'Frankenstein' breathes new life


Everything old is new again as Hollywood keeps remaking past hits, but it's easy to lose track of just how old old is.

Consider "Frankenstein." Recent news about a production based on Dean Koontz's "Frankenstein" books immediately brought to mind the 1931 classic starring Boris Karloff as the monster.

However, the Karloff film isn't the original "Frankenstein." In fact, March 18 marks the 100th anniversary of the release of the long forgotten original made in 1910 by Thomas Edison's studio.

The making of what's regarded as the first horror film, although there were no genre labels at the time, is the subject of Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr.'s new book "Edison's Frankenstein," published by BearManor Media.

While visiting his in-laws in Minneapolis at Christmas 1990 Wiebel happened to see a clip from the long lost film on TV.

"I was astounded that any of it existed," he told me. "It had been 30 or 40 years since I'd first heard of the movie."

Intending to write a magazine article about it, Wiebel began researching the film.

"I just kept getting more and more information until at some point it was too long for an article and too short for a book."

Ultimately, he found enough material to write a book about filming "Frankenstein" as well as about how movies were made in the early 1900s.

In the process, Wiebel discovered the film's one surviving print and arranged for its restoration and release on DVD. In his book, which is available in bookstores, from online sites like Amazon.com or directly from Wiebel at FredWiebel@aol.com, he explains how "Frankenstein" fans can obtain the DVD.

When Edison shot his one-reel version of "Frankenstein" in January 1910, Mary Shelley's novel was already 92-years-old. It had been produced on stage for years and was already part of the culture through references like "creating a Frankenstein."

As today's movie marketers would say, "Frankenstein" had great brand awareness so it made sense for Edison to bring it to life on screen.

"It took them three or four days to shoot it," Wiebel noted, which was a little longer than usual.

"What they would do mostly would be to practice the whole film and try to do it, if they could, in one take. They'd rehearse it until they finally got it down and then they would roll the cameras."

Asked what the picture cost, Wiebel said budgets were calculated in price per foot -- about 50 cents a foot in 1910. The 13-minute "Frankenstein" ran 976 feet, which works out to about $488.

But Wiebel reminds that the film had a lot of special effects so it would have cost more.

"They probably spent more making the dummy," he added, referring to the scene where Dr. Frankenstein creates his monster.

"They made what looks like a paper-mache dummy with a skeleton inside. They either turned the camera upside down or were cranking backwards so that what came out on the screen would come forward."

We see Frankenstein throw some chemicals in a big cauldron, whose contents catch fire. From these ashes and flames the creature comes together by reversing the footage of the burning dummy.

"Frankenstein," directed by James Searle Dawley, featured Edison stock players Charles Ogle as the monster, Augustus Phillips as Frankenstein and Mary Fuller as his bride.

Dawley isn't remembered today despite having been one of Edison's top filmmakers.

He'd been working with a theatrical stock company in Brooklyn and one of his jobs was renting films to show between theatrical performances. By doing that he met people working for Edison and wound up being offered a job making movies there.

"He got to meet Edwin Porter, who was Edison's main director at the time," Wiebel said.

Porter pioneered what evolved into basic filmmaking techniques like cross-cutting and using close-ups instead of full-length body shots. In his 1903 hit "The Great Train Robbery" Porter showed a close-up of a gun being fired directly at the audience. Moviegoers had never seen anything like this before and they were terrified.

Director D.W. Griffith started out working as an actor for Porter and went on to learn much about moviemaking and film editing from him.

Porter took Dawley on because with his stage training Dawley was good at blocking scenes and directing performances. Porter put him to work doing just that, allowing Porter to do what he enjoyed most -- directing action sequences.

Actors were typically paid $5 a day in 1910, which was a pretty good salary then.

"There really weren't named stars at the time," Wiebel pointed out. "That developed a few years later. That's why a lot of theatrical people didn't want to do movies -- because they wouldn't get any credit for their work."

Stage actors also looked down on movies because mostly they were shown in a vaudeville setting or thrown in to fill time between plays presented by local theater groups.

Working in Edison's favor was the fact that its studio in the Bronx was just far enough north of Manhattan so that actors who journeyed uptown to work in movies didn't risk being seen by their friends.

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