Psycho Pompous: An Introduction

Frankenstein
Screenshot of J. Searle Dawley's Frankenstein

One of the most seminal aspects of any great industry or art form is the lasting impact the products or art have on the population at large. It is hard to believe that over a hundred years ago, the idea of blockbuster horror films was nothing short of lunacy. When Thomas Edison fully funded the first commercially-released horror film in 1910 (though the first horror film to be made was Georges Melies’ Le Manoir Du Diable in 1896), he would not realize that this magnificent piece of the silent era would be a commercial failure. Even in its infancy, the motion picture industry would release many major films in the United States in 1910, including movies that would come to shape how the industry would run itself in the coming years, as well as how it would come to look at the horror genre.

The first important release was by veteran director Francis Boggs, who would be tragically murdered the following year. His discovery of western actors Hoot Gibson and Tom Mix to star in Pride of the Range would add the fuel to the fire of the American love for the western genre. Though there had been film westerns already beginning with The Great Train Robbery released in 1903, this is when the industry (at that moment) seemed solidified in how movies were to be made and what genres appealed most to the masses. Until the advent of the ‘talkies’, westerns would be one of the highest grossing genres in film. One of the significant aspects of Boggs’ filmmaking was that though he did not release nearly as many films as would his major contemporaries, his films were of general high quality considering the loose guidelines by which film was currently being produced.

However, even though Boggs was riding high on the western wave that had engulfed the nation around this time, legendary director D.W. Griffith’s impressive 98-film release in 1910 (several, including The Two Brothers starring Arthur V. Johnson, being westerns), had the nation enraptured. And though this could simply be seen as a commercial director appealing to the masses, Griffith had only been in the filmmaking business for roughly two years at this point, but had already proved to be a resounding success.

Griffith initially travelled to New York to make it as a playwright, though his first production failed abysmally. He then applied to be a scenario writer for Edison Studios, for they were offering $15 an idea, and he was starving and almost homeless.

When submitting his ideas, he fell under the gaze of Edwin Porter (long-time Edison collaborator and writer/director of The Great Train Robbery), who not only was the premiere filmmaker at that present time, but dismissed Griffith’s writing abilities and made him an actor instead, casting him in the short film Rescued from an Eagle's Nest. This moment was a crucial point in history that would come to impact the release of movies in 1910, as well as the direction from which movies would forever evolve.

Griffith, having been so unceremoniously swept aside by Porter so quickly, decided to toy with the idea of a screen acting career in response, at that moment feeling that what Porter had done had weight due to his inflated status at the time. With no attempt to prevent anything by the management at Edison Studios, he would go and be cast as an extra in the film Professional Jealousy, thus meeting the cameraman G. W. Bitzer (who would come to be his most treasured professional friend), and starting his relation with one of Edison’s rival production companies at the time, the American Mutoscope and Biograph Company.

Though Edison’s primary rival would have been J. Stuart Blackton & Albert Smith’s Vitagraph Studios at the time, Biograph had been founded a year after Edison Studios and was very much on the rise as a formidable producer. Less than six months later, Griffith would not only release his first directed short film with Biograph, he would create over 40 short films that year alone. This not only would set up his drive as one of the most prolific filmmakers in movie history, but also as one of its great innovators.

His productions (mainly starting in 1910) would set events into motion that would prop himself up to lead the movement toward establishing a brand new hub of the filmmaking industry which would evolve into modern Hollywood. This can be attributed to his short film In Old California being the first film ever shot in Hollywood, well as his first feature film Judith of Bethulia (shot four years later) causing waves of controversy for its depiction of sex and setting the tone from which the pre-Hayes Code Era (from the late-1910s into the early-1930s) would get its infamy. However, these works (primarily The Fugitive in 1910, Birth of a Nation in 1915, Broken Blossoms in 1919 and Orphans of the Storm in 1921) would also lead to the rewrite of all contemporary constructs in film and he would create what would become the groundwork for not only pre-Code movies, but also Golden Era films (early-1930s to early-1950s). This would also directly inspire filmmakers such as Orson Wells to act along similar lines to rewrite the ways films are made and stories are told to where it is basic concepts by today’s standards (see Citizen Kane, Touch of Evil and The Magnificent Ambersons).

The director of Rescued from an Eagle's Nest, returning to the production that sealed the distance between Griffith, Porter and Edison, however was J. Searle Dawley, who was also in the infancy of his career, having started working at Edison Studios the year prior. With Griffith taking much of the shine away from Edison Studios, a lot was gambled on promoting Dawley as the next big director out of the industry (this would be later compounded by Dawley himself claiming that he was the ‘first motion picture director’). First released from Dawley in 1910 was one of the first adaptations of Charles Dickens’ classic, A Christmas Carol. It was an instant sensation which sparked nationwide interest in actor Marc McDermott.

However, this was not bold enough for Dawley; for Griffith was dominating by sheer numbers alone (not taking his innovations into account) and competition with other major releases by William Selig (such as the first adaptation of The Wizard of Oz, and The Sanitarium, starring comedian Fatty Arbuckle at the peak of his pre-scandal career) and Cherry Kearton (releasing his major breakout documentary hit, Roosevelt in Africa) was driving Edison Pictures into a corner.

So, in reaction to this wave of ideas and images, each one fighting for the front of the que, Dawley would create the first ever screen adaptation of Marry Shelly’s Frankenstein; in turn, creating the first commercially released horror film ever made in America. Utilizing (or maybe even inventing) filming techniques that wouldn’t be used at great length or improved upon to any effect until the advent of German expressionist film.

That isn’t to say Dawley’s vision of horror led to the creation of German expressionism. The film, according to The Edison Kinetogram, was designed to gloss over the horrific aspects of the story and to revolve around the “mystic and psychological problems” presented. So, even off the bat, horror wasn’t the desired impact of the movie. Like most (if not all) movies at the time, it was simply about the spectacle of the moving image. In the opinion of this critic, it is one of the main reasons it sank so horribly into obscurity in the instance of its release. So again, Dawley was not the sole spark that ignited German expressionism, but it’s impossible to deny his impact. Here is why.

At that time, film as a major art form existed primarily in two places: America, led by Thomas Edison, J. Stuart Blackton and William Kennedy Dickson (the founder of Biograph) and France, led by Georges Melies, Auguste & Louis Lumière (creators of the cinematograph) and Léon Gaumont (founder of Gaumont, the oldest film production company in the world), but it was becoming more evident as the months rolled on which place would take the crown as the premiere industry.

However, in the next couple years and the outbreak of World War I, instead of the French film industry getting into Germany, it was the Americans that permeated the barrier until their eventual involvement in the war (though it resumed in full force after the appeasement). Edison and Biograph capitalized on their reach and the German film market would remain one of the lifelines to the companies and later to Hollywood until the rise of Nazism.

When observing the way Dawley’s Frankenstein was shot and built, namely comparing it to key works of expressionist directors such as Robert Wiene (The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari), Fritz Lang (M), Stellan Rye (The Student of Prague) and most evidently F. W. Murnau (Nosferatu), the correlation is rather evident. From the construction of slanting backdrops with emphasis on manipulation of shadows and angles, to gothic set pieces, to the props, make-up, costumes and special photographic effects, it was if Dawley had made a very rough sketch of what was to emerge in a few very short years, also setting the groundwork for what would be the template of Universal monster movies of the 1930s (including remake of Frankenstein with Boris Karloff).

The one element that distinctly separates Dawley from the works of those like Stellan Rye or even his American contemporaries is that he was a very economical filmmaker, both in budget and in execution. In other words, rarely were his films different from a series of master shots depicting the whole of the story in as short a time as possible (Frankenstein was shot in three days). However, this is in part due to film as an art being commonly shot and presented in this fashion. Film language would not be rewritten to include close-ups and reverse-image shots as part of narrative (with Griffith’s Birth of a Nation), as well as performances taking less inspirations from vaudeville and more from the ideas Konstantin Stanislavsky and Lee Strasberg (Method Acting) till a couple years later. Then, of course everything changed again when the idea of montage and complex editing was explored and made the standard by Sergei Eisenstein in Battleship Potemkin in 1925, sparking the pre-Code boom.

So, after all of this rant, why was 1910 so important to horror? Because this was the fulcrum in which several key things would forever change. Though it would be a few decades before horror would start catching on as a viable genre in America, the world over saw it differently and took hold of the genre to give it life that no writers could manage at that point in time, creating some of the greatest examples of filmmaking in all of history as well as the benchmark for which all succeeding horror installments would inspire to pass. This year was not only the true introduction to the world stage for both Dawley and Griffith, but both would work (though at-odds) to mold the industry and the art in ways people considered ludicrous and would define an art form in the very process, thus creating the mythos that was Hollywood and propelling American art down an avenue that the world would aspire to follow.

So when a friend might ask why these old films are held so high when really they aren’t all that compared to the roster of today’s shockfests, the context of the time and the minds that made it are important for not only understanding its significance or performance, but also their intentions. It is commonly forgotten that existing even this early in history (but most prominently making itself known in the mid-60s till now), horror is one of the most evident pictures painted of social awareness and political astuteness. Did I prove that in this introduction? No. Will I attempt to do so? Absolutely. Welcome to Psycho Pompous.

Also Published on Screen Anarchy (Editor's Pick), and Community Soul.

Written by Matthew Roe. Published: January 18 2017

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