The First Frankenstein Film
Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus by Mary Shelly was first published in January of 1818. It has since become a horror classic. The Creature was immortalized on film in 1931, when Universal Studios released Frankenstein with Boris Karloff playing Frankenstein’s Monster. However, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein has been featured in over 60 movies and television shows. The very first film was released in back 1910 by Edison Studios.
For years, the 1910 version of Frankenstein was believed to be a lost film. Before digital technology, it was not uncommon to have films to be completely destroyed and no longer be in existence. The 1965 MGM Vault fire is a famous example of how vulnerable these films are. An electrical short caused a fire that destroyed hundreds of films that were stored on nitrate film, a highly flammable plastic.
In 1963, a few still images and a plot description were found in the March 15, 1910 film catalog, The Edison Kinetogram. Luckily, unbeknownst to almost everyone, in the 1950s, a film collector named Alois F. Dettlaff had purchased a print for his collection. At the time, he had no idea how rare of a film he had just added to his library. It would not be until the mid-1970s that the world would realize the film still existed. The years had done their job and the film had been deteriorated, but it was preserved enough to still be in viewable condition. The titles and tints used to add color to black and white films were still intact.
Since then, there have been many attempts at preserving the film for current and future generations. Dettlaff would create a 35mm copy to store the film and would later make 1,000 DVD copies to be released to the public.
BearManor Media created a restored edition of the film in 2010 and released it into public domain.
In 2016, the University of Geneva’s film society did their own restoration. Their version would add an original soundtrack by Nicolas Hafne.
The Library of Congress celebrated the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein being published by fully restoring the 1910 Frankenstein short film and releasing it to the public in 2018.
This might have been the first adaptation of Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus, but is was not the most accurate. The opening title cards even say "a liberal adaptation of Mrs. Shelley's famous story." At a little under 13 minutes, it’s not surprising that this film would not be faithful to its 250-page source material. However, there were other reasons for the adaptations “liberal” interpretation of the famous story
Film audiences’ sensibilities were much different back in 1910. The concept of Saw probably would not have been as well received back then as it is today. The film production company wanted to de-emphasize the horror parts of the novel and highlight the mystical and psychological aspects. Oftentimes they would deviate from the source material if they felt it would be “repulsive” in a moving picture. Yes, moving pictures or films were still a new experience for most people.
In this version, the story starts with Frankenstein saying goodbye to his girlfriend and father before leaving for college. At college, he becomes obsessed with life and death and ignores everything else. He attempts to create the perfect human being using a cauldron full of chemicals inside a large containment cell. (At the time, the monster creation sequence was one of the most spectacular scenes ever filmed.) Instead of the perfect human specimen, the creature is a horribly grotesque monster. Frankenstein faints from the shock and the monster flees. Frankenstein returns home to his girlfriend and father where he begins to appreciate the beauty of life instead of its morbid connection with death.
However, his creation had imprinted to him, much like how baby animals bond with their mothers. The Monster follows Frankenstein and become jealous of all the others who share his affection. This leads to a confrontation between Frankenstein and the Monster as Frankenstein can not stand the horror of his past and the Monster can’t share Frankentstein’s attention with his fiancé. Through a series of encounters, the Monster sees its own abomination of an existence and Frankenstein is able to let go of his past and allow love to flow into him again. The Monster fades from existence as Frankenstein is able to live happily ever after with the love of his life.
Production and Credits
The filmmaking process has evolved over the years and so has the credit given to the creative artists who bring these works of art to life. The film took only three to four days to shoot and was all done at the Edison Studio in Bronx, New York City.
While today’s credits can go on for minutes and include hundreds of names, these early credits were extremely short and didn’t include the cast and crew that worked on the film. Thanks to historians and IMDB, we can now learn about some of the people involved in the early days of film.
James Searle Dawley
J. Searle Dawley is credited as both the writer and director of the 1910 Frankenstein film adaptation. Dawley started out as a stage actor. He would soon add stage manager and writer to his resume. In 1907, he was hired by the Edison Company to direct The Nine Lives of a Cat. He would go on to direct 149 silent films. While a modern audience would only recognize his Frankenstein film, his work at the time was well known and financially lucrative. While films of the time were mostly controlled by the camera operator, Dawley took charge to guide the action sequence and dramatic continuity throughout the film. This led to Dawley claiming to be “the first motion picture director.”
However, his biggest lasting legacy would be forming the Motion Pictures Directors Association (MDPA). This organization helped directors have more control in the creative filmmaking process and help them unite as opposed to consider each other rivals. This would lead to the modern day Directors Guild of America (DGA).
Charles Ogle was cast as the Monster. Like most actors of the time, he started out in live theatre. Ogle was performing on Broadway in 1905 and made his transition to film, when he joined Edison Studios in 1905. Ogle would have a long and successful career as a character actor. He acted in over 300 films until 1926. Besides playing the Monster in the 1910 Frankenstein movie, he would also star in the first serial film What Happened to Mary and played Long John Silver in the 1920 version of Treasure Island.
Phillips’s first film role was Frankenstein. After playing the young medical student in the 1910 Frankenstein film, he would continue to act until 1921. In this short time, Phillips would perform in 134 films. Some of his more memorable credits include The Gates of Eden, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, and The Birth of the Star Spangled Banner.
Fuller began acting in live theatre at an early age. She unintentionally fell into film acting when her theatre troupe unexpectedly disbanded in New York City. She went looking for work and quickly found an acting job with Vitagraph Studios in 1907. She would later sign with Edison Films in 1910, where she was given the role of Frankenstein’s fiancee Elizabeth. Fuller would become one of the early movie stars of the film industry. She would later add writing to her resume and have eight of her screenplays turned into films. However, by 1917, her films were no longer popular and her career ended. She disappeared from the public until a magazine writer found her living with her mother in 1924. She vanished again and it was later discovered that she had died of natural causes in 1973 at a Washington, DC mental hospital.
Thanks to the beauty of modern technology you can see the first film version of Frankenstein right here!
Library of Congress
Below is the restored Library of Congress version of the film. This is a much higher quality than other versions released to the public.
While the film itself in in public domain, the new music and title cards used in this version are not. You can link to this video, but don't copy without viewing the Library of Congress rules.