Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr. | Edison’s Frankenstein

Edison’s Frankenstein will be of most interest to fans of horror film and early cinema.

276 pages. Bear Manor Media, 2009. $24.95 (paperback)
 

If you have any interest at all in film you probably can think of several cinematic versions of the Frankenstein story. My first thought would be James Whale’s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, followed by Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. There are many more: directors from Charles Barton (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein) to Sir Kenneth Branagh (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) have taken their crack at putting Mary Shelley’s story, or at least her characters, on film.

However, unless you’re a real aficionado of silent films you may not be aware of a version of Frankenstein predating all of these. The silent film Frankenstein, directed in 1910 by J. Searle Dawley for Edison, is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The story of that film, which for many years was believed to be lost, is the subject of Edison’s Frankenstein by Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr.

Mr. Wiebel is nothing if not thorough in his treatment of his subject. He devotes a great deal of this book to the context of this film, including a history of Edison Studios, the technology involved in filmmaking in this period, and the careers of the film’s actors Augustus Phillips (Frankenstein), Charles Ogle (The Monster) and Mary Fuller (Elizabeth). The book is loaded with detail including many illustrations and there’s also a discussion of other treatments of the Frankenstein story on film and the rather eventful story of how a print of this film was discovered and all the trials and tribulations involved in dealing with its owner. 

The contextual treatment is appropriate because the 1910 Frankenstein is only about 12 minutes long and while interesting as a historical object is not a masterpiece nor does it represent any breakthrough in film technique or style. It was widely distributed in its day and got positive reviews but as was typical of most films in those days no one gave much thought to preserving a copy once the theatrical run was over. Frankenstein is not a bad film but it’s really nothing special either: it looks like any number of other early films (fixed camera, no variety in shots, melodramatic acting) although I’ll give Dawley points for clever use of a mirror. But you needn’t take my word for it: the 1910 Frankenstein has been in the public domain for years and you can watch it at the Internet Archive.

Most interesting to me is this film’s moral interpretation of the story and the suggestion that the Monster might be a figment of the Frankenstein’s imagination or guilty conscience. He sets out to create a man but, as a title card informs us, “Instead of a perfect human being the evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a monster.” But Elizabeth, Frankenstein’s wife, brings out his better nature and he is able to banish the monster and, presumably, live happily ever after. Or as the final title card puts it, “The creation of an evil mind is overcome by love and disappears.”

Edison’s Frankenstein will be of most interest to fans of horror film and early cinema. Its usefulness as a reference tool is limited by the lack of footnotes or endnotes: there is a reference list but it’s impossible to follow up on the source of any particular piece of information. The poor quality of many of the illustrations is also unfortunate and the text would have benefited from another round of copy-editing. We’ve all been guilty of typos but I draw the line at a book which persistently refers to the head of Universal Studios as “Carl Leammle.”

Edison’s Frankenstein
can be purchased from the Bear Manor Media, through amazon.com, or directly from the author (email him at FredWiebel@aol.com).

Sarah Boslaugh
 

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