Brow Beat

The First Film Adaptation of Frankenstein Has Been Restored, and You Can Watch It Right Here

Frankenstein's monster glares out from a magazine cover.
An ad for the1910 version of Frankenstein.
Library of Congress

The Library of Congress has restored the first film adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, an Edison production from 1910 directed by J.
Searle Dawley. We tend to think of effects-driven spectacles as a product of the modern era, but decades before that checkerboard floor in Terminator 2: Judgement Day started moving, studios were selling films on the basis of single FX shots. Here’s how the Edison company described their Frankenstein:

To those who are not familiar with the story, we can only say that the film tells an intensely dramatic story by the aid of some of the most remarkable photographic effects that have yet been attempted. The formation of the hideous monster from the blazing chemicals of a huge caldron in Frankenstein’s laboratory is probably the most weird, mystifying, and fascinating scene ever shown on a film. 

Frankenstein’s creation is no longer the most weird, mystifying, and fascinating scene ever shown on film, but it’s a fun trick-shot, using reversed footage of a dummy that has been set on fire to give the impression of a body knitting itself together from nothing.
As for the many departures from the source material in this Frankenstein, Edison had an explanation:

In making the film, the Edison Company has carefully tried to eliminate all the actually repulsive situations and to concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale. Wherever, therefore, the film departs from the original story it is purely with the idea of eliminating what would be repulsive to a moving picture audience.

Even with the repulsive parts cut out, fitting any version of Frankenstein into 12 minutes was going to be a challenge, as the final film shows. (The first two intertitles are “Frankenstein Departs For College” and “Two Years Later Frankenstein Has Discovered the Mystery of Life,” which covers a lot of ground in less than a minute of screentime.) In its day, however, this was an epic: Edison charged exhibitors for prints by the foot, and as late as 1922, Moving Picture World was still complaining about its runtime, writing “Can you remember the row they raised when Edison put out Frankenstein in nearly 1,200 feet, and was accused of trying to grab off an additional $20 from the exchanges?” But you can decide for yourself if Frankenstein would have been better cut down to 1,000 feet. Here’s the Library of Congress version of the film, Frankensteined together from a couple of prints, with a missing intertitle recreated, and a brand new score from silent film composer Donald Sosin:

As is often the case with silent films, the story of Frankenstein’s loss and recovery is as interesting as the movie itself, as Mike Mashon, the head of the library’s moving image section, wrote for the library’s website. In the 1950s, an eccentric film collector from Wisconsin named Alois F. “Al” Dettlaff—try not collecting silent films with that name—purchased a collection that included a print of the 1910 Frankenstein. Dettlaff, who died in 2005, didn’t realize what he had until he saw the title on a list of lost films the AFI published in 1980 (reproduced in the 2012 edition of Uncle John’s Ultimate Bathroom Reader, for some reason). Once Dettlaff realized he had what was possibly the only surviving copy of Frankenstein, he kept it under tight control, refusing offers to preserve the volatile nitrate, including one from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. Dettlaff traveled with the print whenever it was screened and eventually had it transferred to DVDs, which he then sold. Mashon mentions, in passing, “the ‘Father Time’ character [Dettlaff] enjoyed portraying at film conventions, compete with robe, scythe and hourglass to complement his long white beard,” which really paints a picture. Film collectors who hoard rare prints are a type—see, e.g., Raymond Rohauer—but keeping nitrate film is a risky proposition even for professionals, and every day Dettlaff’s print was not in a museum, he was gambling with everyone’s cultural heritage. So if you’ve got the full version of Greed kicking around your basement, please call your local library today. Better still, call your national library.