Cinema/TV, Film Notes

Film review – Frankenstein (1910)

My notes on Frankenstein (1910)

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.

Here’s the film …


2 thoughts on “Film review – Frankenstein (1910)

  1. Frank Schildiner I saw that when I was little because the Edison Lab was in my home town. Spooky film:)

    Valerie Laws oh Kim thank for your fascinating description and the link, I’ve just watched it with delight, (though as if through heavy rain!). Very impressive, and I don’t think ‘the evil in F’s mind creates a monster’ is in the original book, quite a subtle idea tho with obv ref to Jekyll and H. The monster is approaching Whale’s to be sure tho a bit primate-like. And its height and big shoulders – the beginning of the meaning of ‘monster’ changing from the original one of unnatural, distorted, to something involving large size, to the point where’ size matters’ beyond all else in later monster movies? had there been any screen ‘monsters’ before this one? I think it’s wonderful, but the end fudges it, clearly it’s not love ( of which the monster gets bugger all) but low self esteem which polishes the poor creature off… very modern!

    Patricia MacCormack Fess up!

    Kim Newman Patricia passed the link to me in the first place.

    Neil Baker Thanks for sharing the link and the write up. The publicity photo of Ogle’s monster always intrigued me as a youngster – and I’m delighted to finally see his performance.

    Patricia MacCormack God that was really pedagogic of me wasn’t it. Sorry! Nonetheless…What a revelation it was!

    Kim Newman Not at all – thanks again for the heads-up. It’s still surprising to me that stuff which was once fabulously rare or impossible to see is so readily available.

    Ronnie Hackston Thanks for this – I’ve wanted to see this since reading about it in either Denis Gifford or Alan Frank, more than 30 years ago.

    Stephen Volk Strange to think that that film is closer in time to Shelley’s book publication than we are from 1910.

    David Smith Thanks Kim – I remember reading about this version in horror movies books back in the 70s – the still of Ogle really really scared me. Great to have a chance to see it.

    Frank Schildiner Now all we need is to discover the legendary missing film “London After Midnight” and all will be right with the world;-)

    Kim Newman I understand the interest in London After Midnight, but to my mind the major missing silent horror is Der Januskopf, the Jekyll and Hyde film F.W. Murnau made just before Nosferatu, starring Conrad Veidt in the dual role with Bela Lugosi as his butler.

    Carl Ford Not quite – “The Werewolf” (1913) directed by Henry MacRae (of early “Flash Gordon” fame) is one that I will always pine for… alas the only print known to exist was destroyed in a fire in 1924. Sob….
    The film was a genuine supernatural tale based on a short story entitled “The Werwolves” by Henry Beaugrand (1855 – 1929).

    Frank Schildiner London After Midnight is considered the Holy Grail of lost films only because the images of Chaney with the razor teeth was placed in major magazines for many years. If the still hadn’t appeared so often in fan magazines, it probably wouldn’t have quite as much interest.

    Andrew Osmond I saw the 1910 Frankenstein at the NFT (as it was then) a few years ago… IIRC, it was shown before Bride of Frankenstein. Oddly enough, there’s a mirror bit that struck me as rather similar in Luc Besson’s black and white curio Angel-A, though I’ve no idea if it was a conscious homage.

    Douglas Coutts I recall – much in the same way as David Smith – as a youngster , being fascinated by the still of Charles Ogle as the creature. Gifford’s ” Pictorial History of Horror Movies ” was the book, and was for many years a sourcing guide for many films in my ” must see ” list of films based on merely a photo or poster; my love for all things Gothic grew from great stills from Plague of the Zombies, The Reptile, Dance of the Vampires, the list is endless….

    Ronnie Hackston I was given the Gifford book for Xmas when I was about 12, at around the time when there were regular double bills of classic Universal horrors on TV, so it was an absolute bible. But it took a lot longer to get to see the likes of “The Man Who Laughs” and “The Golem”. I’m still waiting to “Fight With Sledgehammers” (1902), though…

    Carl Ford I saved all my pocket money up at the time for several weeks (all £1.95) still have the book on my bookshelf great art and have been trying to track down every film in the book ever since – even the hilariously bad TERROR IN THE MIDNIGHT SUN!

    Patricia MacCormack I agree Kim, Der Januskopf, and also perhaps Satanas, are the lost films I would find most marvellous to behold

    Kim Newman I still have Gifford’s big horror films book (and, moreover, still find it a useful reference), and copies of his littler books on monster movies and science fiction which are now little more than loose pages held together by cellotape. I also used my pocket money for Ivan Butler’s Horror in the Cinema, Philip Strick’s Science Fiction Films, John Baxter’s Science Fiction in the Cinema, David Pirie’s A Heritage of Horror, Walt Lee’s Reference Guide to Fantastic Films and Carlos Clarens’s Horror Movies (the first film book I owned). It seems strange now that you could once put all the important genre film books on a single, short shelf. When I grew up, I met all these authors except Clarens. Aside from the scholarship, and the tantalising stills from films I assumed I’d never get to see (I Was a Teenage Werewolf was never going to play UK TV), these were all well-written, witty, insightful books which still have material worth revisiting.

    Simon John Ball Thanks for the link Kim Its a film I have wanted to see ever since seeing the Ogle pic in you guessed it Dennis Gifford’s book, my film bible until I got Dave Pirie’s book about Brit horrors

    Carl Ford Looking at your list of books, Kim, it would appear we are cut from the same cloth – many of those books are all still on my shelf too! I received both Alan Frank’s MONSTERS & VAMPIRES and Philip Strick’s SCIENCE FICTION FILMS as Christmas Presents when they first went on sale in W H Smith. Also had a softcover of Frank’s HORROR MOVIES, and HBs John Brosnon’s THE HORROR PEOPLE. Still have all those along with Pirie’s THE VAMPIRE CINEMA (which introduced me to the sexual horrors of Jean Rollin for the first time), plus paperbacks of the HOUSE OF HORROR – The Story of Hammer Films by Allen Eyles, R. T, Witcombe’s SAVAGE CINEMA, David Annan’s APE, THE KINGDOM OF KONG and the Claren’s book, which I bought via an advert in THE WORLD OF HORROR magazine, If I recall correctly.
    Great times, now of course horror these books are two a penny and in fact some of the above can be had for just 1 penny on Amazon would you believe!

    Kim Newman I’ve got all those books too – I remember picking up a bunch of those Allan Eyles books (Barry Pattinson’s The Seal of Dracula was probably the most useful), which were remaindered at the same time. And those Richard J. Anobile frame blowup/dialogue transcription books – Frankenstein, The Maltese Falcon, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Psycho. Also important: Tom Hutchinson’s Fantastic Cinema, Gary Gerani’s unrelated Fantastic Television (with its pioneering episode guides). I wonder when it stopped being physically possible to own or have read every single book ever published on horror and/or science fiction films – I suspect it was about 1978, when the Star Wars boom unloosed a flood.

    Carl Ford I might also point out that about 8 years later your very own NIGHTMARE MOVIES (1985 edition) corrupted me even further by introducing me to what must have been one of the goriest photos published thus far, that of a naked Zora Kerova and her breasts savagely spiked in Lenzi’s CANNIBAL FEROX. Even worse it introduced me to the twisted world of Mr Newman for the first time!

    Pierre Fournier As to whether anyone was aware in 1931 of the 1910 film, there’s an early review of the Whale film that mentions the Edison silent.
    The lost silent film I’d love to see is the italian Frankenstein from 1920.

    Carl Ford Is that the 39 minute Italian “Il mostro di Frankenstein” (aka The Monster of Frankenstein) directed by Eugenio Testa in 1920.

    Brian J. Showers I saw the Edison Frankenstein for the first time a couple of years back. I was vastly impressed at how competent a film it is for the early days of cinema! Innovation evolved quickly! I might have to include this on my forthcoming list of horror film recommendations!

    Pierre Fournier Carl: Yes, that’s the one. The quality work done by producer/actor Luciano Albertini at the time suggests that Il Mostro could be something to see.
    By the way, actor Umberto Guarracino, who plays The Monster, then went to Germany to play “the product of the secret workshop” in the first film adaptation of Wells’ Dr. Moreau.

    Ian Frampton Glad to see so many Gifford fans here. I’ve still got my treasured old book complete with dust jacket (in my Mum’s attic) along with an Alan Frank one somewhere. Brings back memories. Like Halliwell, cinema stopped for him in the 1940s, but still great intros to the films.

    Posted by kimnewman | April 16, 2020, 11:51 am
  2. Here’s a link to the restored version from the US Library of Congress:

    Posted by Mr Hump | April 17, 2020, 11:20 am

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