Part Two: Being a tale of tragic film stars and tragic monsters
“They say that some of Mary Fuller’s ancestors were born ‘neath Italy’s sunny skies, If such be true or no, I know not; but this I know is so – she has the most thrilling eyes that one can ever hope to see; eyes that set one a-dreaming of Venice, and of the days when Rome was mighty and her dark-eyed maids walked in soft melancholy down marbled avenues, thinking of some tall sons of Rome afar upon the frontiers with the legion.” – Colgate Baker, “The Girl on the Cover.” Photoplay, June 1915, pg 99.
If Colgate Baker’s appraisal of Mary Fuller seems a tad flowery and poetic, he can rest assured he was not alone. The movie fan magazines of the day were stuffed with letters and poetry from adoring fans of Mary Fuller. Photos of her appeared just as frequently, and advertisements hocking movie star photos never failed to mention her or illustrate their ad with her face. Outside of the movie magazines, you could even buy Mary Fuller makeup, guaranteed(ish) to give you the same healthy, youthful beauty of Mary Fuller. And she wasn’t just an actress and subject of features; she was also writer, penning articles for a number of magazines when she wasn’t busy writing scenarios and scripts for serials and features, including some with enticing names like The Golden Spider, The Viking Queen, and A Princess of the Desert. Motion Picture Magazine even published a series of “Extracts From the Diary of Mary Fuller” throughout 1916, featuring such choice recollections from the star as “April 6th. — They blew me up with a Black Hand bomb today, doing ‘Dolly of the Dailies’ (No. 7). The charge of dynamite was very heavy. The shack was wrecked, my clothes were torn and blackened, and blood ran from a scalp wound. It was exciting.” For a brief period in the first half of the 1910s, she was consistently ranked as one of the most popular actresses in the country, second only to the undefeatable juggernaut that was Mary Pickford.
By 1918, she had vanished.
Mary Fuller was born in Washington, DC, and like most movie stars of the day started her career on stage before seeking employment as a screen actress, first at Brooklyn’s Vitagraph, then later at the Edison Film Company. It was at Edison that she became one of the most popular players in America, appearing in many of the company’s shorts, including 1910’s groundbreaking Frankenstein. It was one of the first, if not the first, horror films ever made, provided you don’t count French magician-director Georges Melies’ Le Manoir du Diable from 1896, which ran a little over three minutes and featured a man menaced by a devil, ghosts, a skeleton, and lots of vanishing/reappearing camera tricks. Melies’ short contains all the trappings of a nascent horror genre, but they’re presented more as gags. Melies’ stock in trade was mischievous ghosts, capering devils, dancing fairies, and guys who just can’t stop juggling their own head. There’s no attempt to build tension or elicit screams in any of his films. They were there to amaze, the cinematic conjuring tricks of a lifelong stage magician.
Japanese director Shirō Asano made a duo of ghost films in 1898, Bake Jizo (Jizo the Spook) and Shinin no sosei (Resurrection of a Corpse), but both are lost films unavailable for assessment. Gaumont’s Alice Guy made a single-reel adaptation of The Hunchback of Notre Dame called Esmerelda in 1905, but despite Quasimodo’s deformity, there’s not much in the way of horror. In that regard, the honor of “first horror film” still goes to Frankenstein, though at the time its makers did everything in their power to convince prickly censorship boards – who weren’t too pleased in general with the motion picture business, what with it’s sometimes dangerous content and, more importantly, the fact that it facilitated the gathering of men and women in dark theaters where who knows what sort of hand-holding and other sin could occur – that there was nothing offensive or blasphemous about their adaptation of Mary Shelley’s classic of gothic horror and science fiction. But really, when you make a movie about a creature stitched together from the parts of various corpses and reanimated by a mad scientist, the horror is going to come through regardless. The film glosses over the collection of body parts and requisite “dabbling among the unhallowed damps of the grave,” but in the end, it’s still a living creature created out of the dead (and Frankenstein’s lair is still strewn with skeletons). Despite Edison’s reassurances, the film came out looking suspiciously like a horror film. Perhaps the creature just got away from them.
The single-reel “totally not a horror” movie took a lavish three days to complete at a time when such things were usually completed in under a day. It was filmed at Edison’s newly opened Bronx studio, which had replaced their previous facility on 25th Street in Manhattan once that space became too small to house their fast-growing film production unit. It was directed by Edison regular J. Searle Dawley (despite being known now as Edison’s Frankenstein, Thomas Edison wasn’t involved in it’s making; he just owned the studio). Dawley was a competent but old-fashioned director who shot the film in a static, stage production-like style very much like the films of Melies but also very much on the way out of fashion by 1910. The role of the monster went to staple Edison Player Charles Ogle, while Dr. Frankenstein was played by Augustus Phillips, and into the role of Frankenstein’s bride Elizabeth stepped the young, up-and-coming Mary Fuller. The makeup Ogle devised for the creature was a harrowing mixture of the pathetic and the terrifying, the nightmarish and the absurd, based reportedly on the appearance of the monster as played on stage by Thomas Porter Cooke in the 1823 production Presumption or the Fate of Frankenstein.
While Dawley’s directorial style is old fashioned, the special effects he devised for the film’s famous monster creation scene were remarkable and remain still disturbing and mesmerizing. The effect was achieved by building a puppet with a fake skeleton structure, then setting the whole thing on fire. The resulting footage was then put into the final film backward, achieving an eerie, at times even grotesque effect of watching the creature form out of the stew of raw materials Frankenstein has dumped into his cauldron. Speaking of which, it is a cauldron (rather than an assemblage of mad science laboratory gear), and the creation of the creature is rooted much more in alchemy than science (it wouldn’t have done to make a movie about the perils of mad science at a film studio owned by an actual mad scientist). Although there are no overt occult symbols, Frankenstein employs a series of gestures somewhere between the ritual and stage magic, and his creature is concocted in what is basically a witch’s cauldron. As such, 1910’s Frankenstein isn’t just the first horror movie; it’s the first filmed golem story, predating the three most famous golem movies – 1920’s Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam, 1927’s Metropolis, and 1931’s Frankenstein (the Boris Karloff one).
At first, the 1910 Frankenstein plays coy with the doctor’s abomination. After the phantasmagorical creation scene, which stops short of showing the fully-formed creature, we see the monster first only as a horrifying, dead-looking, clawed arm slowly reaching out toward Frankenstein from behind a heavy metal door. Once again, any Edison company claims that this isn’t a horror film become ridiculous. This is horror, pure and simple, and one can only imagine how audiences reacted to that hideous, withered arm groping out from its alchemist’s furnace. Dr. Frankenstein himself certainly reacts poorly to it, throwing up his arms in unholy terror and fleeing to his bedroom, where he promptly faints for the first of what will prove to be a surprising number of times for a film so short. The creature, knowing no better, follows the doctor to the bed chamber, and in another truly disturbing scene, emerges slowly from the shadows to stare at its creator. And it is then that we see, for the first time in cinema history, Frankenstein’s monster.
Ogle’s monster is topped with a ragged mane of hair the likes of which wouldn’t be seen again until Larry Fine became famous as part of the Three Stooges. It’s head is deformed, the jaw seemingly incorrectly hinged to the rest of the skull. The face is pallid, the lips blackened with rot. It’s arms are withered and end in clawed fingers. It’s body is hunched and contorted, and its bandage-swathed feet are almost comically huge, like a clown. And perhaps there is more than a little of the clown about this creature – Ogle was an old vaudevillian, after all – but it is a nightmare version of a clown, a clown that has been hacked apart and inexpertly reassembled. When Frankenstein’s monster next made it to the screen in Universal’s 1931 classic, makeup artist Jack Pierce obviously didn’t look to (or possibly even know about) Ogle’s creature, but one can see an echo of it, if perhaps only coincidentally, in the makeup used on actor Christopher Lee when he portrayed the shambling monster in Hammer Studio’s 1957 film The Curse of Frankenstein (though Hammer wisely opted out of wild hair…at least until 1974’s Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell).
Post-production on Edison’s Frankenstein took two more weeks, much of which was spent tinting some of the scenes, a process that became common during the silent era and which was pioneered by Thomas Edison in 1884 after he made a filmed version of a number by dancer Annabelle Moore, whose “Butterfly Dance” stage performance incorporated color projection of a stereopticon. On Friday, March 18, 1910, Frankenstein finally escaped from the Edison labs and rampaged through the population. Based on the few remaining articles by film critics of the time, the film was respected for its technical merits and thematic complexity. Ogle’s monster is not a rampaging beast, although it and Dr. Frankenstein are prone to bouts of grappling whenever ol’ Dr. Faintenstein can go more than a few seconds without being failed by the vapors. Instead, the monster is an abandoned pet, an unloved child who cannot comprehend its father’s rejection and love for someone else. In the monster, Frankenstein sees not so much a grotesque fiend that must be destroyed, but rather sees a vision of his own darker, more primitive side; the kind of side you generally don’t want to show to your fiancee. In the end, in a poignant and poetic finale, the monster gives up, fading away into nothingness and leaving behind only its reflection in a mirror – a reflection which Dr. Frankenstein finds is his own.
But whatever merits critics found in the film, and however much we might recognize its importance with the benefit of historical context, audiences did not warm to Frankenstein. Perhaps they found Dawley’s direction too outdated. Perhaps this “I swear it’s not a horror film” horror film (which, coincidentally, must have also started the storied trend of horror films insisting they are some genre other than horror) was simply too revolting, with it’s reanimated dead flesh, alchemical magic, stalking ghoul, and frequent man-on-monster fisticuffs. Whatever the case, Frankenstein was a bit of a flop for Edison. After it’s initial run, it was withdrawn from circulation and, unlike other titles in the Edison library, never released again. It’s female lead, limited though her role is, moved on with the rest of the world. In the many interviews she did once she became one of the most famous stars in the country, Mary Fuller doesn’t seem to ever mention Frankenstein – and why would she? Who knew that, some two decades later, Frankenstein would become one of the most iconic monsters in movie history?
By then it’s likely no one even remembered Edison’s single-reeler. Once they stopped showing it, the studio destroyed the prints; common practice at the time, since no one imagined there’d be a need to preserve such disposable entertainment, and that film stock contained valuable silver. By the time Boris Karloff’s creature stomped onto screens, 1910’s Frankenstein was a lost film. It was not until decades later that a press release for the film, featuring a picture of Charles Ogle’s cockeyed creature, was discovered and anyone remembered that the film had even existed at all. For years after that, the film existed only as that one still, though that still showed up in just about every monster movie book that was published in the 1960s and 1970s. It might have stayed that way had not a guy by the name of Alois F. Dettlaff discovered in the 1950s that his mother-in-law, an avid film collector, had somehow ended up owning a print of the film. Even then, it wasn’t until the 1970s that he realized what he had, and then it wasn’t until 2010 that a cleaned-up version of the film was finally released. A hundred years after it had been made, Frankenstein walked again.
After Frankenstein‘s unremarkable performance, Mary Fuller just kept on working, becoming the de facto leading lady at Edison. With the release of What Happened to Mary, she became a superstar. She starred in another adventure serial for the studio, 1914’s The Active Life of Dolly of the Dailies, but thereafter her relationship with Edison began to fray. Before the end of 1914, she parted ways with Edison and joined Universal, the very studio that would make Frankenstein in 1931. Universal promoted Fuller throughout 1914 and 1915 as their own Mary Pickford, and indeed Fuller delivered. Few and far between were the women who could go toe-to-toe with “America’s sweetheart” (who would also become one of the most powerful and influential people in the American motion picture industry). Fuller was at the top of a very elite pack which included D.W. Griffith favorite leading lady Lillian Gish and Fox Studio’s raven-haired femme fatale Theda Bara. After making some fifty or so films at Universal, including her first full-length feature (1915’s Under Southern Skies), Fuller moved to another studio called Famous Players. But by then, things were starting to change.
Although the movie business was run almost entirely by men, many of the highest paid and most popular stars were women. Fuller, the Gish sisters, adventure serial queen Pearl White, and of course Mary Pickford. As the new decade approached, studios began to scheme regarding how they could clear themselves of women they felt were too powerful and commanded too high a price. According to Louise Brooks, a screen icon of the 1920s who later became a film studies writer and historian, studios conspired to undermine their own leading actresses, saddling them with inferior films then pointing at the (self-inflicted) disappointing box office as proof that such-and-such actress was past her prime and no longer deserved so high a salary. Whatever the case, the film industry underwent a massive purge of top female talent at the close of the 1910s. A few persevered. Gloria Swanson soldiered on. And of course there was the indefatigable Mary Pickford, who just said screw it and formed her own studio alongside Charlie Chaplin, D.W. Griffith, and actor Douglas Fairbanks. Among the casualties though was Mary Fuller. At one-time – that time being just a few short years prior – she was one of the top stars in the world. In 1917, she made a single picture, The Long Trail. She resurfaced briefly in 1926 and attempted a comeback, but there was no work to be had. After that, she disappeared.
It was decades before anyone knew what became of her, and what they discovered was tragic. After the rapid demise of her film career and inability to find work again on stage, she began an affair with a married opera star. When he broke off their affair, Fuller suffered a nervous breakdown that left her in a haunted state. She lived a quiet, reclusive life in her mother’s house back in Washington, DC. When her mother passed away in 1940 however, Fuller suffered another, more severe breakdown that left her in a state of increasingly fragile mental health. Her sister tried to care for her, but it become too much to bear. On July 1, 1947, Mary Fuller was admitted to Washington’s St. Elizabeths Hospital, where she remained for 26 years. She died on December 9, 1973, with no known relatives, at the age of 85. Today, almost the entirety of her body of work has been lost. But pieces remain, here and there, and in time curious cinephiles started digging around and rediscovered, if not the films of Mary Fuller, then certainly her story, tragically though it may have ended. Today, her grave in the Congressional Cemetery in Washington DC is no longer unmarked. Her name is no longer forgotten. What happened to Mary? Mary became one of the most famous women in America. Mary kicked off the adventure serial craze, inspiring a genre that created a whole host of action-oriented female stars who broke the mold, who challenged assumptions of what women should do and of what they were capable.