The classic, flat-top Frankenstein Monster is an icon of the 20th Century. The concept, up to a point, was collaborative. The original director attached to the Frankenstein project, Robert Florey, claimed he suggested the Monster’s neck bolts. Actor Boris Karloff, it is said, came up with the Monster’s droopy eyelids, and clearly contributed a sunken cheek by vitue of removing a dental bridge. In the film Gods and Monsters, director James Whale is wholly credited with the concept, that much is fiction, yet Whale — who always seemed to know exactly what he wanted — must have provided some input.
When all is said, the full credit for the creation of the classic Frankenstein image belongs squarely and indisputably with Universal’s head makeup-up artist, Jack Pierce.
No doubt the makeup was adjusted and tweaked as suggested and subject to approval from on high, but it is clear the impetus was Pierce’s. He proposed, negotiated, and experimented. Pierce produced numerous drawings, carved clay models and eventually worked with an ever-patient Boris Karloff, building and refining the makeup on the actor’s face. An early test photo exists of Karloff wearing a rougher version of the Frankenstein head, with curious “clamped horns” growing out of the forehead.
The final result was, of course, extraordinary. Even today, after almost 80 years of ubiquity, transformation and parody, it is still unlike anything else. It is still extraordinary.
Jack Pierce also created The Wolfman, The Mummy (an amazing head-to-toe makeup job), he gave Lugosi’s Dracula a widow’s peak. He designed and created countless other monsters and grubby assistants for Universal’s monster movies, in addition to his work glamourizing Universal’s stars and painting rosy cheeks on Deanna Durbin.
It is often said that Jack Pierce was cranky and authoritarian. Pictures of Pierce concentrating on his work suggest that dour side, but there are also pictures of the man smiling broadly, even goofing around, especially when posing with Karloff. It is clear that the two men respected and liked each other very much.
Jack Pierce’s personal scrapbook of studio photos has been dismantled and is currently being sold piecemeal at auction through Heritage Auction Galleries. The site carries superb, highly detailed photographs that include candid shots of Pierce at work (in one picture, he’s standing on a phone book to trim Karloff’s mustache) and many precious, previously unseen shots of test makeup from The Old Dark House, The Werewolf of London, and a surprising Mummy dummy stand-in.
I suggest you hightail over and look now. The pictures will be gone after the auction is done.