March 18, 2012

The Silent Frankenstein's Roving Props

The Edison Kinetograph Company’s Frankenstein was released 102 years ago today, on March 18, in 1910. It is the only one of three Frankenstein films from the silent era to have survived for us to appreciate. It has been heavily studied, interpreted and analyzed, yet we find that we can still discover new things about it. Case in point, props from Frankenstein were used in at least one other Edison film, and therein might hide a clue to the singular appearance of The Monster in Frankenstein.

The film in question, embedded here, is A Trip to Mars, released on February 18, exactly one month before Frankenstein.

Director Ashley Miller made over 100 short films, many for Edison’s company, eventually working in different productions with Frankenstein alumni Augustus Phillips, Mary Fuller and Charles Ogle (in a film intriguingly called Van Bibber’s Experiment (1911). A Trip to Mars was no doubt inspired by Georges Méliès’ wildly successful A Trip to the Moon of 1902, still influential after nearly a decade. A Trip to Mars, however, is not a copy of the earlier film. Its Martian tableaus are whimsical, but its photographic tricks are not nearly as elaborate or magical as those staged by Méliès.

Both films borrow from H.G.Wells’ “The First Men in the Moon”. Méliès’ lunar explorers encountered Wells’ flowering moonscape and insect-like Selenites, while the Edison film used Wells’ propulsion system, Cavorite, here called “Reverse Gravity”. Like Wells’ Professor Cavor, Edison’s scientist tests his chemicals on a chair, causing it to hit to the ceiling. The scientist then douses himself with Reverse Gravity Powder and floats out the window and across space to Mars.

The obvious shared prop is a laboratory skeleton. It is prominent in Frankenstein, providing a touch of the macabre, sitting like a long forgotten guest in the foreground, in front of the witches’ cabinet where the scientist boils up his Monster. The same skeleton, with its distinctive ribcage and flat pelvis, hangs decoratively on the back wall of the Mars Voyager’s lab. Probably papier-mâché, it resembles a Dia de Muertos figure. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this skeleton used in other films as a standard prop for experimental labs and doctor’s offices.

The second shared prop is more of a guess, a possibility, but the evidence is compelling…

On Mars, the Voyager encounters fantastical sights. One short scene has him stumbling through a forest of grotesque, giant Ent-like living trees. They sway and waved their claw-like hands in mild menace. On the left-hand side, highlighted here in a screen cap, one of the tree giants has long, branch-like fingers that are strikingly similar to the Frankenstein Monster’s bizarre hands. Note the shape and length of the fingers, and the curiously bent thumb. Are these the Frankenstein Monster’s hands?

Both films were shot close together, this much is certain. Kinetograph films were routinely shot, edited and in release within a few short weeks. Frankenstein lensed in January, but I could not find any shooting details for A Trip to Mars. Mars was released before Frankenstein, suggesting but not proving that it was made before Frankenstein. The question, of course, is which film came first, providing ready-made props for the other.

I have always thought of The Monster’s inexplicably curious hands as branch-like, and it would certainly explain things if actor Charles Ogle, donning his extreme makeup for Frankenstein, used the recently made and readily available Mars prop gloves for effect.

Compare images, compare films, A Trip to Mars posted above, and Frankenstein here. The question is posed: Were the Frankenstein Monster’s curious hands really Martian appendages?

Next up this week, information and rare photographs from the 1915 Frankenstein epic: LIFE WITHOUT SOUL.


Rick said...

Excellent, excellent, excellent! I love this stuff and am eagerly looking forward to the LIFE WITHOUT SOUL stuff.


Joe Thompson said...

Good observation about the fingers. A thoroughly enjoyable article.

Anonymous said...

I beleve that LIFE WITHOUT SOUL was made in 1915, not 1920 (the Italian IL MOSTRO DI FRANKESTEIN came out that year).

Pierre Fournier said...

Yes, of course, Anon. I corrected the line. As you can see, I had it right everywhere else :)