically, this depiction of the creation of Frankenstein’s “perfect human being” is probably closer to Shelley than any version filmed subsequently.
Through a window in the metal doors, Frankenstein looks on, first in triumph and excitement, then in mounting horror, as his creation takes shape. To depict this, director-writer James Searle Dawley resorted to a scheme equally simple and clever: building a monster substitute, complete with internal skeleton, burning it, filming the burning, and running the footage backward. The result is remarkably effective, with the formation of the Creature’s head being particularly eerie. The overall effect is only spoilt by some amateurish articulation of the Creature’s arms.
Although there is no evidence that James Whale ever saw this version of Frankenstein, and although the first two cinematic renderings have very little else in common, it is significant that both immeasurably heighten the impact of the disclosure of their Creature by delaying it. Here, a misshapen hand reaches out from behind the metal doors, and Frankenstein retreats in horror to his bedroom, fainting across his bed. (Our Victor faints more in these fourteen minutes than many later heroines would in ninety.) Then comes the great moment, our first clear look at the Creature, as it lunges through the curtains of the bed to hover over the unconscious Frankenstein. As with the series of shots that stunned movie-goers in 1931, this revelation must have launched the audiences of 1910 from their seats.
Yet with our perspective of very nearly one
hundred years, we can see a difference here between the attitude of this
Creature and that of its descendants. As it leans over Frankenstein, we
see only confusion and concern; certainly no threat. Frankenstein
revives, sees the Creature, and faints
– twice. At the sound of footsteps, the Creature flees, and
Frankenstein’s servant begins the task of bringing his master around.
The scientist looks around apprehensively, but sees no evidence of his
handiwork; and, still shaky, returns home to be reunited with
And it is here that this version of Frankenstein parts company with both the novel and any other cinematic version of the story. That they were taking a big risk in filming this tale at all, the executives of the Edison Company were only too well aware, as the notes in that long-lost copy of The Kinetogram make abundantly clear:
“The Edison Company has carefully tried to eliminate all the actually repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems to be found in this weird tale,” runs the text, adding still more comfortingly, “We have carefully omitted anything which by any possibility could shock any portion of an audience.”
To an extent this is true. Certainly the film contains no murders, or executions, or grave-robbings; nor is the issue of Frankenstein’s hubris and his usurpation of God’s privilege in any way debated. Instead, a title tells us baldly, The evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a monster. From the beginning, the Creature is designated as “evil”, simply “evil”; not because of anything that it has done or will do – except for frightening Elizabeth into a faint and angrily snatching a flower from Frankenstein, this Creature is completely inoffensive – but because it was made by man and not by God.
When Frankenstein returns
home, the Creature inevitably follows. What follows just begs for
misinterpretation. From all we know of this story, we are almost certain
to read the confrontation between Frankenstein and the Creature, and the
latter’s angry gesticulation in the direction of
And as we will learn, in an
unexpected way it is quite right. This altercation ends with the
Creature fleeing again, and Frankenstein proceeds to marry
While the Creature’s
murderous stalking of Frankenstein in the novel holds intimations of the
legend of the Doppelgänger, this climax to the film feels more like
Stevenson than Shelley. As the titles make clear, it is Frankenstein’s
In this context, the creation sequence becomes, so to speak, Frankenstein’s bucks' night, his last lapse into sinfulness before the triumph of a pure love and its sanctification in marriage. Thus, even as Frankenstein stares in horror at his own capacity for evil, it fades away; and the film concludes as man and wife embrace. And if this happy ending seems an unlikely conclusion to the story of Frankenstein, it at least has the merit of feeling far less tacked on than the one that closes the 1931 version.
Charles Ogle’s “monster” is of course the
Frankenstein. This ragged,
shambling entity, with unkempt hair and claw-like hands that look
Nosferatu, is an oddly effective
creation – not least because Ogle, responsible for his own make-up, did
as Jack Pierce would later do for Karloff, and left his own expressive
features visible. Augustus Phillips is adequate as Frankenstein (despite
being, in what would come to be a grand horror movie tradition, at least
fifteen years too old for his role), but shows a tendency towards what I
am tempted to call
It’s an unjust generalisation, but it conveys what I mean: Phillips’
habit of making a sweeping gesture with his arms whenever he enters a
scene is disconcertingly reminiscent of the “actors” who give lessons to
Technically, Frankenstein is an example of the kind of static, single-shot film-making still common at the time. This style – or lack of style – seems to have been typical of the films of James Searle Dawley; curiously, since the early portion of his career was spent under the supervision of Edwin S. Porter, the pioneering director who helped introduce such concepts as close-ups, panning, cross-cutting and editing within scenes. One point of exception is the use of the mirror, which opens up the action within the frame, allowing, as it were, a third person to be present in a two-person scene; while the implications of the constant framing and re-framing of Frankenstein and the Creature are both fairly sophisticated, and psychologically acute.
That I am in any position today to make these
observations, positive and negative, on this version of
is an astonishing thing. The plain fact is, the film was not a success.
Whether, in spite of all the producers’ efforts, the public found it too
horrible or frightening, or even too offensive, or whether they were
confused by its subject matter, is unclear. Then, too, although some
critics gave the production a positive review, others were quick to
denounce the film as blasphemous, and on these grounds many areas banned
it altogether. The irony here is that Thomas Edison himself had been
amongst the first to agitate for a lifting of “the moral tone” of films,
and even played a part in the establishment of
In any event,
was pulled from circulation; and while many productions of that era
would be re-released during the following years, this one never saw
light again. Of course, only a miniscule fraction of the countless
thousands of films produced during the first decades of cinema survives
today. Heartbreakingly, it was the custom of the time to destroy films
that were “done with”; stripping them for their silver content was a
common practice. Others were put into storage, and simply rotted away
over time. The Edison Company also suffered a warehouse fire in 1914,
and many of its films not purposely destroyed were lost anyway. By 1918,
Want a second opinion of Frankenstein? Visit 1000 Misspent Hours - And Counting.
|----originally posted 09/08/2007; revised 25/07/2013|