By Rich Drees
Like many other films of the time, Frankenstein was soon forgotten by both studio and public after its initial release. Films were still being seen as a quickly disposable medium and no thought was given to their preservation after their initial money making run. Prints were often stripped to recycle their silver content. Many more Edison Studios films were lost after the studio was closed down in 1918 in the wake of several anti-trust suits were brought by the government against the Motion Picture Patents Company. Through the paper prints stored at the Library of Congress some Edison Studio films have been recreated, while other titles have been preserved in private collections. And it’s through the private collection of Wisconsin collector Alois Felix Dettlaff Sr. that the only remaining print of Edison Studios’ Frankenstein has been preserved.
Dettlaff Sr. attributes his possession of the film to luck. It had originally belonged to his wife’s grandmother who used to screen it along with a silent version of Hiawatha. As he relates in Frederick C. Wiebel Jr’s self-published book Edison’s Frankenstein, “She dressed up as an Indian and danced on the stage, and she had short subjects along with it, and one of them was Frankenstein.”
However, the film would take a roundabout way to Dettlaff’s possession. After his wife’s grandmother left show business, she passed her film collection and projector to her son, who in turn passed them on to his son, Dettlaff’s brother-in-law. Not knowing what he had in the collection, Dettlaff’s brother-in-law sold the entire collection to a film collector, who then sold it to another collector of Dettlaff’s acquaintance, from whom Dettlaff purchased them in the mid 1950s.
Since he was running silent films for his children as a way of teaching them to read, he did screen the film. However, noting that the film had some wear and tear, and about 8% shrinkage due to age, he placed the print aside, so as not to damage it further.
It was in 1963 that a film historian discovered the March 15, 1910 edition of The Edison Kinetogram with its picture of Charles Ogle in full make up on its cover in the Edison archives in New Jersey. The picture was published in numerous magazines and books, sparking interest among film buffs worldwide. But no print could be found. In 1980, the American Film Institute declared the 1910 production of Frankenstein to be one of the top ten most “Culturally and historically significant lost films.”
When Dettlaff heard of the film’s placement on the AFI’s list, he announced that he had indeed had a copy. However, knowing the worth of such a treasure, Dettlaff has been reticent about releasing the film to be seen. In the late 1970s he had allowed a few minutes to be shown as part of a BBC documentary, later released to home video. These snippets would later wind up in various silent cinema video compilations without attribution or payment made to Dettlaff. Feeling slighted and perhaps not appreciated for his archival efforts, Dettlaff has been guarded in allowing the film to be screened. In 1986, he donated a “copyright protected” version of the film, with a copyright notice that scrolled across the center of the film making viewing difficult, to the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences. He has also reportedly made numerous safety copies of the film on 16 and 35 mm.
In 1975, at the urging of TV news photographer Charles Sciurba, Dettlaff undertook making a copy of the film with the aid of Clarence Stelloh, who had worked as an engineer at Western Electric duringthe early days of sound film. Working over several weekends, the pair used a 16mm camera and a modified step printer to copy some 14,000 to 15,000 images at a rate of one to two frames a second to create a 16mm backup copy of the film. Complicating the project was the fact that the film had shrunk by up to 8% at some spots, necessitating Stelloh to make changes ot the printer to accommodate for the varying space between the sprocket holes.
Detlaff held the first public screening of Frankenstein in decades on October 30, 1993 at the Avalon Theater in his hometown of Milwaukee. It was the first of several annual screenings at various venues in the city. In April 2003, Dettlaff screened the film at the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre in Jersey City, New Jersey as part of a weekend long festival of Frankenstein films. Both evenings’ shows were packed with people curious to see the fifteen-minute short that has so captured the imaginations of film buffs through just one frame. The screening was also used to launch the film’s release on DVD, available from Dettlaff’s own A. D. Ventures, International.