Not only is today Halloween, but this year is also the bicentennial of the book Frankenstein, which makes it a great day to pay tribute to 19th century goth queen Mary Shelley by watching a beautifully restored version of the original 1910 movie adaptation of Frankenstein.
It’s a minor miracle you can see this restored version at all, Mike Mashon, head of the Moving Image Section at the Library of Congress, explained in a blog post on the movie and the restoration. As of 1980, the film was considered lost—but that’s because nobody knew that Alois F. “Al” Dettlaff of Cudahy, Wisconsin had bought a nitrate print as part of a larger collection in the 1950s. (Even he didn’t realize what he had, until it appeared on a list of famously missing movies.) Dude was apparently a fitting caretaker of the print, in that he sounds like a real character—somebody who could have been played by Vincent Price if he decided on a later-career reinvention via indie project:
I never met Dettlaff, but it seems like everyone in film collecting circles has a story. Often they’re about the “Father Time” character he enjoyed portraying at film conventions, compete with robe, scythe, and hourglass to complement his long white beard. He was exceptionally protective of the Frankenstein print, traveling with it to film festivals and monster conventions. He even took it to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1986, where Academy President and famed director Robert Wise was unable to convince him to let the reel be properly preserved and archived. Eventually Dettlaff had the film transferred to DVDs he would sell at his appearances, and it’s rips from that DVD you can find on YouTube. Dettlaff died at home in 2005 surrounded by his film collection, including Frankenstein, still unpreserved.
The Library of Congress bought the print in 2014 and has now had it beautifully restored.
The movie is an important link in the chain of Frankenstein’s long-running cultural staying power, representing a bridge between its place in the 19th century popular imagination and its place in the pop cultural monster canon of the 20th century. Most fascinating is the opportunity to see an example of how Frankenstein’s creation was imagined before the Universal monster movies made him synonymous with the big green lunkhead with the bolts in his temples. And instead of electrifying a body on a table, it’s really more of a magical cabinet situation. You see the creature slowly emerge, from an empty cauldron to this Terminator skeleton made out of rotten vegetables:
To this haunted doll:
And finally—it’s alive!!!!!! And frankly it looks like Igor—another addition of the 1930s.
It’s easy to laugh, but these special effects must have been absolutely astonishing in 1910. And with the restoration—as opposed to the grainy, blurry transfers long available on YouTube—you can understand that so much better. Watch the movie here, or click through to the Library of Congress to watch in their incredible “screening room,” which has an entire week’s worth of things to watch.