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Books brings to life 1910 Frankenstein film

August 12, 1997

By LAURA ERNDE

Staff Writer

Fred Wiebel has discovered a monster.

Or, rather, rediscovered one - the first Frankenstein's monster brought to life on the big screen in a 1910 silent film.

This monster bears little resemblance to the screw-headed oaf portrayed in Universal Pictures' 1931 movie.

His long, wild hair, twisted mouth and spidery mummified hands seem much more frightening even though both monsters are based on the description in Mary Shelley's 19th century novel.

"Supposedly people were pretty scared by it," said Wiebel, 46, of Hagerstown, whose fascination was captured.

Hundreds of books have been written about Frankenstein, but few have even heard about the 15-minute silent film from Edison Studios.

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"This film has always been a paragraph or a sentence because nobody's seen it," said Wiebel, who has a fine arts studio at his Irvin Avenue home.

Although it got good reviews, it wasn't a popular success.

The only known remaining copy has been hidden away by Alois F. Dettlaff Sr., a Wisconsin collector who found the rarity in a batch of films he bought 40 years ago for $20.

Now, in part thanks to Wiebel, the film is getting renewed attention among silent film and horror buffs.

Wiebel wrote and self-published a 150-page book about Edison's Frankenstein, carefully researching the making of the film with the Library of Congress, Museum of Modern Art and the National Park Service Edison National Historical Site.

He has taken the book to a Monster Bash in Ligonier, Pa. and an Edison memorabilia show in Bound Brook, N.J.

Wiebel also has been showing a videotape of the film, which Dettlaff copyright-protected by faintly imprinting his name into the background.

Later this month, Wiebel is heading to a movie festival in Hollywood called Cinecon 33.

"People are chomping at the bit to see it," he said.

The Internet has helped to spread the word among movie buffs.

Wiebel's dream is to help Dettlaff restore the aging film at a cost of about $125,000.

His other goal is to get some recognition for Charles Ogle, the actor who portrayed the monster.

Wiebel considers himself the official spokesman for Ogle, whose family loathed his love for the cinema and didn't acknowledge his acting career after his death.

Ogle's family expected him to follow in the footsteps of his father, a minister in Zanesville, Ohio.

He played in hundreds of films, but his 1940 obituary didn't even note his acting experience.

"I'd just like to get Charles Ogle back in the limelight," he said.

Ogle had a large part in designing the first Frankenstein monster costume, influencing all later portrayals of the monster.

An article that Wiebel wrote about Ogle can be found on the World Wide Web at (http://www.mdle.com/ClassicFilms/Guest/ogle.htm).

Wiebel started researching the film in 1990, after he saw a clip of Edison's "Frankenstein" on a television documentary.

He found so much information on the interesting subject that he decided to write a book, which he finished even before he got to see the film.

Wiebel also put together a self-published book about the Firesign Theatre, a Los Angeles radio comedy troupe.

In the film, Frankenstein concocts his monster in a vat of chemicals and powders.

Producers built a dummy, set it on fire and ran the film backwards to show the creation.

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