Rarely has the arrival of a film at the Packard Campus occasioned as much anticipation as the day in April 2015 when the sole surviving nitrate print of the first cinematic adaptation of Frankenstein (Edison Manufacturing Company, 1910) was accessioned into our collection. It's not because the film is all that revelatory-it's most decidedly not-or because it's especially rare, as a quick search on YouTube will attest. Rather, this is an instance in which the story of how this particular reel came to be in our collection is more interesting than the film itself.
Edison Kinetogram, March 1910
As an acquisitions officer, I work a lot with collectors and have a great deal of respect for them. If it weren't for collectors, huge chunks of film history would have vanished forever and in many ways our Silent Film Project is a testament to them. But, sometimes, I have to explain to eager sellers that there's a difference between rarity and value; just because there's only one print of a particular film, that doesn't mean the print has much monetary value if there's no market for it. The nitrate print of Frankenstein does, however, have market value, one based not only on rarity since it truly does seem to be the single extant print, but also crucially on the cultural durability of Mary Shelley's 1818 creation, whose bicentennial we celebrate this year. It also comes with a bit of notoriety because of its previous owner, Alois F. "Al" Dettlaff of Cudahy, Wisconsin. Dettlaff acquired the print as part of a larger collection in the 1950s, but he wasn't aware of the film's significance until the American Film Institute included Frankenstein on a list of "top ten most wanted lost films" in 1980.
I never met Dettlaff, but it seems like everyone in film collecting circles has a story. Often they're about the "Father Time" character he enjoyed portraying at film conventions, compete with robe, scythe, and hourglass to complement his long white beard. He was exceptionally protective of the Frankenstein print, traveling with it to film festivals and monster conventions. He even took it to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1986, where Academy President and famed director Robert Wise was unable to convince him to let the reel be properly preserved and archived. Eventually Dettlaff had the film transferred to DVDs he would sell at his appearances, and it's rips from that DVD you can find on YouTube. Dettlaff died at home in 2005 surrounded by his film collection, including Frankenstein, still unpreserved.
Until now, that is.