Archive for April 5, 2009

Intertitle(s) of the Week: a film in intertitles

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , on April 5, 2009 by dcairns

One of the many agreeably odd things about the Edison Company’s 1910 FRANKENSTEIN, OR LIFE WITHOUT SOUL, is the way the story is told entirely in a series of intertitles, with the imagery merely fleshing out the textual description. Quite often the title cards contain “spoilers,” describing what we are about to see before we see it, which might seem to detract from any sense of dramatic tension. But this isn’t all that uncommon for the era, an age in which DW Griffith’s RESCUED FROM AN EAGLE’S NEST can give away the ending in the title itself. Of course, involvement in a story doesn’t absolutely require ignorance of what’s going to happen next, otherwise we’d be unlikely to watch narrative-centred movies a second time, and Hollywood’s generic approach to story would be a lot less popular than it is.

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This almost sounds like a cheeky ’80s frat comedy. Starring Anthony Michael Hall as Frankenstein, with Jeffrey Jones as Dean Pretorius. I figure John Landis to direct.

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Probably the finest elision in screen history. Although we see Frankenstein heading out the door in his beanie, bound for Ingolstadt University of Macabre Science, we see precisely nothing of his investigations into the mystery of life. Director J. Searle Dawley has decided that the mystery of life is uncinematic.

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The intertitles not only pre-empt the action here, but they provide plot motivation and moral uplift. It’s kind of a distortion of Mary Shelley’s message, but it’s in the same rough area: creating human life is bad, unless your name happens to be God. We then get the creation scene (a dummy burning, filmed backwards) and Charles Ogle the monster, wearing the makeup that he designed himself (flour, fright-wig: a good look). But you don’t need to see that, when you can have this:

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He knows it’s evil, see, because it’s ugly. A natural though not inevitable pitfall of silent cinema was to portray deformed characters as wicked. Chuck Jones pointed out that in Disney’s THREE LITTLE PIGS, the pigs could all look alike, because they sounded different, and this was a development made possible by sound. I think it was always possible, but less obviously so. In fact, a lot of modern cinema still stereotypes characters based on appearance, not always in a horrible way. Cinema has such a strong visual component that this kind of thing is always going to be tempting. The important thing is to be conscious of it.

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Good composition here, with a lot of action seen in the mirror. Mrs. Frankenstein enters the narrative and becomes a bone of contention between monster and creator. Tragedy is averted when Ogle is appalled by the sight of his reflection, and flees.

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This one is starting to sound like a saucy ’70s sex comedy. Robin Askwith is Frankenstein, the sex-mad scientist, Dave Prowse is his horny sex-monster, Madoline Smith is a busty wench. One can actually imagine Hammer attempting this, perhaps instead of HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, to boost their ailing franchise. And perhaps it would have worked better than the wretched H.O.F.

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A happy ending! Brought about by totally supernatural means, violating the principles of science fiction which Mary Shelley adhered to, even though the genre hadn’t officially been invented yet. Mary clearly thought that Frankenstein’s crime was too great to be forgiven, however penitent he became, and not only exterminates the Baron, but all those near and dear to him. Her gothic novel is practically a revenger’s tragedy. The movies have always been partial to rescuing the creator, but I think for a truly satisfactory ending he has to die: the point of the story is that he’s sinned by playing god, and typically innocent lives are lost because of his creation. This is a remarkably bloodless, victimless version of the tale, so I suppose we can say that Frankenstein hasn’t really hurt anyone. Except the monster.

These intertitles are obviously modern repaired versions, surrounded as they are by crackly decaying nitrate stock. Still, they’re reasonably handsome.