Much mystery and speculation surrounds the 1910 Thomas Edison film version of Frankenstein, most of which is due to early motion picture distribution policies and the subsequent 1931 Universal version eclipsing just about every memory of it. Frankenstein was a highly successful novel that went through many adaptations for the stage before finally making it to the motion picture screen in 1910. It was through the production facilities of the Edison Manufacturing Company’s movie studios in the Bronx, New York, that Mary Shelley’s creation first flickered into cinematic existence. Edison’s Frankenstein is now considered by many to be the first horror film ever made but at the time that appellation was never applied. It was simply released as a dramatic motion picture.
The film studio managers selected their top director and screenwriter, J. Searle Dawley, to handle the complicated project. He was instructed to take the utmost care in his handling of the writing and filming to take great pains not to offend, yet retain enough thrills, for the general public. The studio backed the production to the limit with their best actors, the finest sets and costumes available, color tinting, trick photography, stirring music, and the necessary publicity needed to insure its success.
Frankenstein was featured with a photographic still of the monster on the cover of the March 15, 1910 domestic edition of The Kinetogram, a bi-monthly Edison film release survey and also on the very first Edison film catalog ever offered in London. The studios’ publicity writers went to great pains to emphasize the high moral tone offered in their principle release’s production. “To those familiar with Mrs. Shelley’s story it will be evident that we have carefully omitted anything which might by any possibility shock any portion of an audience. In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all the actually 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.”
The creation of the monster in the movie is far different from the book and the later film version’s assemblages of various corpse parts to be sparked into life by a bolt of lightning. The Kinetogram relates, “…some of the most remarkable photographic effects that have been attempted. The formation of the hideous monster from the blazing chemicals of a huge caldron in Frankenstein’s laboratory is probably the most weird, mystifying and fascinating scene ever shown on a film,” the creature is formed.
Cinematically speaking, the film is very straight forward. Dawley used no camera movement, close-ups, or weird angles to enhance the look of his filmed play but did apply subconscious, almost surreal story telling techniques to add an unworldly element to the film that causes one to wonder if the monster is real or just a figment of Dr. Frankenstein’s dementia.
For all of the moral tone expressed in the catalog publicity and the dampening down of the repulsiveness of the story, the Edison Studios certainly didn’t apply any of that sentiment to the hideous creature staring out at us from the Kinetogram cover or the film itself.
It’s assumed that the monster’s actor, Charles Ogle, created his own make-up, which was the custom of the day and it became the basis, minus the unruly mass of hair, for all of the Frankenstein movie monsters to come. The triangular square topped head, the high sloping scarred forehead and protruding Neolithic brow, the snarling mouth with twisting lips, and the blackened sunken eyes all became standard enduring facial qualities for the decades and hundreds of movie treatments to come. The Edison monster more closely resembles Mary Shelley’s description than most other treatments and looks more born of the Charnel house than a vat of steaming chemicals.
Augustus Phillips played the lead role of Frankenstein and though he performed in many pictures, very little is known about his personal life or career. He spent 10 years in various theatrical stock companies focusing most of his talent on the New York stage before his film career.
Mary Fuller was chosen to be the love interest and was the first real star attraction of the movies. Though she made over 300 short films, Ms. Fuller failed to adapt to multi-reel pictures and she quickly faded into obscurity by 1920. She later suffered a complete mental breakdown and spent the last 25 years of her life in an insane asylum and is buried in an un-marked grave in Congressional Cemetery in Washington, DC.
The production schedule for Edison’s Frankenstein started January 17, 1910 and was filmed over the next few days. It was released March 18, 1910 for a weekend premiere. This rush in production from filming to screening was typical of all Edison movies. The photoplay got very good reviews when it was released. Moving Picture World, the leading trade publication of the time, “… no film has ever been released that can surpass it in power to fascinate an audience. The scene in the laboratory in which the monster seemed gradually to assume human semblance is probably the most remarkable ever committed to a film.” (March 19, 1910).
“The formation of the monster in the cauldron is a piece of photographic work which will rank with the best of its kind. The entire film is one that will create a new impression that the possibilities of the motion picture in reproducing these stories are scarcely realized.” (April 2, 1910).
The Edison Studios usually printed up an average of 40 copies of each of their films, unless public demand was greater, or less. After their initial six-month run the prints were returned to the laboratories and strip salvaged for their silver content. Fires in 1914 at the Bronx studio and at the Orange, New Jersey manufacturing plant destroyed most all of the film prints and negatives held in storage.
It is due to the public’s fascination with the Universal Frankenstein films that Edison’s Frankenstein and Charles Ogle are even remembered today at all. All memory of Edison’s picture vanished like the unstable nitrate film stock used to capture it, turning to dust and scattering to the winds of time. In the early 1960s an amateur film sleuth came across the Kinetogram cover photo of Frankenstein stored amongst the 4,000,000 documents preserved in the archives of the Edison National Historic Site in West Orange, New Jersey. The photo of the unnamed Ogle shortly began appearing in the pages of Famous Monsters and other popular magazines. By 1980, The American Film Institute declared Edison’s Frankenstein one of the top 10 culturally historical “lost”films. Little did anyone realize that by an act of fate, one copy of the film miraculously survived, laying dormant in the Wisconsin basement of an eccentric film collector named Alois Dettlaff, Sr. who acquired it in the 1950s for a few dollars.
Once again, like the endless recycled monsters that have continually stomped across the screen down through the decades, Edison’s Frankenstein refuses to die. Charles Ogle was the first and is now the latest cinematic version of Mary Shelley’s immortal creature to be released on DVD, or should we say, escaped. You just can’t keep a good monster down.
Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr. is a 58-year-old artist from Hagerstown, Maryland, whose work has been exhibited in museums and galleries nationally. He is the author of several books, including Backwards Into the Future: The Recorded History of the Firesign Theatre, published in 2006 by BearManor Media. Mr. Wiebel is perhaps best known for his book Edison’s Frankenstein, and for helping to find, restore, and facilitate the DVD release of the 1910 film. He has screened the classic and lectured about its storied history at various institutions, universities and movie conventions, including the Monster Bash and Chiller Theater events. His efforts on Edison’s Frankenstein have earned him many accolades, including a letter of commendation from the Library of Congress.