Edison’s Frankenstein (2009) – By Cary Conley

Few films have been as sought after as Thomas Edison’s 1910 version of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Perhaps "Life Without Soul" (1915), Lon Chaney’s "London After Midnight" (1927), and Erich von Stroheim’s 1924 epic, the 42-reel, nine hour version of "Greed," which today is only available in a four-hour version, the rest of the film known to have been destroyed to obtain the silver used in the film stock.

But in the late eighties, a nearly complete print of Edison’s Frankenstein was discovered languishing in a private collection in Wisconsin. The owner was an eccentric and egomaniacal old man who refused to release the film and only showed it in public with a hideous, self-produced watermark that continuously scrolled across the film as it played to keep it from being bootlegged. But now, for the first time ever, Edison’s Frankenstein has been publicly released. Not only has it been released, but it has been released in the most complete version, the highest possible quality (remember, the film is nearly 101 years old now!), and with no visible watermarks. How was this lost film rediscovered? How is it that it is now finally being released to the public? These questions as well as many others are answered in the E-book and companion DVD entitled Edison’s Frankenstein, by Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr.

While the book is also released in hard print, the only way to get the DVD of the film is by ordering the E-book. It comes with a CD that includes the 200-page text in both Word format and PDF, so it should be easily accessed by any computer. And, as mentioned before, the second disc is a DVD-R of the long-lost film itself, complete with new intertitles, original tints, and clocking in at just under 15 minutes.

Wiebel’s book has been exhaustively researched over nearly two decades. The first chapter is devoted to a discussion of Edison and his film company and traces the development of "moving pictures" from the first two-minute Nickelodeon shorts and the one-reelers of the 1910’s all the way to full-length silent films. If ever you had an interest in the development of the American film industry, this initial chapter provides an illuminating and fascinating description of silent film development. Along the way, Wiebel explains how not just Edison’s Frankenstein, but literally hundreds, if not thousands, of silent films were lost forever. Whether it be production companies destroying backlogs to make room for new films, the original nitrate prints literally melting away through time, or disasters such as fire and flood destroying these films, I was quite surprised to learn just how many early films have been lost through the ages.

Not merely content to discuss Edison’s film and the American film industry in general, Mr. Wiebel also includes a chapter on Mary Shelley herself and a very complete description of how the novel came to be. We all know that one rainy night Shelley, her new husband, Percy Shelley, and some friends decided to each write a ghost story to read to the others. But there is much more to it than that simplified version, and Wiebel describes all the events in meticulous detail. Not content to limit his commentary on Shelley’s novel, Wiebel spends a chapter discussing the various 19th and early 20th century stage adaptations of the novel and comparing and contrasting these various versions of book and stage to Edison’s cinematic version.

Wiebel then spends another chapter chronicling the filmmakers directly responsible for producing Edison’s Frankenstein (many people erroneously believe Edison to be the director due to the title of "Edison’s Frankenstein" but the reality is that it was produced for the movie division of Edison’s company which is the cause of the reference to Edison) as well as the actual production of the film and its reception by both critics and audiences alike.

My least favorite chapter involves the exhaustive–and exhausting–chapter on the three leads of Edison’s Frankenstein. Charles Ogle plays the monster, Augustus Phillips plays Frankenstein, and Mary Fuller as Frankenstein’s bride-to-be. There are many sidebars on other actors and actresses like Mary Pickford and Fatty Arbuckle that, while interesting, are only indirectly relevant to the real story. Wiebel also insists on listing dozens of films that each actor was in which causes a bit of eye strain. Much of this information would have been better suited in an appendix at the end of the manuscript.

There is also a section where Wiebel attempts to make dozens of parallels between Edison’s Frankenstein and Universal’s Frankenstein of 1931. Some of these connections are easy to make while others seem to have Wiebel overreaching a bit. This section comes across as portraying Wiebel as a fanboy who is dead set on proving that Universal’s Frankenstein was nothing but a copy of Edison’s Frankenstein. This may have been the least interesting part of the book for me, as I did not care about how Karloff’s movements in this scene or that scene paralleled Ogle’s movements or that the burning windmill at the end of the Universal film was similarly-shaped to the creation of the monster in the Edison film (an assertion that is tenuous at best).

By far the most interesting part of the book for me–and the reason I bought the book in the first place–was to hear the story of how the movie was found and finally released on DVD. And it’s a terrific story, too. It seems our crotchety old man in Milwaukee didn’t realize what he had until someone told him. Then, out of a sense of greed–for money, for fame–he held onto the sole remaining copy, selling short clips for upwards of $2,000 to companies who wanted it for their video compilations or horror documentaries. Occasionally, he attended a horror convention, dragging the ancient nitrate print with him, crassly unspooling it and handling it with not a care in the world. On even rarer occasions, if his mood was right, he would even show the film at a Halloween bash at a local or regional cinema. But always, he selfishly kept the film for himself, going so far as placing a horrendous watermark that continually scrolled across the film, ostensibly to prevent bootlegging of the film as it played, but also ruining the viewing pleasure of the paying customers who were constantly irritated by the watermark.

Mr. Wiebel himself cultivated a relationship with the man over many years, eventually receiving a watermarked VHS copy to use for his lectures and for research purposes. The film’s owner is now dead and his children have not been forthcoming with the film, but Mr. Wiebel has spent a good deal of time and his own money to have the watermark painstakingly removed, have new intertitle cards inserted, and even have a score based upon the original made for the film.

The whole story of Edison’s Frankenstein is absolutely amazing, from its production to how it became a lost film, to its rediscovery and finally to its first official public release in nearly a century. Wiebel’s book is also authoritatively researched and is just chock-full of information and details, many of them obscure.

While the writing is accessible and is told almost as a narrative, my one big complaint is that Mr. Wiebel needs a good editor. The punctuation and grammatical mistakes are numerous and embarrassing. Some words are accidentally repeated while others are missing altogether. And in at least one case, Wiebel refers to Karloff’s Frankenstein film as being produced in 1932, an unforgivable mistake to we horror film fans (everyone knows it was produced and released in 1931). Practically every page has several mistakes, and the mistakes are so numerous as to be distracting. Unfortunately, while there is no doubt that Wiebel is an authority on Edison’s Frankenstein–and Frankenstein in general–the writing and the sheer number of mistakes erodes his credibility and gives the entire project a decidedly amateurish feel. This isn’t helped by the fact that while the book is illustrated with hundreds of very nice color and black-and-white photos, many of the photos are so blurry the reader can’t tell what is in the picture. At least one of the photos of the author is so blurry it makes it difficult to recognize him by the picture. It’s almost as if he scanned the photos on his computer then inserted them with no touch-ups at all. Again, it gives the book an amateurish, homemade feel.

But perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh. Maybe it’s just the teacher in me. The book is solidly entertaining, exhaustively researched, and absolutely fascinating. Even if you aren’t interested in the story of this film, it’s worth purchasing just to own a copy of history–a nearly complete and very watchable version of Edison’s Frankenstein, the first time Shelley’s story was told on film and a movie that is now over a century old.