Image Source: Nigredo’s Room
Synopsis: Young Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips – not Gene Wilder) heads off to college, where after two years he discovers the secret to creating life. But his attempt at producing the perfect human being goes horribly awry, giving birth to a hideously misshapen Monster (Charles Ogle). Frankenstein just wants to forget the whole incident, settle down and marry his sweetheart Elizabeth (Mary Fuller) – but with his grotesque creation running amok and growing increasingly more jealous of his fiancée, will the happy couple ever find peace?
For the month of October, I’m planning to write a review of one horror film from every decade from the 1910s to the 1980s. I could have started earlier, indeed with the very first horror film, Georges Méliès’ Le manoir du diable (1896), but the fact is, that one’s only three minutes long, and sticking to eight decades just worked better for my schedule. But by all means, give it a look. I mean, it’s not like it’s a huge time investment.
Instead I am starting with the first film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 Gothic romance Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, directed by J. Searle Dawley for the Edison (as in, Thomas Edison) Manufacturing Company in 1910. Long considered lost, the film was rediscovered in the possession of a private collector in the 1970s and is now available online for free at Internet Archive. You can read the entire fascinating story of how this gem was made, lost, and then found again in Richard Drees’ comprehensive article at Film Buff On Line.
Having never read the novel, I’m no expert on Shelley’s original plot, and – embarrassing as it is to admit, here on my first film review on my new classic film blog, when the theme of the month is Horror – I’ve never quite seen James Whale’s 1931 version of Frankenstein. Something about an allegiance to Dracula, I don’t know. There’s really no excuse and I promise to remedy the situation as soon as possible. Point is, if you’re looking for a more intelligent literary analysis of this film, I wholly recommend Noel Tanti’s review at Nigredo’s Room and Elizabeth Kingsley’s at And You Call Yourself A Scientist! They both get to the heart of the material way more eloquently than I could. I do know that the film labels itself as “a liberal adaptation,” and that in the March 1910 edition of “The Edison Kinetogram” it is noted that, in producing the film, the Edison Manufacturing Company “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.” So, if this version of Frankenstein doesn’t quite measure up to your expectations, just blame early censorship and the fact that it’s only twelve minutes long.
Recap: And because it’s only twelve minutes long, I don’t feel too bad about recapping the whole thing for you. The film starts briskly as we see the “young” Frankenstein heading off to college. (In reality Phillips was thirty-five when he made this film.) Virtually immediately two years have passed, and Frankenstein has magically discovered the key to creating life!
Two years?? I hadn’t even discovered how to get to class on time after two years.
Before putting his theory to the test, Frankenstein sits down to pen a letter to his fiancée Elizabeth, stating that he has discovered this secret and now he’s going to build the world’s most perfect human being, and after that’s done he’ll come back and marry her. He’s a charmer, that Frankenstein.
In the laboratory, the doctor – well, wait, is he a doctor? It would seem he’s just a cocky, prematurely-aged college sophomore. Anyway. Frankenstein mixes many a potion and a powder together into a little pot, which he then tosses into a bigger pot, a full-on witches’ cauldron, which he then seals behind two huge doors. He watches the progress of his experiment through a tiny window, and witnesses his being literally growing and taking shape before his – and our – eyes.
Hey guys! Come on in, hot tub’s just right.
You know, call me a sucker, but I love the special effects used in this scene. It looks to me like they constructed a replica of the Monster (later played by Charles Ogle), lit it on fire, filmed it burning to ashes, and then ran the film backward to make it appear as if it were materializing right before our very eyes. A pretty simple idea, but a dynamite effect for 1910. Even if you’re not fooled and can tell what’s happening, you gotta admit, it’s clever. The only thing that really ruins it and takes it from awe-worthy to unintentionally funny is when the little puppet arms start to wave at you. That just pushes it over the edge and it becomes a bit ridiculous.
So the being comes to life, but instead of being perfect, it turns out kind of gross, and Frankenstein is horrified and wants nothing to do with this yucky beast. He runs away, but the Monster just wants to be loooooooooooved and chases after him into the bedroom. Frankenstein scares him off by repeatedly fainting – he’s got the Monster confused with a bear, I think, and believes playing dead will cause it to lose interest – until he’s rescued by some dude who just happened to be casually strolling through his chambers. Don’t ask. The mysterious man makes it all better by cuddling with Frankenstein and stroking his hair. Aw.
Frankenstein then goes home and tries to forget all about the Monster, which seems appallingly irresponsible to me. If you take in a pet, it’s your duty to take care of it. Anyway. His family gathers ’round and asks how his semester’s been, and Frankenstein tells them all about French class and how bad the cafeteria food is, whilst leaving out the important bit about the hideous beast he’s unleashed onto the world. (Hey, we’ve all been there, am I right?) But the Monster won’t be gotten rid of that easily, and soon appears in the sitting room. This is another clever scene, as the camera is positioned in such a way that, as the Monster enters the room from behind Frankenstein’s chair, we first see him reflected in the mirror before he even enters the scene. Have I mentioned I’m also a sucker for mirrors? It’s a bit pathetic, really; a movie can be otherwise terrible, but if there’s just one scene that utilizes a clever mirror trick, I’m bound to think it’s genius. But no, I promise, this one is quite good, and the mirror plays a vital role in this story. Frankenstein and the Monster struggle, and the Monster rips the flower Elizabeth has just given Frankenstein out of his lapel and throws it violently to the floor. Somebody’s jealous! The Monster hides behind a curtain as Elizabeth enters the room, until Frankenstein hurriedly escorts her out. This is the most sympathetic monster ever. He doesn’t even do anything! All he’s asking is that his creator acknowledge his existence, which Frankenstein repeatedly refuses to do. Who’s the real monster here, hmm?
Cut to the night of the wedding. Frankenstein and Elizabeth bid adieu to their guests and are about to enjoy their first blissful night as a married couple, when, guess who, an uninvited visitor arrives. Elizabeth goes into the bedroom and Frankenstein goes into another room to retrieve something he forgot (maybe he’s sneaking one last piece of wedding cake?) when the Monster comes in through the balcony and sneaks up on Elizabeth. She is, of course, horrified, and faints appropriately. (That seminar they attended on bear safety was apparently really effective!) The groom comes back in, the Monster runs away, and, instead of staying to comfort his wounded bride, Frankenstein chases after him. But is it too late to apologize? Will Frankenstein and his creation ever come to terms? And what of Chad and Dakota’s love?
GAH! Either something’s wrong with this mirror or Liz is right when she says I need to get more sleep.
The poor jilted Monster runs into the sitting room, where he stares in horror at his reflection and then… disappears. I mean just, pop! And he’s gone. Well, that was easy! But his anguished reflection remains in the mirror, and as Frankenstein enters the room and finally gains the courage to acknowledge his creation face to face, the Monster finally evaporates entirely and leaves Frankenstein staring at his own true reflection. Hmm. It’s almost as if the Monster and Frankenstein… were one in the same… were two halves of the same being! But no, that’s too obvious.
My Thoughts: Well, it’s not exactly the most subtle of morality plays, and the length does make feel more like a Cliffs Notes version of the story. The quality of the print is quite deteriorated, and it seems the original intertitles were deemed too illegible and replaced by modern replications, but we can’t blame the film for being old. It’s a bit silly, and not particularly frightening, but that seeing-things-in-the-mirror-before-they-actually-appear trick is a definite precursor to the much-beloved look-out-behind-you! method of horror filmmaking seen in more modern pictures. So, even if you don’t feel the suspense, you get the idea that it’s supposed to be there, and I can definitely appreciate the effort. What is really entertaining about this film, though, are the effects. That monster-materializing-out-of-nothing trick is the best part of the whole thing. Even the “he’s there and in the mirror, but now he’s not there but still in the mirror, but now he’s not in the mirror either!” schtick is pretty neat too. It’s a simple film that has a few good tricks up its sleeve, and definitely worth the twelve minutes to see such an early cinematic example of monster-as-metaphor storytelling.
Frankenstein (1910) – 4/5 stars