March 19, 2010

A Weird, Fantastic Conception:
Edison's Frankenstein in New Zealand

Back when the Edison Frankenstein was released in March 1910, movie theaters had yet to fully come into their own.

Films were mostly played as complements to Vaudeville shows. A typical evening’s entertainment would feature a headliner or two, supported by generous and highly eclectic assortment of acts that could include Chinese acrobats and novelty dancers, magicians and hypnotists, “blackface travesty artists”, boxing exhibitions, comedy sketches, dog acts, warbling soubrettes and, as the newspaper ads of the day would say, “the usual complement of moving pictures”. Titles rarely given, these one-reelers would include travelogues, newsreels, historical reconstructions, slapstick comedies and tearjerking melodramas, all enjoying ephemeral careers as programming would change, on average, twice a week.

An early specialist in film presentations and promotion was John Fuller’s His Majesty Theatre — “The People’s Picture House!” — in Wellington, New Zealand, where Frankenstein was given special attention.

The film was ballyhooed — FRANKENSTEIN! FRANKENSTEIN! FRANKENSTEIN! — in the theater’s large column ad in The Evening Post on opening night, July 6, and an accompanying article on current “amusements” in town singled out the Edison film. Among the innovations… to be presented to-night” the copy read, “prominence must be given to ‘Frankenstein,’ a picture representation of Mary Shelley’s great novel. The film, an Edison production, is described as a weird and fantastic conception, and marks a further advance in the kinematographer’s art, being quite unlike anything ever shown here before.

The film program also included a bullfighter drama, a newsboy adventure, a western romance, scenic views of a Danish lake, and “some interesting glimpses of the London Fish Markets”. Perhaps the best-known performer onscreen that evening was André Deed, billed as Foolshead, also known as Cretinetti, in Foolshead’s Unwilling Marriage. The comic, who had started in films with George Méliès, made hundreds of shorts in France and Italy. Competition in town that week included a popular stage presentation of The Manxman, a celebrated vaudevillian trio from Sydney, and a new Max Linder comedy. All houses, including His Majesty’s, announced “new views” of King Edward VII’s funeral.

The next day, July 7, the Evening Post reported on the previous evening’s entertainment at His Majesty’s, expounding on the “magnificent” footage of the King’ funeral and giving Gallaher, the newsboy film, the best review: “Its American swing captured the fancy of the house.” The Fish Market subject was said to be “cleverly descriptive” and the Foolshead short was hailed as “a comic extravagance that is not too absurd to afford a healthy amusement.” Frankenstein was relegated to the last, terse line of the article, a ‘monster’ series of ‘Frankenstein’ type is not without points of cleverness.

His Majesty’s Theatre, popularly referred to as “Fuller’s Vaudeville”, was on its last legs when Frankenstein played its weeklong engagement. Declared a fire hazard in November 1911, the theater was torn down and rebuilt to world-class specifications. It survives today as the St. James Theater, a spectacular and busy performance space and the home of the Royal New Zealand Ballet.

No comments: