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Silent films

             The story of Frankenstein was first brought to the screen in 1910, about 15 years after the invention of the new medium film. It was a 12-minute short simply entitled Frankenstein, directed by J Searle Dawley and produced by the Edison Film Company. In this film Dr. Frankenstein creates a monster by, a hairy brute played by Charles Stanton Ogle, which emerges from a cauldron containing fiery chemicals. So instead of being assembled from body parts, as suggested in the novel, the monster here is rather the result of alchemy or black magic. Frankenstein (Augustus Phillips) is then so appaled by the sight of his creation that he faints. When he returns home to his fiancée, the Monster follows him and attacks him in his house. During the fight the Monster sees himself in a mirror for the first time and runs away. But he returns at Frankenstein's wedding night and is "overcome with love". The movie ends with the creature vanishing in a mirror.

Charles Ogle as the creature in the first Frankenstein movie
Of course this Frankenstein version is barely watchable by today's standards due to its staginess and overacting. But it still has historical merit as one of the earliest film adaptions of a classic novel and because of the use of special effects during the creation scene. Searle Dawley was among the first real American movie directors who were hired to tell stories using the new medium instead of just capturing every-day scenes on film.

 The Edison film was long lost and only in the 1970s a full version was discovered in the USA. Today the only copy left is owned by Alois Dettlaff, a silent film collector from Milwaukee, who screens the movie at special occasions and has also released it onto DVD. Of course it can be watched for free online on youtube and other video on demand sites.


             The second adaptation entitled Life Without Soul was made in 1915 by director Joseph Smiley. Dr. William Frawley - in this version the name Frankenstein was not used - creates a Monster that kills his sister. He chases it across Europe and shoots it shortly before he dies of exhaustion.

In 1920 Italian director Eugenio Testa made Il Mostro di Frankenstein. This version includes a confrontation between Frankenstein and his creation, a scene apparently taken from the novel. Unfortunately no copies of this film exist anymore making it impossible to reconstruct the full plot of Testa's movie . 

            Other early films involving the creation of artificial life were made in Germany. In 1920 director Paul Wegener shot Der Golem und wie er in die Welt kam, a version of the old Jewish Golem legend, in which Rabbi Loew creates a homunculus made out of clay. This film was also inspired by Gustav Meyrink's classic novel Der Golem.

In 1926 Fritz Lang made Metropolis, a science fiction film about a future society divided into two classes. In this film the mad scientist Rotwang creates a female robot, which is supposed to lead the working class of Metropolis to revolt.

            Both Rabbi Loew and Rotwang can be seen as precursors of the Frankenstein image that was to come in the following years. Especially the visuals of Metropolis would influence many of the Frankenstein films shot in the subsequent years, in particular James Whale's movies for Universal Pictures. 

© 2010 Andreas Rohrmoser

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