By Rich Drees
The part of the monster was portrayed by Charles Ogle. He joined the Edison Stock Company Players in 1909 and had essayed parts as far ranging as Scrooge in a 1910 production of A Christmas Carol to George Washington in a series of films on the history of the United States. Since actors at the time were responsible for their own wardrobe and makeup, Ogle was probably the one who developed the monster’s shambling appearance, perhaps inspired by drawings of how actor Thomas Porter Cooke looked for an 1823 English Opera House stage production of the novel called “Presumption or the Fate of Frankenstein.”
Edison Stock Company Player Augustus Phillips was chosen to portray the role of the monster’s creator Frankenstein. Very little is known about this actor beyond the films that he made at Edison and then Columbia Pictures. He continued to make features into the early `20s at Pathe, Metro and Goldwyn studios.
Rounding out the cast is Mary Fuller as Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth, though she is never referred to by name in the film. She had joined the Edison Stock Company Players in 1909 and would ultimately appear in a reported over 500 productions, often with Charles Ogle. She was also one of the first motion picture stars to receive an on screen credit in 1911 for her lead role in Aida.
The film’s director was J. (James) Searle Dawley and had started at Edison as a writer in 1907. He was soon apprenticed to director Edwin S. Porter who had shot the landmark The Great Train Robbery in 1903. A quick study, Dawley was soon directing his own films at Edison within a year. Stylistically, Dawley was the antithesis of Porter though. Porter is generally credited with the development of much of the language of cinema including matched edited shots and the close up. Dawley preferred to shoot each scene as if it were a play, with the camera stoically removed from the action.
As director of the film, Dawley was responsible for personally overseeing every aspect of the production from writing the script to approving the set construction and Ogle’s makeup design. In this respect his job was more synonymous with what both a producer and a director would do today. He was only answerable to studio head Horace Plimpton.
As was the case with most of his films, it is assumed that Dawley wrote the scenario for the film himself. It is unknown whether Edison himself encouraged or approved the production at its start as he made only rare appearances at the Bronx studio. More than likely, the go ahead was given by the Studios managers, making sure that the script would conform to the decrees of the Trust’s Censor Board.
The film opens with Frankenstein leaving to study at University, bidding goodbye to his sweetheart. Two years pass and Frankenstein has finished his contemplation of the mysteries of nature and seems ready to try his own hand at God’s work. However, his attempt at creating life goes awry, with a hulking, twisted creature emerging from the alchemical vat. Aghast at his creation, Frankenstein returns home to marry his fiancée and escape his mistake. But the creature follows him and confronts his creator, tormenting him. But, as the film’s final title character tell us, the creature “is overcome by love and disappears” into a mirror in Frankenstein's study.
Most films were shot in a day, but due to the special effects work involved Frankenstein’s production lasted nearly a week, stretching from some time between January 13, 1910 to January 19, 1910. (What little records survive are unclear. It is known the Dawley was out of the country filming in Cuba by January 19th. Some sources state that studio head Plimpton approved the film’s scenario on January 14th.) The film was completed and sent over to the Orange County, New Jersey offices for approval on January 28th and received that approval on February 1st. Over the next two weeks, musical accompaniment was picked and certain scenes were run through a stenciling machine to be tinted.
Edison had pioneered the idea of tinting films to add color in 1884. Edison Studio’s Annabelle the Dancer, featuring music hall performer Annabelle Moore recreating her stage act “The Butterfly Dance,” was one of the first commercially projected motion pictures and was first exhibited at the Cotton States Exposition in Atlanta, Georgia in mid-September 1885. Since her act used a projection of colored stereopticon slides as she danced with long silk draperies, Edison touched on the idea to have prints of the film hand painted frame by frame, in the same manner that some photographs and portraits were tinted at the time. By 1910, tinting of films had become common, with blue often being used for night scenes, green for woodland scenes and so on.
In the second half of February, the film was assembled with each scene was pasted together to form a complete print. In early March, Edison Studios copyrighted the picture and submitted paper prints of several scenes to the Library of Congress. In a cost cutting measure started right before the turn of the century, the studio had begun to have a positive print of each film developed on sheets of paper instead of actual film prints for submission for copyright. (The studio would later switch to paper rolls.) That the number of Edison films that have survived did so mainly through the existence of these paper prints. Currently, the Library of Congress only has selected scenes from Frankenstein, not a whole copy.
The film premiered on Friday, March 18, 1910, a mere two months after it had finished shooting. Such a quick turnaround was not uncommon at the time. There was great demand for films and the week of Frankenstein’s release there were over 30 films released by Trust members. The film was received favorably by critics. The New York Dramatic Mirror in a review published on 3/26/10 stated “This deeply impressive story makes a powerful film subject, and the Edison players have handled it with effective expression and skill.”
However, Frankenstein did not generally do well with audiences. There are several possible reasons that may have contributed to its less than stellar reception. Frankenstein was the first horror movie and audiences possibly weren’t sure what to make of this weird story. Moving pictures were already becoming more sophisticated with the use of close-ups and editing within a scene becoming more common. It’s possible that audiences found director Dawley’s stagey wide shots to be old fashioned.
It has also been reported that in some communities there was objections to the film due to its perceived blasphemous content. Debates were ongoing around the country over Darwinism and a film that could be seen as mocking the creative power of God was sure to draw fire from the pulpit. Regardless of the reasons, the film made its distribution rounds and was then withdrawn from circulation. While some films like 1903’s The Great Train Robbery remained popular and in circulation for years, Frankenstein quickly faded from the public’s minds.
At the time, Edison Studios would only strike approximately 40 prints of each of their productions, which would then be sent out for distribution. After the films had circulated for seven months or so, they were returned where they were stripped for their silver content. That even a handful of Edison Studios films still exist is only due to the efforts of private collectors.
And the fact that just a single print of Edison Studio’s Frankenstein still exists is all due to one Wisconsin film collector and a little bit of luck.