By Rich Drees
One of the most sought after short films by fans of the silent era is the 1910 production of Frankenstein from Thomas Edisonís Edison Studios. For many years the only image thought to exist from the 15-minute feature was a single photo of wild haired, shambling monster grimacing at the camera. Fortunately, recent years have revealed that itís not as lost as one would think.
Frankenstein was filmed at Edison Motion Picture Studios located on the corner of Decatur Avenue and Oliver Place in the Bronx, New York, one of several dozens pictures the studio produced that year. The studio was built between 1906 and 1907 in response to the growing demand for films. Edison had been the leading pioneer of first kinetoscopes and then projected motion pictures. His first film studio, located near his laboratories in Orange, New Jersey, was too inconvenient to the majority of actors based in New York City. A studio opened on the roof of a building on 25th Street in Manhattan proved too small to keep up with the demand. The Bronx location was designed to be a state of the art facility to handle all of the Edison Companyís production requirements. Itís proximity to the end of the recently constructed Third Avenue El subway system is believed to have been so actors could slip away to make films without attracting the attention of their peers who may have disapproved of participating in the new and vulgar medium.
By 1908, the studio was in full operation, putting out several short, one-reel films a week. The motion picture arm of Edisonís business was also quickly becoming its most profitable- pulling in $200,000 plus an additional $130,000 from the sale of projectors. Still, Edison was losing his grip on being the sole technological innovator for the new medium as more studios sprang into existence with legitimate rights to certain patents.
To combat the problem, in 1909 Edison and his lawyers approached nine of the other top studios with the plan to form The Motion Picture Patents Company, commonly known as The Trust, to share patents, pool resources and keep control over everything from the manufacture of production equipment like cameras to film production itself. The Trust then set up the General Film Company to buy out the 52 leading film distributors, just so they could control the distribution of their films. Theatre owners were forced into paying a $2 a week fee for the rights to screen Trust films. (Never mind the fact that Edisonís company was earning almost a million dollars a year on from the other Trust members through patent royalties.)
As the popularity of motion pictures grew, so did the attention they received from moral crusaders and reform groups, who decried the new medium as being dangerous and encouraging of immorality. Some called for strict laws governing film content and some communities banned theatres all together. Knowing that these groups could pose a serious threat to his bottom line, Edison ordered that not only the production quality of his films be improved, but also their moral tone. The Trust even set up the first Board of Censors, consisting of film executives and religious and education leaders.
Frankenstein was the perfect choice to kick off production under this new moral banner. Itís a story that deals with the extremes of the human condition, life and death, and the dangers of tampering in Godís realm. Plus, Edison made sure that publicity stressed that some of the more sensational elements of the Mary Shellyís novel had been toned down. The March 15, 1910 edition of The Edison Kinetogram, the catalog that the Edison Company would send to distributors to hype their new films, described the film as such-
ďTo those familiar with Mrs. Shellyís story it will be evident that we have carefully omitted anything which might be any possibility shock any portion of the audience. In making the film the Edison Co. has carefully tried to eliminate all actual repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Wherever, therefore, the film differs from the original story it is purely with the idea of eliminating what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.Ē
One of those changes made to the narrative concerns the creation of Frankensteinís monster. While Shellyís novel did not go into specifics about the monsterís creation, the creation scene in the film certainly owes more to alchemy than science. The film certainly didnít stress the danger of unchecked scientific experimentation, not when the boss has transformed the world with his own scientific marvels. Instead, the monster is cast more as a reflection of Frankensteinís baser instincts and dark reflection of a mind that presumed to meddle in Godís domain.