January 25, 2011

Under The Veil

Makeup man Jack Pierce leads a veiled Boris Karloff around the lot during the simmering summer of 1931. They might be reporting for work, long shadows suggesting a morning sun.

The story goes that Karloff, in full monster getup, had once left the hot soundstage for a cooling walkabout only to bump into a studio secretary, causing her to faint dead away. The incident spurred a memo from Universal Headquarters ordering the actor indoors, to eat alone and to be kept under wraps, literally, when moving around. Secretaries, especially pregnant ones, would thus be spared a nasty fright.

It could have happened, of course, but it sounds like typical Publicity Department hogwash. The story did, in fact, “leak” to newspapers. Early publicity for the film played up The Monster’s extreme appearance — what will it look like? — and tales were circulated about the makeup inflicted on Karloff, bad enough in reality, but played up to ridiculous proportions by public relation flacks to include torturous and utterly unnecessary additions such as a metal spine and stiff leg struts.

Karloff went along good-naturedly with requisite studio ballyhoo, and Jack Pierce was always game for striking a makeup man’s pose, holding a grease pencil up to someone’s eyelid or “fixing a scar” on a monster’s hand for the benefit of a studio photographer.

Here, the two men, in most likelihood, are playing along with an elaborate PR gag. There’s a second shot, the men having switched position, that looks staged.

Regardless, the picture of Karloff with features hidden — reports specified a blue veil — with accomplice Jack Pierce is one of the most unusual photographs from a very unusual film set.

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