Q & A with Artist-Writer Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr.

Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr. on “Edison’s Frankenstein”

Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr. on “Edison’s Frankenstein”

ZAMM.com’s Martin Grove spoke recently to artist-writer Frederick C. Wiebel, Jr. about his new book “Edison’s Frankenstein”, an in-depth study of the making of the first “Frankenstein” movie in 1910 by Thomas Edison’s film company.

In “Edison’s Frankenstein”, published earlier this year by BearManor Media to mark the 100th anniversary of the film’s release Mar. 18, 1910, Wiebel focuses on the making of the long lost classic starring Charles Ogle, Augustus Phillips, and Mary Fuller. Although it was not available for many years, the movie can now be purchased on DVD through the author.

Wiebel begins his story in Edison’s archives and then follows a trail leading through the pages of pre-Hollywood film history. Included are obscure Edison Manufacturing Co. documents and numerous rare photographs, many published for the very first time.

“Edison’s Frankenstein” is available in bookstores as well as through online sites like amazon.com or directly from the author at fredwiebel@aol.com. The book can also be ordered by mail for $24.95 from Wiebel (POB 585, Hagerstown, MD 21741-0585) or from the publisher (BearManor Media, POB 71426, Albany, GA 31708).

Q: How did you come to write this book?
A: I had always been interested in “Edison’s Frankenstein”. In 1990 I was visiting my in-laws (in Minneapolis) for the holidays and just happened to turn on the TV and saw a clip from the film, the creation sequence. I was astounded that any of it existed. It had been 30 or 40 years since I’d first heard of the movie. I was going to write an article for Film Facts Magazine about it. I started gathering information and I just kept finding things. I couldn’t believe there was so much information about the film that nobody had really seemed to put together.

There were bits of pieces here and there, but once I started researching it and talking to people at the Edison site they helped me get in touch with other institutions. I worked with the Library of Congress people about it. And I just kept getting more and more information until at some point it was too long for an article and too short for a book. As I got more and more interested in the stars who were involved in it I delved into their lives and it gave me a glimpse of how advanced movies were in 1910.
Q: So Frankenstein as a movie character is a lot older than people usually think is the case. People typically think of the 1931 movie starring Boris Karloff as the monster as being the original production.
A: Every few years they put out another version of “Frankenstein”. Most people know about the early Edison films before the turn of the century up until “The Great Train Robbery” in the early 1900s. By 1910 interest by movie historians in Edison films had pretty much dropped. They had a few fires at the Edison vaults and warehouses and factory that destroyed most of the prints from around that time. So not many Edison movies from the teens exist any more at all.
Q: You say in the book that some of those films were printed on paper so they could be copyrighted.
A: Yes. Earlier they would run the whole film off as bromide prints on paper and store them at the Library of Congress that way. They looked at it back then as copyrighting a photograph, not a film. So they were gathering all these paper rolls. They were afraid to store all that nitrate film stock at the time because of its inflammability. And it was cheaper for the companies to just send it in on a paper roll. By the time “Frankenstein” was copyrighted they just were sending in photographs of different scenes from the movie — this one being four scenes and so the copyright for “Frankenstein” is four different numbers applied to four different sets of scenes from the film. They would just send a little strip with maybe four or five frames on it.

Q: By 1910 was Edison less of a force in moviemaking than he had been earlier?
A: No, by 1910 they were probably the leading film company. They had banded together with a lot of other film companies to form what they called The Trust. They would only use Edison projectors and Kodak film and they would pay tribute to Edison. The Trust was eventually busted up by Teddy Roosevelt so Edison lost a lot of his royalties coming in from projectors and things like that. Around 1914 they started to do series — they called them chapter series back then — and they really caught on with the public. That pretty much established Edison and his stars at that time. “What Happened to Mary” was one of the series, featuring Mary Fuller, who was one of the stars of “Frankenstein”. They would run an article in magazines about the story and people would send in how they felt it should end. Every Saturday they would release another chapter of the film.
Q: Had there been horror films prior to Edison making “Frankenstein” in 1910?
A: They weren’t really called horror films back then. There were a couple of versions of “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” before the Edison “Frankenstein”. And there certainly were films with monsters in them — giant snow creatures and things like that. Many of the French Georges Melies films had what you would call monsters and demons, but they were more like comedies. They really didn’t call them horror films even though in the description (in the Edison catalogue) they do refer to “Frankenstein” as “a horror tale.” They refer to it as a dramatic picture. There really wasn’t an established horror genre at the time.
Q: Now the book by Mary Shelley was almost a hundred years old when they made this movie.
A: Almost. It was published in 1818. And there had been quite a few different play versions of “Frankenstein”. By that time there had been a lot of references to the word "Frankenstein," which had already been established — like "creating a Frankenstein." It was pretty much in public speech and it was used in newspapers.

Q: How did the movie do when it came out?
A: It did very well. Every review that I’ve read about it was very positive. Back then, movie criticism wasn’t very developed like it is today. Most of the articles would quote directly from the (Edison studio) catalogue that “Frankenstein” was featured in, The Edison Kinetogram (Vol. 2, No.4, March 15, 1910), which was sent out to the various movie exchanges and theaters for people to pick the films they wanted to rent and purchase to show.

At first I couldn’t really find any evidence of it playing anywhere — just reviews in the trade magazines, which featured the New York showing. But then as the Internet got more developed a lot of old newspapers came online. I was able to search through a lot of those and found advertisements for “Frankenstein” all over the place. I never found anything that would state the film was not appreciated by the audience.
Q: So, as we’d say today, it was a hit.
A: Yes. It was a hit in the way that there were hits back then. Mostly, a movie would be shown with five other films because they were all about 15 to 20 minutes long. This is a one-reeler. It clocks in at a little over 13 minutes. That’s if you do the formula of 20 frames per second times how many frames are in a foot and then divide that into how many feet the film was, which is 976 feet, I believe. So mathematically it works out to be about 13 minutes. Most of the projectors then were hand cranked like the cameras were. Sometimes they would crank it a little fast just to turn over the audience a little faster.
Q: In your book you explain how you think they filmed the scene showing the creation of the monster — by burning a dummy and then playing it backwards.
A: Yes. For the creation scene they made what looks like a paper-mache dummy with a skeleton inside. They either turned the camera upside down or did what some people describe as “back cranking” — cranking backwards so that what came out on the screen would come forward.

You see Dr. Frankenstein throw some chemicals in a big cauldron. It catches fire and then you see the ashes and flames kind of swirl together and the creature coagulates from all these ashes coming together. You see the skeleton and the flesh creeping up on the bones. They figured out that that was going to be the most thrilling part of the movie and that (continued) through all the Frankenstein movies. In this film, most of the time is in the creation sequence.

Q: Tell us a little about the making of the movie and about its director, James Searle Dawley.
A: Basically, what the director would do (in those days) is submit the scenario to the head of the studio to be approved. Dawley was a playwright. He worked with a lot of stock companies of theater players. That’s basically how films developed — out of these little stock company theaters. Sometimes on Sundays they would play a music concert and show some films and just do one play instead of their normal thing. Their plays would change weekly. What I tried to show in the book was how that whole world turned into the movies.
Q: You write about how Dawley was renting movies from the Edison Studio and got to know people there, which led to him being offered a job.
A: Yes. He got to meet Edwin Porter, who was Edison’s main director at the time. Dawley was very good at blocking and directing stage performances (so he focused on those scenes while Porter directed the action sequences).

What’s kind of amazing is that (director) James Whale was in the same position before he made “Frankenstein” (the 1931 version starring Boris Karloff as The Monster) where he’d be the dialogue director on films when they got into the sound era. Nobody really knew how the speeches should be made. It’s from that stage background that they both developed their abilities.
Q: Do we know how long it took to make the 1910 "Frankenstein?"
A: All the Edison papers on the studio productions were given to the Museum of Modern Art (in New York) a long time ago. Edison did not retain a lot of the material that they had. By the time they started saving things, Edison was mainly making batteries so most of what they have at the Edison site in their archives is relating to their battery business.

It took them three or four days to shoot it. That was a little longer (than was usual at the time). What they would do mostly would be to practice the whole film and try to do it, if they could, in one take. They’d rehearse it until they finally got it down and then they would roll the cameras. Now they’d have to change scenery. They’d go to another set, which would have already been made, and film that part. And the parts that went with each set they would film at the same time.
Q: Do we know what it cost to make the film?
A: Fifty cents a foot was their normal budget for a film. (976 feet would, therefore, have cost about $488.) Now this one had a lot of special effects and that took a lot more time to work on. They probably spent more making the dummy. In January 1910 filming was pretty much done in three or four days. That’s what it says in the studio logs. I don’t know if that means all the special effects work was done in that time. There’s no papers I could find that say that. Some of the actors at that time were paid $5 a day, which was a pretty good salary then. There really weren’t named stars at the time. That developed a few years later. That’s why a lot of theatrical people didn’t want to do movies — because they wouldn’t get any credit for their work. They looked down on movies because mostly they were shown in a vaudeville setting or in between these plays at the stock theater companies.
Q: You write that the Edison Studio in The Bronx where “Frankenstein” was shot was just far enough away from Manhattan and its theaters so that actors could work there without worrying about being seen.
A: Yes, it was right at the end of the (train) line.

Q: Tell us about Edison’s studio.
A: It was made out of concrete. It had quite a set up of make-up and tables and rooms for the actors to work in. They wanted to build a studio where they could do all the developing of the film at once. At first, the filming section of the studio was glassed in so sunlight could come in. Shortly after that, they started using electrical lighting, arc lighting, so they could film at any time of day or night.
Q: At that time actors, as you point out in your book, did their own make-up and took care of their own costume needs.
A: Yes, they did. Charles Ogle (who plays the Monster) played a lot of character parts and you see photographs of him and he’s in all kinds of different make-up. He was known for being a master at make-up. That’s probably part of the reason why he was chosen for “Frankenstein”.
Q: So it’s Ogle who’s pictured on the cover of the Edison catalogue that went out to promote "Frankenstein.". Who would that have gone to?
A: Theater owners and the exchanges. The theater owners would come in to the exchanges to buy film by the foot. A lot of times they would splice things together. If they didn’t like a certain part of a movie they’d just cut it out!
Q: Why do you think “Frankenstein” as a movie property has survived all these years? A new production, for instance, was just recently announced by producers Ralph Winter and Terry Botwick based on a new series of “Frankenstein” novels by Dean Koontz. Winter and Botwick plan to launch a new “Frankenstein” franchise through their company 1019 Entertainment.
A: I think a lot of it has to do with the success of the ’31 version. That came out right around Christmastime and was such a shock to the audience seeing Karloff’s face. It’s a lot different from how “Dracula” was, which came out a year earlier. Bela Lugosi was rather sophisticated looking, but the “Frankenstein” monster was gruesome and the creation sequence is very thrilling.

In the ’31 version they used sound effects to a great extent. That had such an effect on people and it was a huge success around the world. Universal made sequels until the mid-’40s. “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein” (1948) was the last one they made. It pretty much had played out by then. But every few years it would revive again.

There also were two silent versions of “Frankenstein” that were made. One called “Life Without Soul” was made in 1915. It had a very normal looking monster. He looked just like a person. He didn’t have all the wild hair or the horrible make-up or anything like that. That was released three times, but it never really made much money. After the ’31 version of “Frankenstein” came out they re-released “Life Without Soul” and added a soundtrack to it. Nobody has ever come up with a copy of that. The other silent one was an Italian production in 1920. We don’t know if that came to the United States.
Q: Coming back to Edison’s Frankenstein, when did they release it and how long did it play?
A: They released it March 18, 1910. The last notice I see for it was in June and July of 1910. Films would only be in release (at that time) for no more than six months and then they were returned to the studio. Edison had a huge fire in 1914 that probably destroyed most of the prints that were left. A lot of them were strip salvaged for their silver content. So it’s amazing that any prints survived at all. There were at one point three known prints of “Frankenstein” surviving.
Q: How did you find the print that you ultimately had restored?
A: Well, I saw that clip on the television show and then I started calling around to the Edison site. They knew a print existed, but they didn’t know the man’s name (who owned it). I eventually found a videotape that had clips in it. I called the producer and he told me about Mr. Dettlaff (Alois Felix Dettlaff, Sr.) in Wisconsin. This was in the early ’90s. He had the only known print to exist. So I started calling him.

He had been showing a copy he had in Milwaukee on Halloween. When I finally got hold of him — I think it was about 1994 — he had just shown the film in Wisconsin. He actually had done interviews on CNN and other shows that really didn’t seem to catch on across the country. I thought it was a major find. (Laughs) Eventually he did, too. He got his print in the ’50s. In the mid-’70s he had copied the film in all kinds of different formats — 8mm, 16mm and videotape and Beta tape.

Mr. Dettlaff was very reluctant to let any of it out because he was making a lot of money selling clips to documentaries. He made $20,000 to $25,000 selling two minute clips to these documentaries and he was afraid that if he did let it out, since it’s public domain, people would just bootleg it and put it out. Eventually, I worked with him trying to get the film together to be released. We made all these deals that put the book (in an earlier edition) and the film out together. I had a contract for the book in 1999 with a small publisher, but he never published it and he kept a lot of my rare photos, too.

Finally, about 2003 the Ft. Lee Film Commission called me up and they wanted me to try to get Mr. Dettlaff to come to New Jersey to show the film.

I told him this would be a great opportunity for him to finally get his project together and make some money off of it. So he had old videotapes transferred to DVD. I produced the music for it. I had a friend of mine score the film. He put out a version in 2003 and we premiered “Frankenstein” in Jersey City. He ran off like 1,500 copies and we sold over 700 of them at the shows that year. There was a lot of interest in it.

I was very disappointed with his DVD. The music was great, but they did a very sloppy job of putting (the film) together in the transfer to DVD. He put watermarks on it. What I wanted to do was present the film in a way that would be closest to how it would have been presented (when it first was released). So I put in the original title cards. I took out some of the bad (edits) that were in the film and re-contrasted it. It had deteriorated quite a bit by that time.

I had to re-contrast it and put in more of the original colors. It had tinted colors in it. There was an orange-reddish color for the creation sequences. All night scenes were in a blue tint. The inside lighting was in a yellowish-orange tint. Then I took Edison’s cylinders from the time period of the music that was suggested for the film and edited them together to fit with the film. There are a few series of frames here and there that are missing because when Mr. Dettlaff originally projected the film it had shrunk and his projector tore it to pieces. A lot of the glued edits fell apart. But he did reassemble it the way it should have been.

Now the publisher of the book had had a lot of trouble putting disks in books before. They would break during shipping and printing. If you go through the book, you’ll see on the About the Author page that you can get a copy of the film from me for free by just paying the shipping and material costs ($6). I’m selling it as an author’s edition — autographed, signed and numbered and with the DVD in an envelope stuck in the book. Now if you get the book, say, on Amazon.com, you’ll see in the book how to get in touch with me to get a copy of the film. If they buy it directly from me, it will come with it.