This episode is the second part of my deep dive into the life of Mary Shelley and the first film adaptation of Frankenstein. I don’t want to spend too much time introducing the topic again, so please be sure to listen to the last episode of Horrid, if you haven’t already. That said, let’s jump right into the very first film adaptation of Frankenstein.
A Rising Terror
The first movie based on Mary Shelley’s novel was released by Edison Studios in 1910. Much like the early movies based on Faustus and the Haunted Hotel motif, this was an attempt to appeal to the masses by creating a film based on a popular literary work. Titled simply Frankenstein, the 14-minute movie was filmed by American director James Searle Dawley.
Dawley was hired by Edison Studios in 1907, and went on to direct 149 silent films before retiring from the industry in 1926. Aside from Frankenstein, Dawley’s other claim to fame would be directing a 1916 version of Snow White. The movie was seen by a 15 year old Walt Disney, and it must have made quite the impression. This early version of Snow White would serve as the inspiration for Disney’s first feature-length animated film.
From what I’ve read, Dawley was something of a character. It is purported that he referred to himself as the first motion picture director. Dawley’s claim is based on the fact that Edwin Porter from Edison Studios hired him specifically to direct films for the studio in 1907. Prior to this, as his argument goes, the cameraman led the action on the film set. In being hired to his role, Dawley claims to be the first professional specifically brought in to oversee the actors and staging scenes.
I tend to think of Dawley’s claim to being the first professional director as an argument in semantics. It is true that the film became more collaborative as the medium entered into its second decade. On the production side there were now more clearly defined roles for directors, cameramen, scene designers, and the like. However, I can’t really believe that earlier filmmakers like George Melies did not provide guidance to his actors or to cameramen. Melies is a great example in my mind because he acted in so many of his own films. This necessitates the fact that he provided guidance to the person operating the camera, and it seems likely he would also have directed the many actors that appear with him on screen. While Dawley’s claim accurately reflects the expansion of creative collaboration occurring in productions, I think the claim also downplays the contributions of earlier filmmakers.
Watching Dawley’s Frankenstein marks a definite evolution in the craft of filmmaking. At long last there is storytelling at play and an attempt to convey a cohesive plot. I say attempt because there are significant changes to the Frankenstein story here, and I can’t say that I had a clear idea of the filmmaker’s intentions by the end of the film. Most analyses of the film say that the story was changed in order to remove the immoral or other unpleasant scenes from the story. This was an attempt to make the story more palatable to audiences of the time.
The film presents an abridged version of Mary Shelley’s tale. Augustus Philips plays Dr. Frankenstein. Philips was Edison Studios go to leading man for many years, starring in 160 movies from 1910 to 1921. According to the Internet Movie Database which lists it as his first credit, Frankenstein may have been Philips first role in a motion picture. If you’ve ever seen old footage of a silent adaptation of The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, is another of Philips best known films, in which he plays the titular Revere.
As prolific as Philips may have been, his career is overshadowed by the even more ubiquitous character actor, Charles Ogle, who was featured in over 300 films. Ogle was another longtime recurring actor for Edison Studios. Here, Ogle plays the part of the Creature. The part has earned him the credit of being the first actor to portray the monster on film. Not too shabby for a minister’s son from the small city of Steubenville, Ohio.
The only other major actor in the film is Mary Fuller, playing the part of Frankenstein’s fiancee, Elizabeth. Fuller was one of the first popular stars of film, and is commonly thought of as one of the first true movie stars. Her career in movies was relatively short, spanning a time of only ten years from 1907 to 1917. During this time she starred in well over two hundred films, many of which were very successful. She was signed to a contract with Universal Studioes in 1914 and became one of their regular actors. Fuller was also a screenwriter, and eight of her scripts were turned into films between the years of 1913 and 1915. Her last few films unfortunately did not do well financially, and when her contract with Universal expired in 1917, it was not renewed. This marked the end of her career in film. Fuller lived out the rest of her life in relative obscurity. Sadly, Fuller suffered from two serious mental breakdowns, and she spent the last 26 years of her life institutionalized.
The movie opens with a cue card: Frankenstein Departs For College
Frankenstein says farewell to his father and his beloved Elizabeth as he prepared to depart for college, where he plans to study science. He exits.
Two Years Later Frankenstein Has Discovered the Mystery of Life
We cut to Frankenstein in his lab at college. He is studying large tomes of text, and is surrounded by skeletons and various medical looking apparatuses. A sudden epiphany seems to strike, and Frankenstein begins to write in his journal feverishly. He is visibly excited, hand clapping together with enthusiasm as he retires to his bedroom.
Just Before the Experiment
Frankenstein seems to have lost a bit of his previous excitement. He sits in his chair, suddenly appearing to doubt himself. His hand happens upon a piece of paper, the contents of which seem to reignite his excitement. He has put together the last piece of the puzzle! He grabs his quill and write a note to Elizabeth, promising that he will return home to marry her just as soon as he accomplishes his goal of creating “the most perfect human being that the world has yet known.” He confesses to having discovered the secret of life and death, and he expects to complete his experiment that very night!
Instead of a Perfect Human Being, the Evil in Frankenstein’s Mind Creates a Monster
Frankenstein commences with his work. We watch as he adds various chemicals to a large cauldron. A plume of smoke flares up as he seals the test chamber behind two large metal doors.
What follows is an incredibly awesome special effect for the time period. We watch as the creature slowly coalesces and takes shape within the cauldron. The effect appears to have been created by filming burning a facsimile of the creature, a sequence which is then played in reverse during the movie. The effect is interspersed with reaction shots of Frankenstein, who is watching the experiment progress from a small viewport into the test chamber. The entire creation sequence lasts for about two minutes, which really is an incredible amount of screentime when you consider how long the film is overall.
As the creature takes its final form, Frankenstein is appalled by the creature’s appearance. He realizes that he has not created the perfect human being, but rather a monster. The metal doors of the test chamber are forced open from the inside, and we see only the malformed hands of the monster as they feel their way through the opening in the door. Frankenstein quickly retreats to his bedroom.
Frankenstein Appalled at the Sight of His Evil Creation
Overcome with terror, Frankenstein passes out on his bed. The creature follows, parting the curtains of the bed on the rear side of the room, its odd form large and imposing over the prone body of its creator. Frankenstein comes to his senses, only to find the monster looming over him. Frankenstein again panics, collapsing to the floor in fright. The monster flees as someone comes to check on Frankenstein.
The Return Home
The movie cuts to a short scene depicting Frankenstein returning home from college. There is a joyous reunion with his father and his fiancee. A great bit of worry seems to drain from Frankenstein’s face.
Haunting His Creator And Jealous of His Sweetheart. For the First Time The Monster Sees Himself.
Frankenstein sits reading in his library, a large floor-length mirror appearing on the right side of the room. The mirror reflects the door to the library, which is otherwise off camera. In the reflection, we see the door opens and Elizabeth enters the room. Frankenstein is delighted to see his soon to be bride, and she places a flower into the the lapel of his jacket. She leaves to make a pot of tea, and we see in the mirror as the door to the library opens once again. This time it is the monster that Frankenstein sees enter the room in the reflection of the mirror. The monster has followed him home! The monster tries to ingratiate himself to his creator, but he is agitated by the flower that Elizabeth has given to Frankenstein. The monster rips the flower from the jacket. Hearing someone approaching, the monster hides behind the curtains. Elizabeth enters the room again, but Frankenstein quickly gets her to leave. The monster emerges from his hiding spot, and Frankenstein attempts to admonish his creation, which only serves to enrage the monster. Frankenstein is thrown to the floor, but the monster pauses at it gazes upon its own horrific visage in the mirror. The monster is tormented by its own appearance and flees the room.
On the Bridal Night. Frankenstein’s Better Nature Asserting Itself.
The wedding guests are leaving the house, and Elizabeth retires to the bedroom. With Frankenstein occupied elsewhere in the house, the monster forces open the doors and then creeps across the foyer and into the bedroom. Frankenstein finds the wide open foyer doors before Elizabeth rushes out of the bedroom, screaming. Elizabeth faints as the monster emerges from the bedroom. The monster and its creator physically struggle over Elizabeth’s unconscious body before the monster once again flees from the house. Elizabeth regains consciousness just as the monster exits.
The Creation of an Evil Mind is Overcome by Love and Disappears.
Cut to the library. The door can be seen opening in the floor-length mirror as the monster again enters into the room. The monster comes before the mirror and examines its physical form. The monster holds his hands toward the heavens, seemingly pleading with God to explain its haphazard and unloved existence. Then, suddenly, the physical form of the Monster disappears, but it’s anguished reflection remains in the mirror. Frankenstein then enters the scene, and he is astonished to find the reflection of the monster instead of himself in the mirror. Frankenstein seems to ponder himself for a moment before thrusting his hand out towards the mirror. Suddenly, as Frankenstein is completing this gesture, the reflection of the monster fades away. Frankenstein is left facing himself in the mirror.
Frankenstein exclaims at his seeming triumph over the monster. Elizabeth rushes into the room through the door and the pair embraces as the film comes to an end.
A Metaphysical Interpretation
The Edison film is clearly a very loose interpretation of Mary Shelley’s original story. The ending in particular was interesting to me. Here is what the Edison Kinetogram, their own magazine that was used to market these films, has to say about the ending of Frankenstein:
Here comes the point which we have endeavored to bring out, namely: That when Frankenstein’s love for his bride shall have attained full strength and freedom from impurity it will have such an effect upon his mind that the monster cannot exist… Gradually… under the effect of love and his better nature, the monster’s image fades and Frankenstein sees himself in his young manhood in the mirror… Frankenstein’s mind now being relieved of the awful horror and weight it has been laboring under for so long.
It’s an interesting metaphysical twist on the Frankenstein formula, for sure. However, in my own watching of the film, I don’t think that the official interpretation goes far enough to explain the action occurring on screen. In the Frankenstein film described in the Kinetogram, it is clear that the monster is a real, physical being that has been made flesh by the evil thoughts in its creator’s mind. It is through embracing his love for Elizabeth that Frankenstein is able to fully cast out his evil thoughts, brought on by his belief in science, and that the monster finally ceases to exist.
In my interpretation, I take the metaphysical explanation one step further. It is my belief that the monster never physically exists, and that its physical form is merely a visual metaphor of Frankenstein’s debased thoughts and character. I believe that there is sufficient evidence throughout the film to support this interpretation as well. For example, no one in the film ever sees the monster other than Frankenstein himself. When the monster is first created and stalks its creator in the dormitory bedroom, it disappears before Frankenstein’s servant comes to check on him. When the monster appears in the library for the first time, it hides and is never seen by Elizabeth. Even on the wedding night, yes, Elizabeth runs out of the bedroom, but the audience never actually sees her seeing the monster. She faints in the foyer before the monster emerges from the bedroom and the monster flees from the foyer just as she awakens. In my mind, Elizabeth is frightened from the bedroom not by the monster, but by some monstrous aspect of Frankenstein’s character that only emerges on their wedding night. The fact that we see Frankenstein exit to other parts of the house is only part of the mental facade that he has erected, preventing him from realizing that he himself is the monster.
There’s one additional piece of critical evidence that supports this theory. In the final scene in the library, the camera is set up such that the door to the library can only barely be seen in the far right-side of the mirror. However, we can see enough of the door’s reflection to clearly see that the door opens when the monster enters the library, and it opens again when Elizabeth enters at the end. However, when Frankenstein himself enters into the library, the door does not open. Frankenstein literally enters into the room from off-camera, but we do not see the door open or close. I would argue this is because Frankenstein’s physical body is already in the room, but the audience only sees him in the form of the monster.
Whether you believe my more metaphysical interpretation of the film or not, I think it is nonetheless interesting to see how the filmmakers adapted Shelley’s tale. As the Kinetogram states:
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. Whenever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of elimination of what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.
It’s an interesting adaptation overall, and it is worth watching if for no other reason than the unique interpretation of the physical appearance of Charles Ogle as the monster. It will be interesting to see how this first adaptation holds up against the much better known adaptation by Universal Studios in 1931.
Mary Shelley and the Means of Creation
My other surprising takeaway from the 1910 version of Frankenstein is the monster creation sequence. The special effects were really rather incredible for the time period, and I’d recommend watching the film if for no other reason but to watch this special effects sequence. What I found surprising, however, was not the effects, but rather the manner in which the creation experiment is executed.
In my mind, the creation of Frankenstein’s monster has always been a result of the archaic science of galvanism. Electrodes hooked up the body combined with a massive surge in electricity, like might be provided by a lightning storm, resulting in reanimation. On reflection, I suppose this is the fault of the 1931 film starring Boris Karloff. In my mind the creation sequence as presented there is simply the canonical version of the event. From the large machines to the randomly firing tesla coils, and only reinforced by that mad exclamation of “It’s Alive!” by Colin Clive, playing the part of Henry Frankenstein in the film. In my mind, this is how Frankenstein’s monster came into existence.
In the 1910 film, there is seemingly no application of electricity at all. Rather, the monster’s creation is a result of alchemy. Victor combines all the necessary ingredients in a large cauldron, and we watch as the monster takes form. Taking the sequence at face value in terms of what is presented on screen, it doesn’t even appear that Frankenstein has needed to include any body parts as starting materials for the reaction.
This movie presents what can only be described as a rather radical interpretation of Shelley’s creation! Or, so I thought. I turned to the novel itself to see what Shelley had written of the creation sequence, and I could hardly believe the passage that I found:
It was a dreary night of November, that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils. With an anxiety that almost amounted to agony, I collected the instruments of life around me, that I might infuse a spark of being into the lifeless thing that lay at my feet. It was already one in the morning; the rain pattered dismally against the panes, and my candle was nearly burnt out, when, by the glimmer of the half-extinguished light, I saw the dull yellow eye of the creature open; it breathed hard, and a convulsive motion agitated its limbs.
And that’s it. No lightning storm; no monstrous electrical engines humming; no tesla coils crackling with dangerous energy; no maniacal mad scientist cackling his hubris towards the heavens; nothing. Just the unnamed “instruments of life” collected around him and the desire to “infuse a spark of being” into the reassembled corpse. In this passage Mary Shelley demonstrates how uninterested she was in the mechanics of bringing the creature to life; she cared only to portray the consequences of the event.
The 1910 version of Frankenstein is in the public domain, so the full movie is available to watch on the transcript page for this episode which can be found on horridpodcast.com. If you’ve noted any factual errors in this episode, please send a message to [email protected]. You can follow Horrid on Twitter and Instagram, @HorridPodcast, and you can follow me, @DocManson.
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Until next time, stay scared.
References & Further Reading
- Worland, Rick. The Horror Film: An Introduction. United Kingdom, Wiley, 2007.
- Beach, Christopher. A Hidden History of Film Style: Cinematographers, Directors, and the Collaborative Process. Univ of California Press, 2015.
- “J. Searle Dawley.” IMDb, http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0205986/bio. Accessed 18 Oct. 2020.
- Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein: Or, The Modern Prometheus. G. Routledge & sons, limited, 1891.
- Frankenstein (Film). https://www.firstversions.com/2014/12/frankenstein-film.html. Accessed 18 Oct. 2020.
- Magoun, Alexander. “Why Frankenstein Became Electric.” Proceedings of the IEEE, vol. 107, Apr. 2020, p. 488. ResearchGate, doi:10.1109/JPROC.2018.2890730.