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IN SEARCH OF EDISON'S FRANKENSTEIN PDF Print E-mail
Written by By Phil Hall   
Aug 01, 2004 at 02:00 AM
Perhaps the most elusive ribbon of film in the history of cinema is Frankenstein. Not the 1931 masterpiece with Boris Karloff, but the first screen adaptation of the Mary Shelley novel, produced in 1910 by Thomas Edison. Censored in its day, considered lost for decades, the film still exists in a private collection but is still some distance from returning to the screen.
Few people realize that Thomas Edison, besides being the master American inventor, was also a pioneer film producer. With a studio in the Bronx, N.Y., Edison churned out scores of films which played in nickelodeons around the world. By today's standards, these films were stiff and stagy in both their acting and cinematic technique and precious few of these works can seriously be considered as film classics.
Frankenstein was a fairly ambitious topic for an Edison film, chiefly because the films of that era rarely lasted more than two reels and the Mary Shelley novel offered a complex array of moral and philosophical quandaries in addition to the celebrated plot of regenerated life. The 15-minute film, directed by James Searle Dawley, focuses on Victor Frankenstein's return from university and his attempt to create a man from the dead. Dawley used elaborate (for its time) special effects for the spawning of the monster, employing reverse photography to provide the illusion of flesh and sinew wrapping itself around a skeleton in a huge vat. The monster (played by Charles Ogle with matted hair and a humpback) spends the rest of the film terrorizing Frankenstein and his bride before disappearing into a mirror.
In theory, the film should not have presented any problems. Despite the menacing monster, there is no violence or bloodshed in the film. And in any event, both the book as well as a theatrical version by R.B. Peak were more than familiar with the general public. Unfortunately, Edison and his filmmakers underestimated the reaction to their latest offering.
Despite good reviews, Frankenstein raised a furor with exhibitors who considered it to be far too weird and frightening for the polite audiences and in many communities it was refused screenings. In Great Britain, local censors trimmed eight feet from the film before allowing it to be shown. Horror films were virtually unknown at that time, which explains the negative reaction, and the shock of having a monster (even one as fairly benign as the Charles Ogle creation) was too much. Frankenstein was subsequently withdrawn from circulation and quickly forgotten.
The horror film genre truly did not take off until the 1920s, with imported German productions including The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and Nosferatu (not to mention the Frankensteinesque tale of The Golem) and with the home-grown collaborative efforts of Lon Chaney and Tod Browning. By the 1920s, Edison was already out of the film business and his productions seemed primitive and embarrassing when compared to the jazzier works of the increasingly sophisticated film industry. By the time James Whales version of Frankenstein was shot in 1931, the Edison forerunner was not even recalled.
In 1963, film historian Edward Connor came across the March 15, 1910 edition of The Edison Kinetogram, an in-house publicity magazine for exhibitors highlighting the new films from this top studio. The cover featured Charles Ogle in full monster make-up, snarling for the camera with a subhead reading "Scene from Frankenstein." The discovery was startling and almost immediately there was a frantic search for more information on this lost treasure. A second issue of The Edison Kinetogram turned up in London which provided full credits for the production, but no print could be located. The frustration that this pioneering work of the horror genre gnawed at cinephiles and in 1980 the American Film Institute included Frankenstein on its list of the ten most "culturally and historically significant lost films."
Strangely, a few years prior to the AFI list, producers of a BBC documentary on film history included a few minutes of Edison's Frankenstein as part of their program. What the AFI and most film historians failed to realize was that one extant print of Frankenstein survived in the private archive of Alois Detlaff, a Milwaukee film collector. Mr. Detlaff, upon learning of the AFI list, let it be known that he had preserved Frankenstein. While this might seem like the ideal end to the story, new problems arose.
Since the Edison film company had disbanded, Frankenstein had fallen into the public domain. Although he was solely responsible for the film's preservation, Mr. Detlaff could not claim the copyright on the film. In fact, the snippets which appeared in the BBC production later wound up in several video compilations of silent cinema, without providing credit or payment to Mr. Detlaff. Although he provided two public theatrical screenings of the film in Milwaukee and a video version with a distracting and annoying copyright protection scroll for viewing at horror film conventions, the original Frankenstein still has yet to be made fully available for either theatrical or home video release. Requests by museums and archives for the donation of the print have been refused by Mr. Detlaff, who has requested (but has yet to receive) a financial agreement to his satisfaction, and inquiries by film distributors to show the film have not been successful.
In 1997, Mr. Detlaff announced plans to release Frankenstein along with an original 35mm nitrate print of Nosferatu on a single home video, thus providing a double-feature line-up of the first Frankenstein and Dracula films together. Unfortunately, plans for this release stalled due to problems with the production of the video and Mr. Detlaff's poor health. As of this writing, the video has not been released. However, writer Frederick C. Wiebel Jr. has self-published Edison's Frankenstein - an invaluable text tracing the long and tortured history of this unique film.
Thus, the first attempt at horror film production still eludes us. Hopefully in the very near future audiences will be able to see where and how the genre began and Frankenstein will finally be accorded the level of classic it long deserves.

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