It's the first known Frankenstein movie and it was made by Thomas Edison's movie company. Yes, that's right. That was my reaction too. Thomas Edison, the fourth most prolific inventor in history. He made a stock ticker, a mechanical vote recorder, a battery for an electric car, electrical power, recorded music and (importantly for us today) motion pictures. I never knew that last bit, although Edison was only Frankenstein's producer, its writer/director being one James Searle Dawley, a man who called himself the first motion picture director.
What's more, this film's kind of brilliant.
Firstly, it's faithful in ways you might not expect. Dr Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) holds a discussion with his creation (Charles Ogle) on the nature of love! Mary Shelley's love of intellectual debate is something you don't expect to see in most Frankenstein adaptations, let alone one that's a 16-minute silent movie! Admittedly it doesn't last particularly long, but that's because nothing here does and it's a key turning point in the plot.
Then there's the story element of Dr Frankenstein's fiancee (Mary Fuller). Admittedly one expects to meet her, but you might still be surprised by the extent to which Dawley turns Frankenstein into a love story.
That said, the film makes some startling and at times poetic departures, both from Shelley's novel and from the long-established body of stage plays that informed the 1931 Karloff film
. They're clever, but also they're cinematic. As is right and proper, the filmmakers are thinking visually. Interestingly, Edison would say in later years that the talkies had "spoiled everything" for him. "There isn't any good acting on the screen. They concentrate on the voice now and have forgotten how to act. I can sense it more than you because I am deaf."
Thus Ogle's birth is like nothing you'll have seen before, for instance, although it's also laughable nonsense. Together with this and the mirror scene, we've clearly abandoned anything that could be called SF and are instead in the realm of fantasy and fairy tales. This is fascinating. I love it. Anyway, Phillips doesn't go on graverobbing expeditions and then spend weeks stitching together body parts, despite what we're being invited to think by that human skeleton in a chair. Instead I can only think he says a magic spell. I'm sure this sounds unlikely, but if you can find another explanation, I'm all ears. Ogle's body assembles itself in slow motion in front of us. Phillips isn't even in the room at the time.
It's a spectacular special effect, though, still being impressive today. What they did was to burn a model to ashes in front of the camera and then run the film backwards.
Then there's their Creature design, which blew me away. I think it's become my favourite, actually, even overtaking Jack Pierce's iconic make-up for Universal. This is a magical Frankenstein, so they're not going for the "stitched-together corpses" look we're used to. Instead he's a goblin. He's a hunchback with claws, ape-like arms and 1970s rock star hair. Look at the scene where he's just been born and all we can see of Ogle is his arm, reaching blindly from the doorway. Wow. Loved it.
Finally there are the twin mirror scenes, which are of thematic interest if one's regarding Dr Frankenstein and his Creature as two sides of the same coin. I think this is a subtext that's being clearly and deliberately addressed by Dawley. Anyway, there are two mirror scenes, with some odd shot composition that's objectively ugly but perfectly designed for its horror movie objective of nailing the audience's attention on the mirror and the doorway it's showing us. The first mirror scene is what you're expecting. It's a good'un and a nice bit of cinema, albeit unintentionally amusing when Ogle runs away at the end like a little girl who's seen a mouse.
The second mirror scene though isn't anything I'd been expecting at all. Note as a minor detail that Ogle's reflection clasps his chest when Ogle doesn't, which I'd normally assume was a production gaffe but here I suspect is deliberate. That's the biggest reason why I'm calling this film "brilliant".
The film isn't perfect, though. Firstly, the picture quality is terrible. It was thought to be a lost film until a copy turned up in the hands of a private collector, Alois Felix Dettlaff Sr, who guarded it jealously. The print needs restoration and I don't know if it's yet been given any. Of course that's not Edison and Dawley's fault, but the second problem is. That's the extraordinary use of intertitles, which are often scene summaries given out before we see the scene itself. Furthermore they're lurid, unnecessary and/or muddle-headed. They try to flatten out subtleties by making the Creature one-dimensionally evil before we've even had a chance to see it for ourselves, e.g. "Instead of the perfect human, Frankenstein created a monster", or "Frankenstein was appalled at the sight of his evil creation".
After that, they go further and contradict themselves with, "The creation of an evil mind is overcome by love and disappears." Is Phillips meant to be evil now? Someone got carried away with an urge to be lurid, methinks. What's clear though is that Dawley's taking a horror movie approach on the material, but through a fairy tale prism.
The acting's fine, though, for 1910. Phillips gives us a bit of panto, but nothing's indigestible.
Other pre-1931 Frankensteins, incidentally, include a lost Italian film from 1921 that was shredded by the censors pre-release, a 1915 film called Life Without Soul and possibly also a 1914 film called The Strange Story of Sylvia Gray, but that sounds as if it had nothing to do with Shelley's story and merely included a character called Dr Frankenstein.
In short, pound for pound it's the most interesting Frankenstein I've seen. It goes like a bullet, obviously, but it's got more originality in how it's approaching the material than most feature films. It's intelligent. It has ideas. It's exploring Mary Shelley's themes and finding intriguing new angles, which is something you wouldn't expect even to be possible in a sixteen-minute silent movie from 1910. Personally I think it deserves mentioning alongside the work of people like Jean Cocteau.