Of course this Frankenstein version is barely
watchable by today's standards due to its staginess and overacting. But
it still has historical merit as one of the earliest film adaptions of a
classic novel and because of the use of special effects during the
creation scene. Searle Dawley was among the first real American movie
directors who were hired to tell stories using the new medium instead of
just capturing every-day scenes on film.
The story of Frankenstein was first brought to the screen in 1910,
about 15 years after the invention of the new medium film. It was a
12-minute short simply entitled Frankenstein, directed by J Searle Dawley and produced by the Edison Film Company. In
this film Dr. Frankenstein creates a monster by, a hairy brute played by
Charles Stanton Ogle, which emerges from a cauldron containing fiery
chemicals. So instead of being assembled from body parts, as suggested in
the novel, the monster here is rather the result of alchemy or black
magic. Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) is then so appaled by the
sight of his creation that he faints. When he returns home to his
fiancée, the Monster follows him and attacks him in his house.
During the fight the Monster sees himself in a mirror for the first
time and runs away. But he returns at Frankenstein's wedding night
and is "overcome with love". The movie ends with the creature vanishing in a mirror.
Charles Ogle as the creature in the
first Frankenstein movie
The Edison film was long lost and
only in the 1970s a full version was discovered in the USA. Today the
only copy left is owned by Alois Dettlaff, a silent film collector from
Milwaukee, who screens the movie at special occasions and has also
released it onto DVD. Of course it can be watched for free online on
youtube and other video on demand sites.
The second adaptation entitled Life
Without Soul was made in 1915 by director Joseph Smiley. Dr. William
Frawley - in this version the name Frankenstein was not used - creates a
Monster that kills his sister. He chases it across Europe and shoots it
shortly before he dies of exhaustion.
1920 Italian director Eugenio Testa made Il
Mostro di Frankenstein. This version includes a confrontation between
Frankenstein and his creation, a scene apparently taken from the novel.
Unfortunately no copies of this film exist anymore making it impossible to
reconstruct the full plot of Testa's movie .
Other early films involving the
creation of artificial life were made in Germany. In 1920 director Paul
Wegener shot Der Golem und wie er in
die Welt kam, a version of the old Jewish Golem legend, in which Rabbi
Loew creates a homunculus made out of clay. This film was also inspired by
Gustav Meyrink's classic novel Der
In 1926 Fritz Lang made Metropolis, a
science fiction film about a future society divided into two classes. In this film the mad scientist Rotwang creates a female
robot, which is supposed to lead the working class of Metropolis to revolt.
Both Rabbi Loew and Rotwang can
be seen as precursors of the Frankenstein image that was to come in the
following years. Especially the visuals of Metropolis would influence many of the Frankenstein films shot in
the subsequent years, in
particular James Whale's movies for Universal Pictures.
© 2010 Andreas Rohrmoser