March 31, 2012

Frankenstein Themes in Silent Films

The Silent Era was rich in Frankenstein themes. Artificial life was explored with Paul Wegener’s Golem Films, four different versions of Alraune and a major serial, Homunculus.

Wegener, a superstar of early cinema, first essayed the Jewish legend in 1915 with Der Golem, aka The Monster of Fate, a lost film, save for a short clip from the film’s climax. Set in modern times, it has the clay giant pulled from the rubble of an old synagogue and reanimated, with the expected results. In 1917, Der Golem und die Tänzerin (The Golem and the Dancing Girl) was a bit of whimsy in which Wegener parodied himself as an actor who plays The Golem. In 1920, collaborating with writer Henrik Galeen and director Carl Boese, Wegener mounted a spectacular telling of the original story with Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem, or How He Came into the World). The film played around the world, with The New York Times giving it a glowing review and noting its Frankenstein connection: “like the creature of Frankenstein’s creation, the Golem does not remain obedient…

Wegener’s formidable Golem, hacked out of clay, stomped around in massive boots, foreshadowing Karloff’s Monster. Both creatures harrowingly encountered little girls, but where it spelled doom for the child in Frankenstein, it was the waif in Der Golem who precipitated the monster’s end.

Alraune, a legend novelized by Haans Heinz Ewers in 1921, tells of a child born of a prostitute who was inseminated with a mandragore root, grown from the semen of a hanged murderer. Quite the origin story! Without a soul, emotionless, unable to love, Alraune grows from a child who tortures small animals into a wanton Femme very Fatale who destroys her lovers. The story was filmed twice in 1918, in Hungary and Germany, with much confusion today as to who directed or who played what. As an example, the dubiously reliable IMDB — and repeated on Wikipedia — names Gyula Gal as the Hungarian Alraune, but Gal was a male actor. The part has since been attributed, but still problematically unconfirmed, to Margit Lux, who would go on to appear in Drakula halala (1923).

The most famous version of Alraune came in 1928 at the hands of writer/director Henrik Galeen, with Brigitte Helm as the stunning and glacial menace and Paul Wegener as the scientist, Prof. Jakob ten Brinken. Helm reprised the part just two years later opposite Albert Bassermann in a film directed by Richard Oswald. Helm, of course, played another significant artificial creature, the fabulous robot in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1926). The San Jose Evening News of August 24, 1927 addressed her Frankenstein roots, noting, “This girl-machine becomes a Frankenstein, destroying her creator.

Completing the silent Alraune saga, one of the most tantalizing of all unmade films must be Alraune und der Golem, announced in 1919. It might have been the first “monster rally”. A series of beautiful posters were produced, but the project never made it to the screen.

Perhaps the most popular Frankensteinian film of the Silent Era was Homunculus, the massive six-part serial of 1916, totaling some eight and a half hour of screen time. The story has elements of Mary Shelley’s novel in the relentless pursuit by the scientist creator of his wicked creation. This monster is a perfect lab-made man, a charismatic tyrant who plans the very destruction of Mankind. The films were such a hit that Danish-born actor Olaf Fonss became a European matinee idol and the character’s wardrobe inspired popular fashion. The series culminated with a battle between the Homunculus and a second artificial man created to destroy him. In the end, the Homunculus is struck and vaporized by lightning.

A variation on laboratory-provoked life, H.G.Wells’ Frankensteinian novella, The Island of Dr. Moreau, in which animals are tortured into human shape, was adapted in Germany as Die Insel der Verschollenen (1921). Umberto Guarracino, The Monster in 1920’s Il Mostro di Frankenstein played “the product of the secret workshop”. The film has survived but is rarely shown and no photos have been circulated yet.

A number of films explored the Frankensteinian concept of restored life with resuscitation by electricity or transplant surgery, often to comic effect. In several shorts, gorilla brains, hearts or glands were swapped in, resulting in the protagonist behaving like a monkey. More dramatically, murder victims or the mistakenly executed were given a second chance through electricity, injections or various pseudo-scientific means in The Return of Maurice Donnelly (1915), The Inspiration of Harry Larrabee (1917), The Devil to Pay (1920) and Legally Dead (1923).

A 1914 melodrama, Lola, also known as Without a Soul, had Clara Kimball Young playing an ingénue struck by a car and galvanized back to life in her father’s laboratory. Shades of Alraune, the gentle girl turns into a soulless seductress, dumping her boyfriend and taking up, scandalously, with a married man. When she falls deathly ill, she begs her father to resuscitate her again, but he chooses to destroy his electrical apparatus and Lola dies a second and final death. Variety referred to Lola as “Miss Young’s lady Frankenstein”.

A similar situation with a different outcome was found in the British-made The Man Without a Soul (1916) when the revived title character, after much beastly behavior, finds his lost soul through prayer. The 1920 hit Go and Get It had a criminal brain plunked into a gorilla’s skull, resulting in a hairy missing link character played by Bull Montana. The Pittsburgh Press called it, “a modern Frankenstein, reversing the Darwinian plan.”

In 1924, On Time, a rowdy adventure yarn starring Richard Talmadge, “the dare-devil stunt king of motion pictures”, aka “The man without fear”, included a gorilla brain swap sequence. The story was written by Garrett Fort, who would eventually collaborate with Robert Florey, and later James Whale, on the script of Frankenstein (1931).

The great Lon Chaney flirted with Frankenstein themes in The Monster, a 1925 horror-comedy where he’s a flat-out mad-as-a-hatter scientist experimenting with soul transference, but the most direct Frankenstein connection was made earlier, with A Blind Bargain (1922) in which Chaney played Dr. Lamb, a scientist who, “in his hidden chamber of human experimentation”, grafts monkey glands to humans, supposedly giving them eternal youth. Chaney also appears as a tragic, crooked-legged manservant, the apish result of a failed gland switcheroo.

Frankensteinian themes of artificial life and reanimation permeate popular culture, and many films of the distant Silent Era explored these topics in unusual ways. I’ll be revisiting many of the titles here, in due time, in greater detail as new information and images continue to surface.

I had a great time exploring The Silent Frankensteins over the last two weeks. I hope you enjoyed the posts.


RIchard Meyer said...

these post on silent films have been such a wealth of great information... thank you!

Joe Thompson said...

Thanks for the wonderful explorations you have shared with us.

wich2 said...

Just great stuff, Pierre - a real tantalizing look behind a veil...

Yours in frankensteinia till LIFE WITHOUT SOUL is recinemated,

Rip Jagger said...

Fascinating. I enjoyed it a lot and I learned a lot. Thanks.

Rip Off