New Edition! Frederick C. Wiebel Jr.’s “Edison’s Frankenstein”
Author and film historian Frederick C. Wiebel Jr. has recently reissued a new edition of his book Edison’s Frankenstein, which covers the making of the world’s first horror movie and the efforts to find and restore the film. The book is published by BearManor Media and can be bought at Amazon or directly from the author, as well as other book outlets.
Produced at Thomas Edison’s Bronx-based studio, Frankenstein runs about twelve minutes long and was written and directed by J. Searle Dawley. The film, which you can watch in its entirety below, consists of a couple basic scenes shot on very few sets that focuses more on the drama — actually, more like melodrama — than on the horrific elements of Mary Shelley’s original novel.
According to a recent article by Wiebel, Edison’s studio took extra care to make sure their film was tasteful and didn’t include anything from the source material that a moving picture audience would find “repulsive.” Still, the makeup and costume for the creature is, in my opinion, more frightening and disturbing looking than the famous monster created for the classic 1931 Universal adaptation.
Also, the creation of the monster scene in Edison’s version looks to be a pretty basic, at least by today’s standards, visual effect: Some sort of dummy was burned and the film is then projected backwards. Yet, the burning mannequin has enough detail to look realistic and human enough to be unsettling — and even a little repulsive.
Dawley directed the film just as if he was filming a staged play. The camera never moves, nor or there any variation in shots, e.g. there are no close-ups or medium shots to enhance tension or drama. However, to combat the lack of any editing within each scene, Dawley did come up with a rather ingenious framing device during a sequence involving a large mirror.
As Dr. Frankenstein relaxes in a chair in his sitting room, rather than cut to another shot of his fiancee entering the room, we see her enter behind the doctor in the mirror in front of him, essentially creating a split frame technique. Then, when the fiancee physically enters the frame, then exits screen right, the monster is seen also on the right side of the screen, although like the fiancee he’s physically entering on the left. Thus, audiences see the monster lurking behind the doctor without him seeing the creature first, thus being able to create tension without having to move the camera or perform any editing within the scene.
Again, according to Wiebel’s article, Frankenstein was a big hit, especially with film critics. However, most of the struck prints were strip salvaged for their silver content, then any remaining copies were destroyed by fires in 1914 at the studio. Luckily, one saved copy of the film somehow ended up in the hands of a film collector named Alois Dettlaff, Sr.
Wiebel’s short article actually has a lot of fascinating detail about this film, all of which is, of course, gone into in more detail in the book.
Watch the entire Frankenstein film: