I wonder if either James Whale or Jack Pierce, who collaborated on the look of the monster in the 1931 Frankenstein, had seen or were even aware of this thirteen-minute 1910 version from the Edison company? In the early talkie era, such things were already antique-seeming relics (though it was no older then than, say, Deep Blue Sea is now) and the chaotic torrent of ephemeral movie material in the early years of the medium means items which are now the mainstays of every filmography could easily have been forgotten. However, there’s something about the built-up brow of the Monster that foreshadows the Karloffian square-head look, albeit with a cloud of frizzy hair (the resemblance is even more apparent in stills than in the film – so Pierce and Whale needn’t even have seen the film to be influenced by it). Of course, the first version of anything is by default influential and important; a hundred and ten years on, this is fascinating because it’s a Frankenstein.
Made by J. Searle Dawley – who dashed off takes on The House of the Seven Gables, A Christmas Carol, Michael Strogoff, Aida, The Corsican Brothers, Martin Chuzzlewit, Tess of the d’Urbervilles and whatever else came to hand in the early teens – it’s (of course) a radical cut-down of ‘Mary Shelley’s famous novel’ and isn’t so much directed as staged. The camera is locked off and scenes play out with much gesticulating and posturing in front of elementary sets – in fact, it’s scarcely a narrative advance on the conjuring trick films Georges Méliès had done in France ten years earlier. Intertitles impose interpretations on scenes before they play out – ‘Frankenstein is appalled at his evil creation’ is at once bluntly accurate and subtly ambiguous (is the act of creation evil or the result?). It begins with Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips, mature for a med student) bidding farewell to his sweetheart (Mary Fuller) – it’s impossible to tell if their names are Victor and Elizabeth – and heading for college, where he eventually discovers the secret of life and writes home that he intends to create ‘the most perfect being’.
In a study adorned with a skeleton in a chair, Frankenstein whips up a cauldron-full of potion which he locks inside a cabinet – another reminder of stage magic tricks, though he might want to be spared toxic fumes. In the film’s most remarkable moments, the creature (Charles Ogle) takes form as flesh accrues to a skeleton – surprisingly similar to scenes in Hellraiser, using clever reverse-motion as the monster undissolves. When the creature comes out of the box, Frankenstein is (as in the novel) upset by its hideousness and flees home to get married. The monster turns up and bothers Frankenstein on his wedding night, prompting a physical tussle between creator and created – the girl, surprisingly, is only lightly menaced, rather than (as in Shelley and Whale) the target. In an odd ending which predates the finish of Nosferatu, the monster is struck by his own reflection and fades away in reality; his image lingers in the mirror a few moments, until Frankenstein comes into the room and looks at the reflection, which becomes his own.
By 1910, Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde was already the most-adapted horror story, and this plays up the doppelganger theme of Shelley’s novel mightily. Aside from the cauldron gambit, Dawley’s most imaginative coup is repeated business with a long mirror in which the monster and Frankenstein are several times reflected, with each catching sight of the other. Though it’s a silent film, this monster can clearly speak; which makes it frustrating to have no idea what the monster is saying angrily to his creator when he barges into his house – is he voicing a legitimate grievance at being abandoned or just making evil threats against innocent people? And what actually happens at the end? Supposedly, the power of love dispels the monster but there’s no fuzzy frame to suggest that this might all be a dream and so we have to take what we see literally. Clad in rags, with spindly limbs, big shoulders and a Struwwelpeter tangle of hair, Ogle’s monster is a screen first, but – like Frankenstein and his girl – the character is a stick figure, since the cinema had not fully evolved a way of telling rather than illustrating famous stories.