March 27, 2012

Those Other Silent Frankensteins

The Edison Frankenstein (1910), Life Without Soul (1915), and Il Mostro di Frankenstein (1920). The first has survived to this day, the other two, barring a miracle, are lost, but the saga of the Silent Era Frankenstein Films does not end with these three titles.

The 1910 Edison Kinetograph film was the first true Frankenstein film, but another film with “Frankenstein” in its title predated it by a full decade. Called The Frankenstein Trestle (1899), the scariest thing about this one was the precipitous height of its railroad track, supported by spindly iron framework, crossing a gorge at Crawford Notch, New Hampshire. The trestle took its name from the nearby Frankenstein Cliff, itself named after the celebrated artist, Godfrey Frankenstein, who had painted the panoramic scene in the late 1840s.

Showing a train crossing the span, the film was one of countless “scenics” that brought distant sights and exotic landscape views to local Nickelodeons.

The Frankenstein name was next applied to a devious but non-monstermaking character in the 1914 melodrama Sylvia Gray, aka The Strange Story of Sylvia Gray. Reviewing the film when it played the Vitagraph Theater at Broadway and 44th Street, The New York Times described it as “the life history of a vain, dissatisfied woman who gives up husband and child for life with a wealthy clubman who soon tires of her.

The tear-jerking action builds to “a logical climax — the daughter of Sylvia Gray, a pliable subject under the influence of Dr. Frankenstein, a disreputable hypnotist, is about to kill her blind father for his money, when vengeance overtakes the villain through a dagger thrust by the hand of his jealous wife.

The nefarious Dr. Frankenstein was played by Charles Dietz, the actor’s only known screen credit. The hypno-influenced daughter was played by Helen Gardner, yet another forgotten superstar of the silent era. Gardner, known as the movie’s first “vamp”, was also the first woman to establish her own production company, picking her projects, serving as producer, film editor and occasional costume designer. With husband Charles Gaskill as writer and director, Garner mounted an epic Cleopatra in 1912. At 90 minutes, it was reputedly the first full-length feature made in America and it would play around the world for years to come. In 1914, in addition to Sylvia Gray, Garner appeared as Miss Jekyll and Madame Hyde.
There might have been another non-Frankenstein Frankenstein silent film, but this next one was never committed to celluloid. A Paramount Pictures ad in the 1921 Motion Picture Studio Directory and Trade Annual announced An Assisted Frankenstein as one of several upcoming Wallace Reid vehicles, directed by Frank Urson from a story by Charles E. Van Loan.

Van Loan was a famous writer of sports fiction — best known for his baseball tales — of whom the Philadelphia Public Ledger said he had “the largest following of men readers of any magazine fiction writer”. As an editor, he published and championed a young Ring Lardner. Van Loan’s An Assisted Frankenstein was originally published in the June 17, 1916 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. I couldn’t find any further information on the story, but Van Loan made references to Frankenstein — in the sense of someone or something of one’s own creation going out of control — in at least two other stories.

The dashing Wallace Reid, “the screen’s most perfect lover”, was a reluctant matinee idol who had shown talent and a preference for writing and directing. Severely injured in a train wreck while filming Valley of the Giants (1919), he became addicted to morphine. He died, only 32 years old, in 1923.

For all these near- or ersatz Frankensteins, there was one last “true” silent Frankenstein film proposed but, alas, never made. In 1927, special effects pioneer Willis O’Brien floated an adaptation of Frankenstein with its Monster animated through stop-motion photography. O’Brien’s career yielded tremendous successes: The Lost World (1925), his masterpiece King Kong (1933) and Mighty Joe Young (1949) for which he earned an Oscar, but the long intervening years were weighted by frustration when elaborate, high-concept projects such as Creation, Gwangi, and War Eagles went unrealized.

Years later, O’Brien revived his Frankenstein project, this time with The Monster as a giant going head-to-head with King Kong but, again, it wasn’t to be. Eventually, O’Brien’s King Kong vs. Frankenstein story idea was sold to Japan’s Toho Pictures who substituted their own giant monster in the Frankenstein part and released King Kong vs. Godzilla in 1962. 

The illustration here is O’Brien’s concept for the later, giant Frankenstein Monster, conceivably inspired or informed by his original designs from 1927.

With many thanks to Robert Kiss for information on THE ASSISTED FRANKENSTEIN.
One more post to go! Next up: Frankenstein themes in silent films.

1 comment:

Joe Thompson said...

Thank you, Pierre, for an exciting week plus. The Frankenstein Trestle was mentioned in a railroad magazine I was just reading. This was a very interesting conclusion. I wonder what the premise of "An Assisted Frankenstein" was going to be.