In Remembrance: Alois F. Dettlaff, Sr

     Alois F. Dettlaff, Sr, the film collector who preserved the only remaining print of the Edison Studios’ 1910 production of Frankenstein, has passed away in the Milwaukee suburb of Cudahy, it was announced on July 26, 2005. Police did not release a date or cause of death. He was 84.

     Produced by Edison Studios, the 1910 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein is considered cinema’s first horror film, and was long thought lost until Dettlaff announced his possession of a copy. At the time of its production, films were thought to be a disposable medium and, after they had made their initial theatrical run, were often stripped to recycle their valuable silver nitrate.

     Dettlaff arrived at possession of his print of Frankenstein in a rather circuitous fashion. The print had originally belonged to his wife’s grandmother who used to screen the film and other silent shorts as part of a stage show. His wife’s grandmother eventually left show business. Passing her projector and film collection down to her son, who passed it along 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 Dettlaff was running silent films for his children as a way of teaching them to read, he screened the film for them. However, noting that there was some wear and tear, 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 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, Dettlaff became 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.

     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 in Jersey City, New Jersey as part of a weekend long festival of Frankenstein films.