Friday, January 15, 2010

January 17, 1910 - "Frankenstein" Filming Begins

By 1910 the motion picture industry in the United States was growing by leaps and bounds. It had been 7 years since the release of the first great American film " The Great Train Robbery" had been produced by Edwin S. Porter for the Edison Film Company. This eight-minute film greatly influenced the development of motion pictures because of such innovations as the intercutting of scenes shot at different times and in different places to form a unified narrative, culminating in a chase to achieve primitive suspense.

"Robbery" was hugely successful and is credited with turning movies into a mass art. Small theaters called nickelodeons sprang up all over the U.S., and motion pictures began to emerge as an industry. Most one-reelers of the time were short comedies, adventure stories, or filmed records of performances by leading actors of the day.
By the second decade of the 20th century the industry benefitted greatly from the fierce competition among the major studios of the day (Edison, Biograph, Vitagraph, Essanay, Selig, Lubin, Kalem, American Star, American Pathé). Some studios were churning two and sometimes three one reel pictures per week. Unable to keep up with the stringent scheduling demands Edison placed on him by himself he hired , in 1907 a playwright and actor named J. Searle Dawley.

In the beginning Dawley would direct the actors while Porter manned the camera. Eventually Dawley took on more responsibility and soon was responsible for choosing subjects and players and having Porter routinely approve his ideas as long as they could be made within the lean budgets that Thomas Edison imposed on him. It was Dawley who 2 years earlier in 1908 had given a young stage actor named D.W. Griffith his first film acting role for a film entitled "Rescued from the Eagles Nest".
On January 17, 1910 Dawley and his crew of actors began work on a new film in the Edison studios at Decatur Avenue and Oliver Place in the Bronx. It was to be the first motion picture adaptation of Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein". Written by Dawley and included and uncredited cast of Augustus Phillips as Dr. Frankenstein, Charles Ogle as the Monster, and Mary Fuller as the doctor's fiancée.

The film, which ran 12 minutes, was shot in just three days and was released a little over 2 months later on March 18, 1910. One would think this kind of mass-production timetable would have kept Edison way out in front in the dog eat dog world of the fledgling movie industry, but this was not the case.

D. W. Griffith the young actor who Dawley had hired just a short time before had himself enjoyed a meteoric rise at Edison's competitor-Biograph Studios. Shortly after his role in "Rescued from the Eagles Nest" Griffith shopped his acting services to rival Biograph who operated out of a five-story brownstone at 11 East Fourteenth Street. There, he was hired by Biograph's main director Wallace McCutcheon as an actor and perhaps as a writer. Soon after, McCutcheon grew ill and Biograph head Henry Marvin decided to give Griffith the position. Griffith then directed his first movie for the company," The Adventure of Dollie".

In the next 18 months Griffith would turn out no less than 185 films. In fact, just a month earlier, on December 13, 1909 Griffith's "A Corner in Wheat" had opened at Keith and Proctors 23rd Street Vaudeville Theater. This notable because "A Corner in Wheat" was given special billing as the closing presentation of the bill. It was the start of the process whereby movies would eventually succeed vaudeville acts in the theaters of the nation.

Shortly after "A Corner in Wheat" was released Griffith asked for a received permission to take a crew of some thirty actors and technicians to Los Angeles by train and film there for the winter months. They would leave the same week as Dawley would begin filming "Frankenstein" and although the films made during this first three month visit were not terribly distiguished, the trip would set the stage for the relocating of the American film industry to Los Angeles.

As for Dawley's "Frankenstein" it went on to moderate success. The film itself was believed lost until a collector found a print in the mid 1970's at which point it was reintroduced to film audiences. That same year, 1910, Dawley would go on to make film of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s "House of the Seven Gables". He would make 149 films between 1907 and 1926 and would refer to himself as "the first motion picture director".

One of Dawley's lasting legacies was his role in forming an organization for directors that eventually would morph into the Directors Guild of America. He was part of a group of directors promoting camaraderie amongst directors and removing competition between directors at rival studios. Before they came together, directors did all they could to impede the shoots of other directors, particularly by claiming rights to shooting locations. Dawley became the "Scenarist," with the job of secretary, of the fraternal organization that resulted from that meeting. The Motion Picture Directors Association (MPDA), which was neither a union or a guild, was incorporated in Los Angeles on June 18, 1915 as a nonprofit social organization to "maintain the honor and dignity of the profession of motion picture directors".

The man who introduced both Frankenstein and David Wark Griffith to the silver screen died in Hollywood in 1949.

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