The Psychology of Frankenstein

Note: This is the fifty-eighth in a series of historical/critical essays examining the best in film from each year. Essentially, I am watching films from the beginning of cinematic history that interest me and/or hold some critical or cultural impact. My personal, living list of favorites is being created at Mubi, showcasing five films per year. All this being explained, what follows is an examination of my third favorite 1910 film, FRANKENSTEIN, directed by J. Searle Dawley.

1910 is the year of the adaptation when it comes to my favorite films list. The previous two films on my list, THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ (1910) and ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND (1910), are representative of silly off-kilter inspirations and by-the-book, albeit abridged, retellings respectively. If they were polar opposites on the adaptation philosophy scale, FRANKENSTEIN (1910), the first cinematic interpretation of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, is a centrist approach.

To be clear, all three films are incredibly loose adaptations by today’s standards, being short films without sound, but the concepts of how to approach adaptations today have a throughline to the shaping of the early days of the Hollywood American film industry, in which 1910 was a pivotal year. Edison production was still based on the East Coast, of course. But in a few years time, the formula for American dramas and comedies would come west and grow with the open opportunities of film production the expanse of pre-industrialized California could offer.

FRANKENSTEIN actually carries a subtle level of nuance that would be allowed to flourish as the medium was recognized as an art form and was able to grow to feature length. That is, it offered commentary of its own upon the message it was adapting, a feat that wasn’t quite common in the vast majority of American film at the time, with a few notable exceptions. The novel carries themes of the danger of scientific progress and the nature of humanity. While the movie transmits that in that it transmits the basic plot of the original story, it also adds its own little twist that gives the story a further psychological bent; hence, a centrist approach. It’s not a radical departure (although, again, it’s loose), but it also does much to change the tone of the source material.

The synopsis in the contemporary catalog The Edison Kinetogram actually gives a lot of insight into how writer and director J. Searle Dawley wanted to frame his “liberal adaptation of Mrs. Shelley’s famous story,” besides the literal framing of the film itself. One of the most striking moments early on is how harsh the movie treats its title character in the intertitle preceding the creation of the monster, saying “Instead of a perfect human being the evil in Frankenstein’s mind creates a monster.” The whole film takes on this moralizing tone with Frankenstein’s actions in a way that, to my recollection as someone who hasn’t read Frankenstein in about seven years, the novel doesn’t to quite the same extent.

That being said, the impact of this moment is quickly overshadowed by the creation of the monster itself. The scene is actually quite impressive. Dawley interpreted the birth of Frankenstein’s monster as if it was the same process as baking a cake. The primordial earth was full of hellfire, so it makes sense to put a skeleton and some kind of biological material into an oven and bake it until a human (or humanoid) comes out, right?

As snarky as I’m being, I actually think the idea is a still novel one, and the reverse shot created by burning a human frame effigy, rendered into the film as a figure being formed from nothing, is awe-inspiring. Further stressing how awful the thing Frankenstein has done, he quickly flees in terror from his monster. He must have done a truly bad thing if even he, a corrupted evil scientist, though it was bad!

The monster, played by Charles Ogle in an unintentionally goofy get up, follows Frankenstein in his own lurching way, then runs away when his creator expresses disgust with him and faints. At this point, the twist and/or my interpretation of the film’s final moments come into play. Frankenstein’s servant conveniently enters just as the monster drifts away into the darkness; the servant never actually sees him.

After this, Frankenstein learns the error of his ways and prepares for his wedding. As the synopsis goes, “the creation of the monster was only possible because Frankenstein had allowed his normal mind to be overcome by evil and unnatural thoughts.” And now he’s pure! But his creation is not. The monster returns and becomes jealous of Frankenstein’s life, and realizes Victor’s wife is to blame. On the wedding night, the monster comes back and terrorizes her before she runs out to Frankenstein and collapses at his feet. The monster soon follows and Frankenstein orders him to leave.

And here comes the twist. The monster enters another room, and staring into the mirror, he fades away, leaving his image in the mirror. Frankenstein comes in, his image aligned with the monster, and the monster then disappears. “Gradually, however, under the effect of love and his better nature, the monster’s image fades and Frankenstein sees himself in his young manhood in the mirror,” the synopsis states.

FRANKENSTEIN was meant to “concentrate its endeavors upon the mystic and psychological problems that are to be found in this weird tale.” With this final deviation from the story in a pretty significant way (besides ending it basically one third through the novel’s plot, essentially), I think Dawley succeeded with this focus.

The way I interpreted the film, Frankenstein and his monster are one and the same. The servant never saw the monster, and the way the blocking is set up in the scene where “the monster” terrorizes Frankenstein’s wife off screen, Victor himself very well could have come back within frame before his wife comes out, beseeches him stop, and faints. This, of course, is solidified by the fact that the monster just essentially disappears and fades into the figure of Frankenstein.

To be clear, I’m not implying that Frankenstein transforms into the monster a la Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I am implying, however, that Frankenstein is dealing with some form of multiple personality disorder, represented visually by a grotesque creature. Frankenstein’s attempt at creating life could have miserably failed in a gross manner. You never actually see the monster walking out of its oven womb, just its hand reaching out in, potentially, desperation. The failure and guilt resulted in the fracture of Frankenstein’s mind, and his base, monstrous side results in a struggle for his happiness and an unwillingness to reconcile the crime he committed.

However, the psychology Dawley may have been attempting to highlight was the futility and evil of trying to play God, and how it can disrupt a true and peaceful life. However, the fact that he created a film with wiggle room to impart multiple messages is not only a testament to the original text, of course, but also an effective visual adaptation whose very twists rely in the ambiguity of some of its most tremendous visual moments.

Although FRANKENSTEIN is only my third favorite film of 1910, as it is rife with slow moments and numerous scenes where Frankenstein paces back forth in agitation, it may very well contain the most advanced themes of the year. The creation of the monster is one of the most iconic sequences of the films highlighted in my essays so far, and was a precursor to the Hollywood filmmaking structure and at least one more significant adaptation Dawley would make amid the true, budding Hollywood of the mid 1910s.

Make sure to catch up on and keep up with all of my essays on my favorite films here.

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