February 2, 2012

Edison's Frankenstein: A Physicalogical Phantasy

A hundred and one years ago, when the first Frankenstein film came to Bemidji, Minnesota, the Majestic Theatre advertised it as “A Physicalogical Phantasy”. What that means is anybody’s guess.

The Majestic Theater, inaugurated in December 1909, was one of a new wave of movie houses that would replace the fast-fading storefront Nickelodeons. The local paper reported that, “Mr. Currie”, then manager, “has the very best movie-making machine that Edison has ever devised, and with his personal knowledge of every intricate movement of the machine, the results are indeed splendid.

The Frankenstein ad appeared on May 6, 1910, in the Daily Pioneer. On the same page, the Social and Personal column, a random collection of gossip, community news and product placement, ran a plug for the film as “one of the interesting and fascinating pictures ever thrown upon the screen. See it tonight…

The evening’s entertainment kicked off with a fancy Overture featuring Miss Hazel Fellows. A song, no doubt, accompanied by the pianist who would play through the evening, providing music for the films. Miss Fellows, a frequent performer at the Majestic, was probably local talent. By the following year, she’d changed her first name to Hazelle, which certainly sounded more artistique. I’d like to think that Miss Fellows provided some novelty, playing a banjo or the ukulele, maybe working in a few dance steps.

The Edison Kinetograph’s Frankenstein was up next. Shot on a Brooklyn rooftop just four months prior, the film went into circulation on May 18. Its stars, Charles Ogle, Augustus Phillips and Mary Fuller were Kinetograph regulars, miss Fuller on her way to silent-era stardom. The film has miraculously survived for us to judge, but what a thrill it must have been to see it when it was new, and pristine.

Next came an “illustrated song”, in which a popular song was either performed live or a recording played while a dozen or so glass slides were projected, “illustrating” the lyrics. The elaborately posed photographs, lavishly hand colored, bankrolled by sheet music vendors, were the music videos of the times. A vastly popular form of entertainment, some Nickelodeons played nothing but illustrated songs, with vaudeville performers and future film stars such as Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor and Fatty Arbuckle appearing as models. Audiences would often demand repeat viewings. Sing-alongs were encouraged.

“I’m Going to Do What I Please”, written by music publisher Ted Snyder and lyricist Alfred Bryan was one of the most popular songs of its day. Snyder, a future songwriting Hall of Famer, also wrote The Sheik of Araby and Who’s Sorry Now?, and famously gave Irving Berlin his first break.

Rounding up the evening’s entertainment, “Another Of Those Thrilling Wild West Stories”, was The Girl and the Fugitive, starring Gilbert Anderson, the original Bronco Bill, the movie’s first cowboy star. Anderson had appeared, playing three different roles, in Edwin S. Porter’s seminal The Great Train Robbery (1903). He went on to write, direct, produce and star in his own movies. In 1907, he co-founded the famous Essanay Studios where he made some 300 short films, half of them westerns. The Girl and the Fugitive, released on March 9, 1910, was just one of the 44 Bronco Bill films made that year.

All told, the Majestic’s complete program ran about an hour. Not bad for ten cents. Children paid a nickel. I wonder if any kids were upset by Ogle’s scarecrow-like Frankenstein Monster.

And I wonder if anyone ever made out what a Physicalogical Phantasy was.

Watch the Edison Kinetoscope Frankenstein of 1910
The First Frankenstein of the Movies
After Frankenstein
A Weird, Fantastic Conception: Edison’s Frankenstein in New Zealand
The Silent Frankensteins


Rick said...

Another terrific post, Pierre! I love all this first-generation, primary-source stuff. I love that there's still great stuff to see.

And isn't it amazing to think that the first FRANKENSTEIN film has reached and passed its Centennial? And that, should I choose, I can walk across the room, pop the disc into the device, and watch it whenever I want?

Just great, great stuff. Thanks so much.

wich2 said...

Pierre, you've done it again!

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