Frankenstein Meets Thomas Edison


Friday fun link: the long-lost first film of Frankenstein, produced by Thomas Edison's studio in 1910. An interesting document in its own right, it is also an example of the ways censorship does not merely suppress art, but influences the shape of the art that does appear. Rich Drees writes:

As the popularity of motion pictures grew, so did the attention they received from moral crusaders and reform groups, who decried the new medium as being dangerous and encouraging of immorality. Some called for strict laws governing film content and some communities banned theatres all together. Knowing that these groups could pose a serious threat to his bottom line, Edison ordered that not only the production quality of his films be improved, but also their moral tone. The Trust even set up the first Board of Censors, consisting of film executives and religious and education leaders.

Frankenstein was the perfect choice to kick off production under this new moral banner. It's a story that deals with the extremes of the human condition, life and death, and the dangers of tampering in God's realm. Plus, Edison made sure that publicity stressed that some of the more sensational elements of the Mary Shelly's novel had been toned down….One of those changes made to the narrative concerns the creation of Frankenstein's monster. While Shelly's novel did not go into specifics about the monster's creation, the creation scene in the film certainly owes more to alchemy than science. The film certainly didn't stress the danger of unchecked scientific experimentation, not when the boss has transformed the world with his own scientific marvels. Instead, the monster is cast more as a reflection of Frankenstein's baser instincts and dark reflection of a mind that presumed to meddle in God's domain.

The film itself is a mixed bag, and parts (particularly the beginning) are poorly preserved. But there are moments of real power, notably the creation of the monster and the creature's final exit. Click the image to see it at reason.tv:

Bonus link: If you like "primitive" cinema, be sure to watch the greatest film of the early silent era, Georges Melies' Le Voyage Dans La Lune (1902). My appreciation of Melies is here.

NEXT: The Right to Shout 'Boycott' in a Crowded Shopping Mall

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  1. The sleep of Reason gives rise to monsters-but this time you’ve awakened the memory of a real intellectual Frankenstein.

    The corporate version of the Edison mythos conceals a darker narrative- that of a hundred odd helots bound by iron-clad contracts who provided much of the inspiration as well as most of the intellectual perspiration at Menlo Park. In his later years , all too often Edison just signed the patent papers and the royalty checks.

  2. Peter Cushing was better.

  3. Cool!

    From one of the title cards: “The evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a monster.” Monsters from the id, anyone?

  4. pfffttt…

    True film lovers only watch zootropes. Amateurs!

  5. Yes, Russell, all of Edison’s employees were kidnapped at gunpoint.

    In his later years , all too often Edison just signed the patent papers and the royalty checks.

    Pretty much what happens under most academic technology transfer programs, anyway.

  6. Super cool, yet again, Jesse. I’m looking forward to watching this over the weekend.

  7. I have to assume the wording on the title cards was taken directly from the original. Ironically, reading some of these, I got a similar vibe to the subtitles in some cheap Chinese DVDs I’ve seen. That you can guess what they’re trying to say doesn’t mean they’re not way off.

    …the creation scene in the film certainly owes more to alchemy than science…

    It should have occurred to Mr. Drees that the creation scene may have been staged as it was because it was cheaper than building a fake laboratory – that it owed more to economy than ideology.

    On an unrelated note, another first film that came out in 1910 was the first version of The Wizard of Oz.

  8. I always thought that the lesson of Frankenstein was not so much that we shouldn’t meddle in things that are God’s, but rather that we should always claim and try to do the best by our literal and figurative children, however they turn out. Technology seems more likely to veer towards the “evil” whenever its creators lose interest, “moving on” to other things, disavowing responsibility for consequences, no longer participating in the effort of turning their products to positive purpose, or even trying to sabotage their creations. Not to say that “positive parental attention” would eliminate the downside of technological development entirely, but it could certainly minimize and help ameliorate that downside.

    Basically, if you’re not committed to being a parent — of people, ideas, or technologies, better not (pro)create.

  9. Jeebus, JAM. Once you invent something, its out there, and what use other people put it to is completely beyond your control.

    Things aren’t children. Neither are ideas.

  10. The book (though not any of the film versions I’ve seen) has always struck me as a proto-existentialist fable. The monster doesn’t understand why he was created, why his “father” doesn’t love him, why the world is cruel, etc., and ultimately rejects mankind just as Satan rejects God in Paradise Lost, one of the books the monster reads and identifies with.

  11. RC Dean
    Who needs gunpoint when the hire’s first language is Bosnian and the fine green print written in the party of the first part singular.

    A $10 sign away per patent does seem a tad low.


  13. RC Dean — Frankenstein’s monster wasn’t an idea, though. He was a person: an artificially created person, who was abandoned by his creator and denied the opportunity to love.

    The story is not about an invention, or an idea for an invention, getting out of the inventor’s control. Read as a conventional novel, it is about fatherhood and responsibility: Doctor Frankenstein abandons the love-child he spawned with his mistress Science when he wants to go get married. Read as science fiction, it is the first ever novel of transhuman morality. It asks: If we create new kinds of conscious life, what moral obligations do we have to them — and what are the consequences if we neglect those obligations?

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