Edison Studio’s Frankenstein (1910)

The Monster, Edison's Frankenstein, 1910, Charles OgleThe 1910 Edison Studios production of Frankenstein is the first film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel. Believed to be lost for many years, the film later turned up in the hands of a private collector who proved unwilling to share. By the time BearManor Media released the restored public domain print in 2010, the film was badly deteriorated (yet still watchable). Silent film fans are in for a thrill with Frankenstein, because of some rather dazzling special effects and an innovative visual narrative technique. While Frankenstein displays much of the visual grammar common to circa 1910 films (static camera, medium distance shots with nary a close-up to be found), the film does deliver some sophisticated techniques.

The initial title card of Frankenstein warns that this is a “liberal adaptation” of Mary Shelley’s novel, and the resulting film keeps that promise. Of course, with a run time of roughly 12 minutes, much narrative subtlety must be omitted. But this adaptation also strays from the narrative spirit of the novel and wanders into Jekyll and Hyde territory by implying that Dr. Frankenstein and The Monster are two halves of a whole. It is the “evil mind” of Frankenstein that gives birth to this monster, and the good must then struggle to vanquish the bad. Visually, unlike James Whale’s 1931 adaptation, The Monster here is not a man-like monster to be pitied, but rather a truly malformed and grotesque creature. True to 1910 film form, this “reading” is delivered expositively via title cards.

But much like The Monster himself, Frankenstein transcends its own limited form with the (famous?) “mirror scene.” In this scene, The Monster intrudes on Dr. Frankenstein’s romantic reverie with his fiancee and, for the first time, catches sight of  himself in a mirror. Evil is repelled by the sight of itself and this version of Frankenstein is well on its way to an ultimately happy ending. But this scene elevates the narrative from the merely expositive to the visual, a rarity for the period. While the camera does remain static and at medium-shot distance, the bulk of the action is seen reflected in a full-length mirror. It’s a neat trick and makes a nice work around for moving the bulky cameras of the day.

One other aspect of Frankenstein raises its sophistication level beyond it’s 1910 contemporaries and that’s the editing effects used to represent the birth of The Monster. As The Monster rises from a vat, the visual is truly painful and horrifying, again reminiscent of some of the effects used in 1920’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Again, a lesser film of 1910 might have opted to tell us the birth of The Monster was horrific, but Frankenstein chooses to show us.

While Frankenstein displays many of the visual grammar common to circa 1910 films (static camera, medium distance shots with nary a close-up to be found), the film does deliver some sophisticated techniques.

Frankenstein was written and directed by J. Searle Dowley, and features Augustus Phillips as Dr. Frankenstein, Mary Fuller as Elizabeth, and Charles Ogle as The Monster. The film is in the public domain and available for download at The Internet Archive. Or you can watch it right here on Pretty Clever Film’s Vimeo channel:

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About prettycleverfilmgal

Social media consultant, blogger for hire, and lover of classic movies and silent films. I often watch, consider, and write about movies when I should really be doing other things.

Posted on September 28, 2011, in Genre, Horror, My Reviews, Online Movies, Silent Film and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Interesting point about the Monster being a Hyde-like emanation of Frankenstein’s mind – it’s played out in the last scene, when the Monster disappears and only his reflection remains in the mirror! Many scenes are still quite effective, such as the creation scene, when the Monster arises like a chrysalis from the vat (it has almost a Hoffmannesque feel to it), and then when he breaks in on Frankenstein in his bedroom. I think you did an excellent analysis of how the film breaks out of its static staging and its use of visual motifs.

  2. Thanks for your comments! I was both surprised and impressed with the level of sophistication in Frankenstein. While I think I connected with the “mirror scene” most fully on an intellectual level, the birth of the monster still (101 years later!) packs an emotional wallop. In the end, this little movie demonstrates what I love most about the silent era – watching a medium struggling to be born and finding those aha! moments.

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