FRANKENSTEIN (1910) Overview


Frankenstein is a 1910 American science fiction horror short silent film written and directed by J. Searle Dawley for Edison Studios.

It was the first motion picture adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. The uncredited cast included Augustus Phillips as Doctor Frankenstein, Charles Ogle as the Monster, and Mary Fuller as the doctor’s fiancée. The production was deliberately designed to de-emphasise the horrific aspects of the story and focus “…upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale.”

Frankenstein, a young student, is seen bidding his sweetheart and father goodbye, as he is leaving home to enter a college in order to study the sciences. Shortly after his arrival at college he becomes absorbed in the mysteries of life and death to the extent of forgetting practically everything else.

His great ambition is to create a human being, and finally one night his dream is realized. He is convinced that he has found a way to create the most perfect human being that the world has ever seen. We see his experiment commence and the development of it in a vat of chemicals from a skeletal being. To Frankenstein’s horror, instead of creating a marvel of physical beauty and grace, there is unfolded before his eyes and before the audience an awful, ghastly, abhorrent monster.

As he realises what he has done Frankenstein rushes from the room as the monster moves through the doors Frankenstein has placed before the vat. The misshapen monster peers at Frankenstein through the curtains of his bed. He falls fainting to the floor, where he is found by his servant, who revives him…

Library of Congress blog:
“Rarely has the arrival of a film at the Library’s Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation occasioned as much anticipation as the day in April 2015 when we accessed into our collection the sole surviving nitrate print of the first cinematic adaptation of “Frankenstein.” It’s not because the film, produced in 1910 by the Edison Manufacturing Company, is all that revelatory—it’s most decidedly not—or because it’s especially rare, as a quick search on YouTube will attest. Rather, this is an instance in which the story of how a particular reel came to be in our collection is more interesting than the film itself.

As an acquisitions officer, I work a lot with collectors and have a great deal of respect for them. If it weren’t for collectors, huge chunks of film history would have vanished forever; in many ways, our Silent Film Project is a testament to them. But, sometimes, I have to explain to eager sellers that there’s a difference between rarity and value; just because there’s only one print of a particular film doesn’t mean the print has much monetary value if there’s no market for it.

The nitrate print of “Frankenstein” does, however, have market value, based not only on rarity, since it truly does seem to be the single extant print, but also crucially on the cultural durability of Mary Shelley’s 1818 creation, whose bicentennial we celebrate this year.

The print also comes with a bit of notoriety because of its previous owner: Alois F. “Al” Dettlaff of Cudahy, Wisconsin. He acquired the print as part of a larger collection in the 1950s, but he wasn’t aware of the film’s significance until the American Film Institute included “Frankenstein” on a list of “top 10 most wanted lost films” in 1980.

I never met Dettlaff, but it seems like everyone in film collecting circles has a story. Often they’re about the “Father Time” character he enjoyed portraying at film conventions, compete with robe, scythe and hourglass to complement his long white beard.

He was exceptionally protective of the “Frankenstein print, traveling with it to film festivals and monster conventions. He even took it to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1986, where academy president and famed director Robert Wise was unable to convince him to let the reel be properly preserved and archived. Eventually, Dettlaff had the film transferred to DVDs he would sell at his appearances, and it’s rips from that DVD you can find on YouTube. Dettlaff died at home in 2005 surrounded by his film collection, including “Frankenstein,” still unpreserved.

Until now, that is.

The Library purchased the Dettlaff Collection in 2014. It is full of titles we are delighted to add to our holdings, but we were especially interested to see “Frankenstein,” joking that perhaps it might arrive from Wisconsin on a bed of spun gold.

While it came in a fairly nondescript can, it didn’t take us long to get the reel into our film preservation lab for a 2K scan in advance of photochemical preservation. From that 2K scan, we worked on a digital restoration. The film’s head credits and the first intertitle were missing, but fortunately the Edison Historic Site in East Orange, New Jersey, had a copy of the head credit we could drop into place; the intertitle was recreated using the style of the other titles. We asked Donald Sosin, a highly regarded silent film composer and accompanist, to provide a score.”

Mike Mashon, head of the Moving Image Section of the Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division

‘Charles Ogle’s “monster” is of course the centrepiece of Frankenstein. This ragged, shambling entity, with unkempt hair and claw-like hands that look forward to Nosferatu, is an oddly effective creation – not least because Ogle, responsible for his own make-up, did as Jack Pierce would later do for Karloff, and left his own expressive features visible.’ And You Call Yourself a Scientist

‘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.’ Garbo Laughs

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