Giving Off Sparks: The Movie Machines of Kenneth Strickfaden

Anne Morra January 30, 2019
Sherlock Holmes. 1932. USA. Directed by William K. Howard
Sherlock Holmes. 1932. USA. Directed by William K. Howard

Have you ever been at the movies when, in an extraordinary moment, the special effects astonish you and leave you wondering, “How did they do that?” Given the prevalence of computer generated imagery (CGI) and other technological advancements today, you may find you’re mumbling that phrase more and more. Think of the film Black Panther (2018) and the land of Wakanda, particularly the scene in which T’Challa is aboard the aircraft that brings him to the empire. The high-speed vehicle soars over vast, verdant plains before breaking through a force field to enter the mystical metropolis. Urban Wakanda, the visual product of complex computer codes, is an extensive sea of towers resembling ziggurats and other structures whose designs harken back to ancient times.

Emerging CGI techniques were used in the 1973 film Westworld and its 1976 sequel Futureworld. In 1995, the first completely CGI-animated feature, Toy Story, was released by Pixar, ushering in a new and exciting technological tool in filmmaking. Audiences now expect mind-boggling visual and sound effects to conjure all sorts of fanciful worlds and their marvelous inhabitants. But how was cinematic spectacle created before filmmaking relied heavily upon CGI and blue-screen projections to create bewildering visual and sound effects?

Some of the earliest films incorporate special effects. Le voyage dans le lune (Voyage to the Moon) (1902) and Á la conquête du pole (The Conquest of the Pole) (1912), both by George Méliès, incorporated various visual tricks. Radical for their time (if rudimentary by today’s standards), these effects mainly consisted of stopping the camera to switch out an actor or scenery, causing an abrupt—perhaps even surprising—shift in action or place. French director Émile Cohl’s 1910 short Mobelier Fidele (The Automatic Moving Company) is a key example of stop-motion trickery in early cinema. This mischievous short about a haunted moving company features a driverless moving van pulling up in front of an apartment and furniture that merrily exits the vehicle on its own. Once inside the home, the armoire, dining chairs, and bed all find their appropriate place, including a lighting fixture that attaches itself to the ceiling. Early audiences had no means of comparison or limited prior experience with movies, so Cohl’s visual trickery was quite convincing.

As the tricks became more complicated (and cinema’s audience more savvy), accomplishing them relied on inventors like Kenneth Strickfaden (American, 1896–1984), who began building machines and other apparatuses to craft movie magic. In California—working at the Venice Pier—Strickfaden took a variety of jobs through the early 1920s that involved his passion for electricity, invention, and pageantry. By 1925 he was on the Universal Pictures payroll, while also working at Fox Films, Famous Players-Lasky, and Paramount Pictures, alternating between roles as an on-set electrician and an early sound engineer on films such as Wings (1927), Words and Music (1929) and Just Imagine (1930). For the 1932 version of Sherlock Holmes, Strickfaden set himself the challenge of creating a machine that would produce what biographer Harry Goldman called "a death ray effect" on screen. The result was a contrivance that hurled shimmering sparks from its spinning disks.

Following the success of Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931), starring Bela Lugosi, Universal Pictures was eager to produce another gothic literature classic, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but this time the film would be filled with whiz-bang laboratory machinery that would lob sparks, simulate lightning, and offer a sensory bonanza for the audience. Director James Whale turned to Strickfaden for the eccentric design of Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory. The original 1931 Variety review, by Alfred Rushford Greason, describes the spark of being that brings the Creature to life: “Laboratory sequence detailing the creation of the monster patched up of human odds-and-ends is a smashing bit of theatrical effect, taking place in this eerie setting during a violent mountain storm in the presence of the scientist’s sweetheart and others, all frozen with mortal fright.”

Of the myriad apparatuses Strickfaden invented and constructed for Frankenstein, his pride and joy was a colossal Tesla coil he called the Megavolt Senior. This machine could spew bolt-like lightning and accompanied other Strickfaden-made instruments with intriguing names (the Neutron Analyzer, Cosmic Ray Diffuser, and a Baritron Generator), all capable of bewildering visual effects. These machines heightened the visual ambience of the film by embracing technology as yet another tool in Dr. Frankenstein’s kitbag. In the novel, there is little or no inclusion of machinery, electricity, or technology. Mary Shelley relies upon the electricity generated by lightning on that stormy night to bring the Creature to life. With the lifeless creature on the bier rising to the roof of the laboratory, the machines that Strickfaden invented provided visual excitement and telegraphed to the audience that Dr. Frankenstein was a modern man of science who embraced technology.

The Mask of Fu Manchu. 1932. USA. Directed by Charles Brabin
The Mask of Fu Manchu. 1932. USA. Directed by Charles Brabin

While the Frankenstein films propelled Strickfaden to prominence inside the motion picture industry, it was The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), starring Boris Karloff as Fu Manchu, that may have been his personal favorite project. One scene called for a devastating amount of electrical voltage to touch Karloff, but Strickfaden’s machines had spewed all sorts of hot sparks onto the actor on the set of Frankenstein. Eager to avoid injury, Karloff asked Strickfaden to step in to these perilous scenes in his place. Made up to look like Karloff, Strickfaden came “in direct contact with 1,000,000 volts” of electricity, lifting him off his feet. In the history and lore of The Mask of Fu Manchu, Strickfaden is recognized for his work as Karloff’s stunt double and his electrical special effects, but he did not receive actual screen credit. Never a household name, Kenneth Strickfaden’s distinctive work remained something of an inside industry story. He was finally recognized in 1981, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences organized an evening called “The Magic Machines of Ken Strickfaden” in Beverly Hills, with an 85-year-old Strickfaden in attendance.

Sources:
Alfred Rushford Greason. Frankenstein review. Variety, December 7, 1931.
Harry Goldman. Dr. Frankenstein’s Electrician. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2005, 48, 51, 59.