Image copyright © by Marcus Trahan



A quick estimate at the IMDb informs me that there have been no less than 143 movies working some variation on the title Frankenstein, and at least 85 TV appearances. That includes six versions released or to be released this year of 2013, and seven in various stages of development for 2014 and on, including one starring Daniel Radcliffe.

Many don’t have much to do with the creation we are most familiar with from James Whale’s 1931 version, with Boris Karloff, but they all deal with the theme of created life, and most of the time they conclude that it’s a bad idea. If Mary Shelley was alive and still held the copyright, she’d be so rich she’d make J.K. Rowling look like a pauper.

This one has the distinction of being the very first of a long line. Spider Robinson turned me on to it. It was made in that early Tinseltown, the Bronx, by the Edison company, directed by J. Searle Dawley, and stars Charles Ogle as the monster and Augustus Phillips as the good doctor. It is twelve minutes long, and might have been as much as fifteen if the many splices in the only existing copy were to be filled back in.

It’s worth noting that some of the SFX are pretty good (though nothing like as good as George Méliès was doing as far back as the late 1800s). The monster emerges from a boiling cauldron, skeletal, and slowly, over a series of shots, clothes itself in flesh. It’s by far the best part of the picture. Of course it’s ludicrous today, but I’ll bet it moistened a lot of theater seats in 1910.

What’s fascinating about a movie this old is that, of all the yet-to-be-discovered elements of the language of cinema, the only one used here is the cut. The camera is tied down, never pans, never dollies, never moves. A static scene is played out, exactly as it would have been in a theater, a title card comes up, and we cut to the next static scene. No close-ups, no two-shots. Nothing. Only during the creation of the monster do we intercut within the same scene, from the cauldron to a scene of the doctor wildly overacting, then back to the cauldron. And just reflect on how, in a few short years, all that would be invented and people would be watching The Birth of a Nation in 1915.