Category Archives: Film History Series

1910

This week I watched the Edison film Frankenstein (J. Searle Dowley, 1910). This print that someone has uploaded is not in great shape, but I doubt something this obscure is available in any other format.

The film admits to being a “liberal adaptation” of Mary Shelley’s original work from the very beginning. Most of the changes that occur seem to be based on the limits of the technology at the time. For example, there is a conspicuous absence of lightning from the creation of The Monster. Instead, Frankenstein mixes together a few potions and stirs himself up a Monster. Kind of like how the effeminate wizard in Lord of the Rings mixes up a batch of Orcs. Then Frankenstein chills in his seriously awesome office while the Monster grows bones, muscle, and, finally, an obscene amount of hair. The Monster looks like a mix between Beast (as in Beauty’s) and Dracula. He’s covered in mane-like hair, and moves his long nailed fingers in twirly ways. It makes sense to me, though, because don’t your hair and nails keep growing after you die? And The Monster was supposed to be composed of bits and pieces of corpses.

long fingernails

So anyway, the Monster is born (I think they achieved this effect by melting someone with acid and then playing it backwards), and then proceeds to follow Frankenstein around, waving and twirling his fingernails until he somehow ends up falling through a mirror into another dimension.

Despite some of its adolescent problems, I find this version of Frankenstein to be pretty entertaining. The tinting of the film (dramatic shifts from orange to blue when the candle leaves the frame) is beautiful, and I find the idea that Frankenstein has an evil mind – seemingly controlled by his subconscious Id – which enables the Monster’s creation to be interesting. Plus, this Dowley guy doesn’t fuck around. This is no Ang Lee’s Hulk. The Monster shows up in the first couple of minutes and then it’s non-stop action from there…well…sort of. Mostly it’s just a lot of waving and finger twirling.

frankenstein costume

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1909

This week I watched two more D.W. Griffith movies. Both forms of social commentary, but radically different from each other: Those Awful Hats and A Corner in Wheat. The first shows the early 19th century’s version of a “turn off your cell phones” theatre service announcement. Top hats and large, flowered, wide-brimmed numbers were apparently quite a problem for the average theatre-goer. And the punishment for not removing your hat? A large bucket-claw-thing will pick you up and physically remove you!

The special effects in this film are noteworthy. The film used a blue-screen-esque matte to give the effect of a projected film. A little rough, but extremely innovative.

The second film, A Corner in Wheat, takes on the more serious subject of proletarian poverty. Farmers are at the mercy of “The Wheat King” who pays the farmers less and less while driving up the prices of wheat for the shop owners. Though a serious look at poverty in the plain states, the film also has some funny moments. Those ladies with the giant flowered hats return to flirt it up with The Wheat King, only to find him moments later, drowned in a vat of falling wheat. Parallel editing makes this final scene absolutely fascinating.

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1908

We’re going to start a new series here at Dear Jesus. Each week we’re going to post about a year in filmmaking. Starting at 1908, we will make our way towards 2008 to cover 100 years of film. To do this, we’ll pick one or a couple movies to write about for each year, chronologically.

Now, 1895 officially marks the birth of film, with both the Lumiere Brothers and Edison competing with their various forms of the motion-picture camera. But this little series is going to start us off in 1908. A nice, round number. Film had already been defining itself as a narrative structure capable of fairly complex storytelling and as a form of documentation. But, 1908 is special, as this is the year D.W. Griffith makes his directorial debut.

D. W. Griffith

Griffith, a pasty white guy from the South, is known for his flaming racist tendencies, but also for his ability to create films of epic proportions and cement the basic codes of filmmaking as we know them today.

His first film, The Adventures of Dollie already demonstrates how Griffith’s directorial style would greatly influence every aspect of filmmaking.


Turn the volume down. I don’t know what this music is, but it’s awful and distracting.

Here we see Griffith already mapping out some of his more famous practices. Even though it’s far less advanced than it would later become, his cross-cutting/parallel editing techniques already serve to advance the narrative and heighten suspense. We also see the Victorian director’s blatant classism, as the poor (gypsies?) haggle and then kidnap a small, innocent child.

This movie confuses me, though. If you put a kid in a barrel and close the lid so tight that no water can get in as it floats down the river, wouldn’t she run out of air? So is she dead at the end? I tried to see if she was moving, but it’s unclear. So I can’t decide if this is a comedy or a tragedy, and if the title is sick and twisted or light-hearted.

The next film I looked at was also a D. W. Griffith movie directed in 1908 (As far as I can tell, his eighth out of forty-nine that year).


Again, turn down the sound. It’s awful.

A Calamitous Elopement seems to me to be a comedy – something I haven’t seen Griffith do that often, although with 49 films a year, he’s bound to touch on every genre – but I also haven’t seen the ending. Because while IMDB reports that the film is 12 minutes long, this YouTube video is only 7. This was the only version of the film I could find, and I’m including this film in this post because I like the ending as it is in this clip. Why this thief loves stealing women’s clothes and effects remains unclear, and the bad guy wins in the end, something uncommon to early film, which was somewhat limited by the conventions of melodrama and comedy. This film also marks Griffith’s first collaboration with cinematographer Billy Bitzer, who he continued to work with for the rest of his career.

The third film I looked at was The Thieving Hand, directed by J. Stuart Blackton and starring Paul Panzer – two names you’ve probably never heard of (check out all the “uncrediteds on Panzer’s IMDB profile). This film demonstrates the industry aspect of filmmaking. Cheap, easy, short, and funny. This one was a crowd pleaser (at least for me it was. I have no idea what crowds actually thought of it). Check out those special f/x!

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