March 21, 2010

After Frankenstein

Once they were done shooting Frankenstein, in 1910, the film’s three principals, Augustus Phillips (Frankenstein), Mary Fuller (Fiancée) and Charles Ogle (Monster), would go on to spend most of their film careers with the Edison Company, their paths crisscrossing through the years. As an example, a newspaper item in The Reading Eagle for August 27, 1913, listing Edison films released that week, shows Mary Fuller starring in Who Will Marry Mary?, while Augustus Phillips and Charles Ogle were reunited in a two-reeler whodunit, The Mystery of West Sedgwick.

In those early days of the American movie star system, Edison targeted newspapers with short fluff pieces about their main performers, with an inevitable plug for the studio carefully squeezed in. Articles about Phillips and Ogle read as almost interchangeable. An April 1913 item about Augustus Phillips called Takes Life Easy; Always Content says, “No one who see the films with the ring around the ‘E’ (the Edison logo) can forget Phillips, for he is always starring in some big picture in some new character”. He is reported to be “as pleasant to talk with as he is to look at… a contended man, pleased with his surroundings and at ease with the world.” Of his films, “There is no need to name pictures in which he has and is appearing. The list would fill a book. Besides, every one knows, anyway.

A very similar item about Charles Ogle appeared in March 1914.

Under the title You Can Always Bank On Seeing Him In Pictures, we are told that “Nearly all the best Edison pictures seem to include Charles Ogle in some role or other. He is a big fellow, with a kindly eye and a ready, sympathetic smile. He makes friends everywhere.” Of the parts he plays, “… you will often see him in some character which seems to require a lot of milk of human kindness to make it convincing.”

Mary Fuller, by the mid-1910s, had become Edison’s top leading lady and a movie star of the first magnitude. In May, 1915, The Pittsburgh Press ran a series of articles purportedly written by Fuller herself. The pieces are nicely written and Fuller was an experienced writer of film scripts, six of which were produced.

In a item called Star Tells Thrills of Initial Appearance in Screen Production, Fuller remembered sitting in an audience and seeing herself onscreen for the first time. “Could that little figure flit-flit-flitting across the white sheet in that intense black and white be myself?” Overcoming “the feeling of strangeness” at seeing herself, she “began critically to watch the pictures… and made mental notes of how to cure the defects.

In time, Mary writes, “my dreams were gradually realized. I was ‘featured’ and finally ‘starred’ in the movies. I did not fully realize the last happy state until one day I passed a theater where one of my films was being shown. The front of the place was plastered with my name, with my photos and with lithographs of me. Then I realized that, in a measure, I had really ‘arrived’. It’s a delightful feeling and sends a lovely little shiver all over you. And the pleasure never palls.

There is no record of the actors ever mentioning the early Frankenstein. Back in 1910, it had been just another gig for the Edison trio, just another film in an endless series churned out by the film factory. Surely, they must have been aware of Whale’s Frankenstein, a box-office sensation in 1931. Perhaps then, they reminisced about those long-ago days on the rooftop sets, open to sunlight, out on Decatur Avenue in The Bronx, when they had made the first Frankenstein movie, but there were no interviews given, no recollections recorded.

Charles Ogle passed away in 1940, Augusts Phillips in 1944. Writer-director J. Searle Dawley died in 1949. By then, Universal’s Frankenstein films were known the world over, but the Edison original had spiraled into obscurity.

Mary Fuller lived until 1973. Photos from the Edison Frankenstein had been rediscovered ten years earlier — the film was still considered lost — but Mary Fuller was forgotten, never to tell her story. She had lived a troubled, secluded life. When she passed away, she had been institutionalized for a quarter of a century and there was no family, nobody left to claim her body. Once a world-famous movie star, she was laid to rest in an unmarked grave. The last living witness to the Edison Frankenstein, forever as silent as her screen image, was gone.

All posts about the Edison Frankenstein

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Much as I love all things "Frankie" related, this little article about early silent actors careers (which just so happened to include a version of "Frankenstein") was perhaps my favorite of all your consistently excellent posts.