Frederick C. Weibel, Jr. is the author of Edison’s Frankenstein, a tribute to an extraordinary film that was considered lost for decades.
What is it about the Frankenstein story that makes it so enduringly compelling?
Frankenstein is so filled with universal questions and truths. It’s a moral tale about how our actions have repercussions that we never considered. And that we are responsible for those consequences that can cascade and destroy us. Frankenstein creates a creature, brings it to life and then realizes that he has made a great mistake, and abandons it, leaving it to its own devices, hoping it will die. It doesn’t. Eventually the creature learns how to survive and realizes the he is so hideously ugly that it can never associate with human kind. The monster tracks Frankenstein down and revenge kills all his friends and family, forcing Frankenstein to pursue it to the ends of the earth, and his own destruction. The moral parable can be applied to almost any situation and is open enough to be interpreted many different ways.
Why did Edison studios choose that story as one of its first productions?
The Edison Studios had been making films since 1896. By 1910 they had evolved quite a bit and desired to make motion pictures that were “photoplays”, filmed versions of plays. They developed and applied a scientific method to film making as Edison had done with all of his experiments and products. There had been some complaints from distributors that Edison pictures were too American for foreign audiences. The studio bosses tried taking a different approach to put out well known public domain stories that would appeal to global sensibilities. They used a photo from “Frankenstein” to be on their first British catalog and had the titles translated into many different languages.
What were some of the most challenging elements of the story to film?
The biggest challenge was to condense the story down to 15 mins. in a cinematic fashion. J. Searle Dawley the producer / director wrote the scenario using elements from the book and play versions that would most stand out. He realized that trick photography could be used on the creation scenes to accomplish things not able to be done on stage that would thrill the audience and sell the picture.
How was the story edited/censored to make it acceptable to audiences of the time?
There was no post-censorship on the film but the producer had to follow the moral standards that were demanded by the Studio heads and Mr. Edison. The catalog says that all the ‘repulsive’ elements of the story were eliminated; the murders, etc., to make the film acceptable to any audience. The film also had to have a ‘happy ending” where Frankenstein realizes his mistake and eliminates the evil he has created and that love cleanses his soul from the pursuit of un-natural science over things which should be left to God.
How does it differ from later re-tellings?
Mainly in the creation of the monster. The creature is not made of a collection of corpse parts but rather formed from a gathering of chemicals mixed and set afire in a large caldron. We see a skeleton appear and the flesh start to creep across the bones. The monster shows life and movement even before it is finished. The creature also has a huge head of long wild hair that is quite a fright wig as described in the novel.
There are some scenes from the novel that were never re-done in future versions, such as when the creature peers at Frankenstein from the bed curtains. There is more of a connection between Frankenstein and the monster who argue with each other as in the book. Yes, the monster talks and is more confused than murderous.
Who were the performers and what were their backgrounds?
Augustus Phillips, who plays Frankenstein was perhaps the most accomplished actor in the film at that time. He had appeared in many plays on Broadway and national touring companies for many years. Charles Ogle, who portrayed the monster, also had a lot of experience on the stage playing character roles and was considered a master of make-up. He eventually had the longest and most successful motion picture career working for Paramount through the 20s, with some of their most famous directors and stars. Ogle is probably now the most well known of all the actors because of “Frankenstein”. Mary Fuller who plays “the Sweetheart” became quite a sensation in 1914 when she stared in the series of sequential films of “What Happened To Mary” which initiated the serial craze, creating a whole new genre of chapter films. She rivaled Mary Pickford in popularity contests at the time. Her star faded in a few years as she couldn’t seem to adapt to feature films and withdrew from making movies all together in the late teens. She died in a mental institution in Washington, DC and is buried in an unmarked grave in Congressional Cemetery.
Do you have any idea of how many people saw the film when it was first produced and what the reaction was?
“Frankenstein” was well distributed across the country, Europe and South America. It appeared in theaters from March until the late summer of 1910. I’ve found a few advertisements in a variety of newspapers and magazines and never a bad review. Quite the opposite, all of the reviews were very positive. It’s impossible to tell at this point just how many people may have seen it. Movie theaters ran it 3 or 4 days, as was the norm for the time, or even just one day. Others gave it special performances with full orchestras as the feature film of the evening in a vaudeville presentation. There are notices in newspapers of it booking in large and small cities; New York City, Salt Lake, Hartford, CN, Frederick, MD, Palestine,TX, etc. It had a very long run for an Edison film.
What made you want to research this film and where did you get your information?
I became fascinated with the film since 1963 when I saw a picture of the monster in Famous Monsters of Filmland magazine. In the early 90s I saw a clip of the creation sequence on cable TV so I started my search and tracked down the man who owned the only known print of it. The major amount of my research came from The Edison National Historic Site, The Museum of Modern Art who had many of the Edison Motion Picture Studio papers, The Library of Congress that had the copyright materials and magazine articles, and The Academy of Motion Pictures that had a lot of information on the actors. Just last year a lot of old newspapers had been scanned and put up on the web. I was able to access a lot of material from that.
It was long considered to be a lost film. How was it discovered?
Mr. Al Dettlaff of Cudahy, WI bought a bag of old films from a fellow collector and friend of his, Herman Schmidt for $25 in the late ’50s. Neither one of them had any idea of its real value or historical significance. The film had shrunken a bit and when Dettlaff first ran it, the projector tore it pieces. He pieced it back together. In the 1970s he somehow learned of its rarity and did a semi-restoration job by copying it and photographing many of the frames for a storyboard. He contacted many of the film institutions around the country trying to sell it for $1,000,000. All of them just offered him a tax write-off. When the word got out that the film existed, he started licensing 2 min. clips of it for $2000 a pop. He made over $20,000 in this manner and decided that it was more lucrative doing this that releasing the whole thing which would be immediately ‘bootlegged’ due to it being out of copyright. Eventually in 2003 I helped convince him to release it on DVD.
How did the graphic novel adaptation come about?
I had a contract in the late 90s with a small publisher to print an earlier version of my book and a comic book version of the film. The company welched on both accounts and never returned my rare photos. Chris Yambar, a well known comic writer and publisher contacted me in 2002 about reviving the comic book idea and turning it into a 64 page graphic novel. He wanted me to provide an essay on the background of the Edison’s “Frankenstein” film and actors. I also sent him a copy of the film and many frame grabs and photos. Chris knew an excellent artist Rob Bihun and contracted him to do the drawing. Chris wrote a modern version of the film and storyboarded it. I just made a few suggestions and let them run wild with it. Rob’s artwork was astounding. They certainly knew what they were doing and filled in a lot blanks in the story. My version was just to stick to the original film and use the frame grabs to base my drawings for a style in the old EC horror comics of the 1950s. These guys were professionals and knew what would appeal to a modern buying public. So where it deviates from the film was due to that kind of approach. They did a fantastic job, much more exciting and better than what I could ever have achieved. The run quickly sold out and I think I have the only remaining copies. Chris was planning a hard cover reprint for the 100th anniversary. I hope it comes out.