Friday, October 5, 2012

The Skinny: It's Alive!; Trivia:
"It's alive! It's alive!"--one of the most recognizable movie quotes of all time. (In fact, it made #49 on the list of the American Film Institute's top 100 movie quotations.) It brings an immediate image of a hulking creature, slowly moving on the laboratory table in a creepy room of shadows and machines. The Frankenstein monster, most famously played by Boris Karloff in 1931, is one of the Hollywood icons. He sets the standard for that story, irreversibly infiltrating our culture. Never mind that the monster in the book didn't look like that. In fact, the book never mentions the specific use of lightning to animate the creature--that's all Hollywood. So, what we know as "Frankenstein" is based on the vision of a 20th century movie crew. But if we disregard the lighting, the machines, the dialogue, and the music, what is really the most pervasive element of that film? The monster. Frankenstein is what we call him now, although his real name is something much more mundane. And who made that monster out of Boris Karloff? The makeup man, Jack P. Pierce.

Jack Pierce and Karloff, from
A Greek immigrant who first tried careers in baseball and acting, Jack Pierce became one of the definitive geniuses in the movie makeup world in the first half of the 20th century. He spent more than two decades with Universal Studios, specializing in horror makeup. When he signed on to do the Frankenstein movie, once he was no longer under an obligation to cater to the design ideas of the film's first star, Bela Lugosi (who was replaced on the project by Boris Karloff), Pierce paired research with his own creative spin to create the monster that we know and love. He figured that Dr. Frankenstein, inexperienced in the nuances of neurosurgery, would take the simplest route to transplant a brain: cut off the top of the skull and sew it back up. This gave the monster his characteristic flat top, with some sutures, and the heavy brow. Pierce kept Karloff in the makeup chair for four hours every day, applying a rubber appliance with black hair with green streaks (which give texture and depth in the black and white film), cotton and putty for the forehead and around the eyes, a few scars, and the infamous electrodes (not bolts!) on either side of the neck. He topped it all off with a special greenish-gray makeup, which he knew would read as a "deathly pale" on the screen (to contrast with the living characters' normal black and gray tones; in the colorized movie posters, the monster is green, and has been ever since).  Karloff's lips, arms, and fingernails were darkened with black greasepaint to give the appearance of decaying flesh. The costume was complete with the addition of heavy boots (13lbs each!) with lifts to make the monster taller. 

As impressive as it is to be the man responsible for one of the most famous monsters of classic Hollywood, we now add a few more high points to Jack Pierce's resume. This makeup genius is responsible for the classic look of Bela Lugosi's Dracula. (Lugosi insisted on applying his own greasepaint, but Pierce tweaked it to look better on film, which is why the Count's face carries shadows so well.) Lugosi's career took an upward turn after his role as Ygor in Son of Frankenstein, a character created for him by Jack Pierce using rubber appliances, applied hair, and false teeth.

Frankenstein wasn't his only famous Karloff work, either. Pierce was the makeup artist for The Mummy in 1932. He treated the fabric with acid and flame, dipped it in a syrupy chemical solution, wrapped Karloff, let it get wrinkly and dry, and then got it dirty so that it would look properly aged on film. Even though Karloff is only in the mummy costume briefly in that movie, it is again one of the most memorable parts of that film.

Speaking of brief, another iconic Pierce character, who in reality was only on screen for a few moments at the very end of the film, is Elsa, otherwise known as The Bride of Frankenstein. 


So we've covered the Mummy, Frankenstein, his bride, and Dracula. Believe it or not, The Wolfman, starring Lon Chaney Jr., is also a Pierce makeup. A molded rubber nose appliance, fake claws, and thousands of individually applied yak hairs made this another of the most famous movie monsters in history. Pierce also designed Chaney Jr.'s character for Man Made Monster.

Lon Chaney Jr. and Jack Pierce, from

 Jack Pierce did makeup for over 100 films from the 1920s through the late 1940s, including:
White Zombie, Werewolf of London, The Mummy's Tomb, The Ghost of Frankenstein, The Raven, Dracula's Daughter, The Mummy's Hand, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man, The Scarlet Claw, and The Phantom of the Opera (1943).

White Zombie, from

And last, but certainly not least, is a film that was actually one of Jack Pierce's first character concept projects, and which may even have reached farther across pop culture than his classic monster films: The Man Who Laughs (1928). The movie is an adaptation of an obscure Victor Hugo story, about a man whose mouth is cut upward at the corners to give him a perpetual grin. Pierce's interpretation of this character for the silent film is a documented source of inspiration for another one of the twentieth century's most notable characters: the Joker. See the resemblance?

The Man Who Laughs, from

Sadly, Universal decided to cut back on scary movies, and they dropped Jack in 1947. He had a little more movie work in the 1950s, and then did makeup for the Mr. Ed television show. He died in 1968, a forgotten page of Hollywood history. But, he is part of the reason that there is an Academy Award for makeup design today. Pierce's work proved that a large part of a film's success comes from the makeup and concept design of the characters, and he was posthumously given a lifetime achievement award. He is now in the running for a star on the walk of fame. We think it's long overdue.

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