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Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Edison's Frankenstein (1910)

In the early 1900s, the moving pictures industry becoming a big-money market. Novelty "nickelodeon" content was giving way to full-reel stories. Thomas Edison was one of the pioneers in the industry. In 1910, his studio released many such feature films. One was an adaptation of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein" -- the first film based on her novel. Edison's Frankenstein was not a huge success, and nearly a "lost" film for decades afterward. As such, it had no particular artistic impact on James Whale's landmark 1931 version. Edison's film had it's own problems and challenges, but deserves to start off this FrankenFEST study, even if it isn't a direct ancestor to what would become the the most famous movie monster franchise.

Quick Plot Synopsis
Young Victor Frankenstein says goodbye to his sweetheart, Elizabeth and his father as he is off to study at the University. In his studies, the muses over the secrets of life and death. Thinking he's discovered the secret, he sends home a letter to Elizabeth explaining his intent to create the most perfect man the world has seen. In his lab, he tosses some ingredients into a hot-tub sized vat. They obligingly send up puffs of smoke each time. Frankenstein watches his vat as a form rises up in it. The form develops arms and a head, then finally takes on a man-like shape. When complete, his creation is not the most perfect man, but a large shabby monster. Young Frankenstein flees to his bedroom where he swoons on his bed. The monster follows him in and watches him. When Frankenstein wakes up, he is frightened and argues with the monster. Frankenstein faints again. When the butler enters the bedroom, the monster retreats behind the bed curtains. Frankenstein goes home to Elizabeth. All seems tranquil enough, but the monster has followed him. In a key scene, Elizabeth comes into Frankenstein's study. She brought him a rose for his lapel. After a bit of smiling love-banter, she takes the teapot into the kitchen. The monster enters the study. He pleads (argues) with Frankenstein about how SHE gets all his attention, while HE, his own creation get none. The monster yanks out the lapel rose and throws it to the ground. Elizabeth re-enters with a tray of snacks. The monster hides behind a curtain. Frankenstein gives her a quick goodbye and rushes her out of the room. Alone again, he and the monster argue some more, then fight. The monster is winning, but stops when he sees himself in the mirror. Appalled at his own ugliness, he stomps out. Apparently thinking the monster had gone, Victor marries Elizabeth and prepares to settle down. After the wedding guests have all gone, the monster sneaks into the bedroom while Frankenstein is in the kitchen. Elizabeth screams. Frankenstein comes running. She collapses at his feet. The monster follows her out. Thinking she might be dead, the monster pleads with Frankenstein to give HIM some attention now. Frankenstein picks up a candelabra to strike the monster, but the monster quick takes it away. Angry at the rejection, the monster stomps away. Later, the monster pines in the study, as if pleading with the heavens for answers to his plight. The monster disappears, but his reflection in the mirror remains. Frankenstein enters the study, sees the reflection, but it fades out, replaced by his own. His loving nature had overcome the evil. The End.

Compared To The Novel
Two features of early silent films explain most of the deviations from the novel. The first major handicap, is that most early silent films were typically a single reel, with a run time of 15 minutes or so. To pare down Shelley's novel into 15 minutes necessitates leaving out a great deal. The second handicap was social. Edison wanted no violence shown (see Notes below), so his screenplay focused on the more philosophical angle.

Saga Connection
Ediston's film predates the on-going saga that James Whale's 1931 film began. As such, it has no connection, beyond having come from the same source material. Still, Edison's monster is more like Shelley's. More animated, able to speak and communicate.

Seedy Past -- Early silent films had a moral stigma surrounding them. Decent people, families, did not watch movies. Why? Movies hung out with a bad crowd. "Nickelodeon" store-front theaters were typically in theater districts. These areas already had a sketchy reputation as home for charlatans, brawlers and women of low character. Early short films (a visual novelty) were one part of the varied "acts" in Burlesque stage shows. Burlesque often featured lewd jokes and often some degree of strip-tease. It was the "adult entertainment" of its day. Vaudeville sought to clean this up a bit and make it more family fare. It was partially successful, but never quite shook the tangental association with burlesque. Being shown in such venues naturally tainted early films as morally corrupting. (As a footnote, "movies" would still have some of this taint, even into the 1960s.) Edison and others were keen to break out of the theater-district low-brow market, so they self-censored their films to be morally acceptable. This is one reason why Edison's Frankenstein has no real violence or horror (gore). Edison was PG before it was PC to be PG.

Special Effects -- As befitting a sci-fi film, special effects were key. The two notable special effects scenes were the creation of the monster, and the monster's demise. For the creation scene, a dummy of the monster (torso, head, arms) was burned down to a smoldering pile. This footage was then run in reverse, so it appeared that the monster assembled itself from within the big smokey vat. Early in the process, a skeletal arm is made to wave about via wires (visible).  For an early film trick, it wasn't too bad. The second film trick came near the end. The monster, distraught at his creator's rejection, stands before the full-length mirror in the study. While he pleads to heaven, asking (one might guess) Why Me?, the monster disappears (camera cut), but his reflection in the mirror remained. When Victor enters the study, he stands before the mirror, pointing accusingly. The monster's image cross-fades (sort of) to that of Victor's actual reflection. The monster just faded away.

Stagey View -- One curious feature of Edison's Frankenstein was the very stale camera use. Even before 1910, directors were using dolly shots, traveling shots, intercuts and close-ups as well as unusual camera angles. Director J. Searle Dawley used none of the artistic camera or editing techniques already pioneered. Instead, he set the camera on a fixed tripod to watch a fixed patch of set. This gave Edison's Frankenstein the feel of a low-budget stage play of several short acts. This stale viewpoint may be part of why the film was not much of a success with audiences. The story was interesting, but the visuals were not so appealing. Audiences were already accustomed to cameras mounted on speeding trains, panning, and rapid intercutting.

Almost Lost -- There is already much written on the internet about how Edison's Frankenstein was rescued from oblivion. Apparently, oblivion was the fate of most early films. Producers regarded them as ephemeral bits of entertainment -- perhaps also a taint of the burlesque association. When the film had made its several week "run", all the prints were returned to the producer, who stripped the films to reclaim the silver to make more film. This made producing the next movie a bit less expensive, but tended to obliterate previous copies. Frankenstein is one of the exceptions.

Single Takes -- There is some visual evidence that Dawley let his camera capture whatever happened, also like live theater. There are wo little clips, where things did not go quite right, but the cameras kept rolling. They are: Dang Fingernails -- In the study, the monster goes to pluck out the rose from Victor's lapel, but the long fingernails of his costume got in the way. He has to try a few times. Dang Feet -- After the monster has caused Elizabeth to faint and he and Victor fought, the monster goes to fling open the doors and go. Trouble was, his big costume feet were in the way. The doors wouldn't fling. He has to back up a bit, and re-fling them. There was, apparently, no time or budget for retakes. First take is a print.

Bottom line? Edison's short silent film is an interesting example of the challenge in condensing a complex novel into a short story. In that short span, it touches on the notion of good and evil within the same man (Victor). The monster being the personification of his hubris. Check it out for yourself. It is available for download or watched online from the Video Archive.
Though this seems like an especially dark copy and somewhat cropped.

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