In honor of “Frankenstein, Or The Modern Prometheus” author Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s August 30th birthday, below is the first of a handful of Frankenstein-themed miscellanea soon to appear in this blog. It may be worth noting that Shelley would have been 208. Her novel, incidentally, is 189, which means she wrote it at the tender age of 19. By contrast, I’m now 33, which is when one begins to use phrases like “tender age” in earnest and with only the slightest whiff of lechery.
That said… For the past few weeks, editor Carrie Schreck and I have been cutting my documentary film “Part of Me,” a whimsical look at the body parts modeling industry (when a magazine ad claims “you’re in good hands with Allstate,” for example, you might notice that you’re also in very good looking hands). I had the fanciful notion that the film should open with stock footage of the Frankenstein monster, seeing as he is made of various body parts, paired with some wry V.O. about being more than the “sum of one’s parts” versus having a whole career based on just “some of one’s parts.” Or some such tripe. A recurring lament from my subjects has been that their hands and feet have made it in Hollywood, which leads them to ask, as the song goes, “Why not take all of me?”
Anyway, I embarked on a search for Frankenstein footage and discovered that the license fees for scenes from the classic 1931, Boris Karloff “Frankenstein” are an arm and a leg. When I explained to Universal Studios’ licensing department that my budget was nil, they suggested I forgo using the Karloff interpretation (the most iconic and expensive) and instead use footage from a less popular version of which there are dozens. Their titles, too many to list, are all along the lines of the character’s name preceded by “Bride of,” “Son of,” “House of,” “Car Wash of.” Other versions from what can be termed the “Meets” series include tete-a-tetes between the monster and hirsute pal the Werewolf, comedy duo Abbot and Costello and perhaps most improbably, wild west outlaw Jesse James.
Even with these cut-rate Frankensteins, I couldn’t afford the license fee, but I soon discovered that inventor Thomas Edison produced an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s source work in 1910, making it not only the monster’s cinematic debut, but also public domain. Or as we say in the biz, “free.” But where does one find 95 year-old Frankenstein footage?
Apparently nowhere. A visit to the Library of Congress’ online archives deadended when I learned to my dismay that the footage banks of its Edison collection had everything the inventor’s motion picture department ever shot (from cats donned in boxing gloves to a silent rendition of Faust), but no Frankenstein. I trolled a few links and discovered that I could have a live online chat with a librarian. Here is the transcript:
[Librarian 15:27:04]: Hello, thank you for contacting the Library of Congress’s American Memory Collections Reference Service. It will take me just a moment to review your question. Have you had a chance to check the Library’s American Memory online collection, “Inventing Entertainment: The Motion Pictures and Sound Recordings of the Edison Companies?”
[Patron 15:29:42]: Yes and unfortunately, although the archives have many clips, they do not contain Frankenstein.
[Librarian 15:30:19]: So you’ve searched this collection already? If you have a moment, I’m going to give a quick look myself… Yes, I’ve just looked quickly and I didn’t find it either…
[Patron 15:32:41]: Told you.
[Librarian 15:32:49]: I would suggest that you contact the Library’s Motion Picture Specialists directly: either by Phone: (202) 707-8572, or by using their online webform (unfortunately, they don’t do chat, but they’re generally pretty quick to respond) http://www.loc.gov/rr/askalib/ask-mopic2.html
[Patron 15:33:32]: Thanks for the tip. Um… So… What are you wearing?
[Librarian 15:34:58]: Your chat session has ended.
I called the number the librarian-bot had given me and spoke with a gentleman who explained that the only print of Edison’s Frankenstein still in existence belonged to a cantankerous Wisconsin man named Alois F. Dettladd, who I could contact had he not died last month. An account printed in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel explained that the 84 year-old Dettlaff was found dead in his bathroom on July 26. He had laid undiscovered for weeks. Likewise, Andre Soares reported in Cinema Minima that “Dettlaff’s body was badly decomposed; his daughter and son-in-law lived across the street from him, but they had not seen him in more than a month. Dettlaff, was obsessively protective of his copy of Frankenstein. …The 15-minute Frankenstein, produced by Edison’s company and directed by J. Searle Dawley, was thought lost until the mid-1970s, when Dettlaff announced he owned a copy of the film. The discovery didn’t lead to many screenings, for Dettlaff feared that the print — already in the public domain — would be bootlegged.”
Dettlaff’s fears were not entirely unfounded. I, in fact, had planned on bootlegging the film, but only part of it for “Part of Me” the parts documentary.
After some inquiries in the shady backwaters of the Internet, I finally found a company that was discretely producing DVDs of the film and immediately ordered one. Watch a preview (with Real Player): http://www.cinemaminima.com/ccount/click.php?id=5
There, flickering like Prometheus’ stolen flame, Frankenstein comes to life for the first time on the silver screen — only to be parted out in the chop shop of Final Cut Pro and sutured into my film. Filmmaking is such gorey business.