10.06.2010

HORRORTHON '10: Frankenstein (J. Searle Dawley, 1910)

Edison Studios, named as such only for being owned by The Edison Company (Thomas himself allegedly had nothing to do with it), created the first cinematic version of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1910. The film, shot in three days in the Bronx, opens with a statement declaring itself a "liberal adaptation", and that it most certainly is. While traces remain of Shelley's utterly fascinating tragedy about an obsessive and romantic doctor's experimental exploits, Edison's Frankenstein seems on its own agenda. This take vaguely establishes a metaphysical connection between its title character and his monstrous creation, suggesting that without the doctor's mental capacities for evil, the experiment's result might have been an ideal person the likes of which humankind had never seen (so, basically, Tom Cruise). In this regard the film is decent in and of itself, but the drastic changes and simplification of certain complexities to simple "evil" prevent me from respecting it as an adaptation (even a liberal one) of one of my most beloved novels.

1910 is, of course, before D.W. Griffith began making feature-length material that would introduce the world to new narrative ideas and, naturally, Edison's Frankenstein reflects as much. The vast majority of scenes are accomplished through singular wide masters with title cards before each to explain impending events.  The one stand-out is the creation scene, which cuts between the doctor's point of view (pictured above) and a wide of his laboratory. The creation effect itself - the growing of flesh on a progressively mobile skeleton - is terrifyingly well-accomplished.

For decades following the studio's dissolve in 1918, Edison's Frankenstein was actually considered lost. It only resurfaced publicly in the late '70s when collector Alois F. Dettlaff, who had purchased a dilapidated copy from his mother-in-law in the early '50s, realized its rarity and ordered a 35mm preservation copy. Only on March 18th of this year was the film (now public domain, as are all films created prior to 1922) once again made available to the masses. Its deterioration is obvious as the entire piece is clouded with dirt and overexposure, but nary a frame is indeterminable.

So, in short, Edison's Frankenstein is an interesting short film in its own right with a smattering of memorable moments, but as an adaptation of Mary Shelley's literary masterwork it is an oversimplified insult. I imagine some simplification was the result of how concerned financial backers reportedly were about their audience's physical or mental tolerance for certain subject matters at the time, but altering Victor Frankenstein into empathetic evil that shares a vital bond with his creation's mentality? That's a skull-scratcher.

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