October 30, 2007

The Make-Up Man : Jack Pierce

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.

(Via The Classic Horror Film Board)


rob! said...

if there was ever a guy owed a posthumous Oscar, its Jack Pierce. his make-ups simply ARE Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolfman, and the Mummy.

the fact that Universal dumped him so unceremoniously is a crime.

Thom said...

Pierce's work certainly set the standard for the look of the Monster across media (as your excellent blog illustrates). One thing that strikes me is that the look of the Monster in Dawley's much earlier Frankenstein (1910) doesn't appear to have influenced Pierce at all.

Anonymous said...

Pierce may have never seen the 1910 version, or any images from it.

Also, since the original visage of the Joker from BATMAN was taken from Pierce's makeup for Conrad Veidt's Gwynplaine in THE MAN WHO LAUGHS, does that make Pierce a co-creator of that character as well?

Thom said...

Anonymous—Certainly it's possible that Pierce, Whale, any of the collaborators for that matter, had never seen anything of the 1910 version. That's exactly my point: that the earliest known film version of the Monster doesn't seem to be the inspiration for the look of the 1931 version. But, the post says that Pierce "proposed, negotiated and experimented" and "produced numerous drawings." If so, is it known what, if anything, provided inspiration for Pierce's various designs? What influenced his ideas? Was the earlier version of Frankenstein one of a number of looks he researched or wasn't he aware of it at all? Does any evidence of research on the earlier film appear in the production notes for the Universal version(s)? Has anyone written an article or a book about where Pierce found his inspiration for the look of the Monster?

Anonymous said...

David Skal's 1993 book THE MONSTER SHOW has a number of concepts apparently bandied about. Some look like Neanderthal brutes and one like a metallic sci-fi robot.

Thom said...

Thank you for the book information and for including some of the other design ideas too. I don't remember Shelley providing a full description of the creature's appearance in the novel so it's fun to see how creative minds imagine him.

Pierre Fournier said...

Regarding those “designs” reproduced in Skal’s excellent book: The drawings are obvious cut from different sources, probably pulp magazines of the era. It is generally accepted today that those drawings were not actually proposed designs, or used for inspiration or guidance by Pierce. They were more likely put together by Universal’s publicity department and circulated to the media as a “What will The Monster look like?” type of teaser.

Anonymous said...

You are probably right (I don't know why Skal didn't state that). Anyway, I scanned that illustration and here they are:

Pierre Fournier said...

Thanks for the link. Those images were used in a Frankenstein TV documentary and appeared in Skal’s book. It was only later that the provenance was questioned. I believe it was Ted Newsom on the CHFB who first posited that the drawings came from various pre-published sources rather than studio sketches and that their use as inspiration for Pierce was very unlikely.

Anonymous said...

Influenced or not by earlier works, Pierce is a great artist. Love his work in Frankenstein.

R M said...

According to this page:
The scrapbook was sold to a single buyer for under $6,000, not piecemeal in the way you describe. Could there be more than one scrapbook?

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