May 18, 2008

The Assistant : Dwight Frye

The subject of my previous post, the animated Igor movie, trades on the cliché of the mad scientist’s pop-eyed, hunchbacked assistant. The seminal cinematic influence is, of course, “Fritz”, Frankenstein’s aide in the 1931 film, played convincingly by Dwight Frye — but the concept harks back even further.

There is no assistant in Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel, but the character appeared very early on, as soon as 1823, in the very first Frankenstein play, Presumption!; or, The Fate of Frankenstein, penned by Richard Brinsley Peake. The role of Fritz was tailored for the diminutive comic actor Robert Keeley, playing the servant as a bouncing bundle of nerves. He opens the play, singing, “Oh, dear me! What’s the matter? How I shake at each clatter. My Marrow, they harrow. Oh, dear me! What’s the matter?

Helping to compress the novel into a short theatrical experience, Fritz serves as narrator, speaking asides to the audience and providing comic relief. Perched on a stool, spying through latticework into the off-stage laboratory, he witnesses and describes the creation scene, “There’s a hob – hobgoblin, 20 feet high! Wrapp’d in a mantle… Mercy! Mercy!

The play was such a success that it was immediately copied, literally in a matter of days. Frankenstein’s new notoriety even provoked Mary's father, William Godwin, into rushing out a second edition of the book. The copycat plays riffed off previous theatrical versions, laboratory aide usually included. In 1826, Frankenstein: or, The Man and the Monster, itself based on a French stage version called Le magicien et le monstre, features a servant named Strutt who, in an already predictable scene, climbs a ladder to a high window to peek into the forbidden laboratory and reports, “Oh, lord! That's too much for me! He's raising the devil -- he's blown off the top of the pavilion!

By the time Universal Pictures began putting their own Frankenstein together in 1931, the book was almost ignored. It was plays and stage farces that fed the Frankenstein mythos. The film, in fact, would draw its inspiration from a British play called Frankenstein: An Adventure into the Macabre, by Peggy Webling.

As the film was being puzzled together through that fateful summer, scripts were commissioned and rewritten, directors changed and performers screen tested in the musical chairs game of casting, but the part of Fritz was locked in very early on. Who would play The Assistant was never an issue.

Actor Dwight Frye was coming off his spectacular turn as Renfield in Tod Browning’s Dracula. In a part that combined two characters from the Bram Stoker novel, Frye was required to go from stuck-up to unglued as the stalwart solicitor driven to bug-eating lunacy. Frye’s mad Renfield is the liveliest character in the film, his demented laughter far spookier than anything Bela Lugosi’s suave, continental menace can cook up.

Given the film’s phenomenal success, Universal was eager to cast the Dracula principals — Bela Lugosi, Edward van Sloan, and Frye — in their new chiller, Frankenstein. On June 16 and 17, 1931, the three men were reunited on the redressed Dracula set to shoot the now legendary (and lost) Frankenstein test footage. Ten days later, director Florey had been replaced by James Whale, and Lugosi would soon yield The Monster’s part to the relatively unknown Boris Karloff. Van Sloan and Fritz were retained, with Frye —originally mute — acquiring dialog after the script was tweaked to Whale’s specifications.

Whale reportedly studied Thomas Ince’s The Magician (1926), drawing inspiration for the laboratory sets. It is worth noting that the silent film featured a hunchbacked assistant, played by Henry Gibson, doing dirty deeds.

Frye’s Fritz scrabbles around, bent over, with filthy, disheveled hair and a scarred cheek. He uses a ridiculously short walking stick and pauses midway up the laboratory tower’s vertiginous staircase to pull up his socks. It is Fritz who sets the horror in motion, fumbling on the job and causing Frankenstein to unwittingly insert a criminal brain in the giant’s flat skull.

Cowardly and cruel, Fritz beats the helpless, chained Monster and terrorizes it with fire. Their confrontation on the surrealistic dungeon set plays out like a violent ballet. Censors demanded that closeups of a leering, sadistic Fritz be cut.

The character’s inevitably violent end comes offscreen, punctuated by a shriek, when the powerful Monster breaks his chains.

Dwight Frye’s film career both launched and peaked in 1931 with Dracula and Frankenstein. He also scored a meaty role in The Maltese Falcon as Wilmer (the Elisha Cook, Jr. part in the later Humphrey Bogart version), but thereafter, the talented Frye was mercilessly typecast, hired to replicate Renfield or Fritz in increasingly cheap programmers.

There would be one more memorably sordid Assistant role for the actor, as the beetle-browed Karl in Whale’s Bride of Frankenstein (1935). Not only does Karl rob graves and works a lab shift, he is an accessory to kidnapping, and murders a young woman for her “fresh” heart. Perhaps a sign of misfortune to come, an elaborate subplot illustrating Karl’s duplicity was edited out for length. In the end, a torch-wielding Frye and Karloff’s Monster grappled again, this time atop the stormy, thunderstruck tower, with Karl thrown to his death even as life is blasted into The Bride.

There is no actual evidence that Frye had a part in the third Universal Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein (1939), despite persistent conjecture that he was cast as an angry villager. If so, it was another performance for the cutting-room floor. Subsequent roles, often uncredited, would be limited to walk-ons and bits as a valet, secretary, desk clerk, jury member, radio operator and “second mug”.

Frye popped up in two more Frankenstein entries, The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), relegated to the background as a disgruntled villager in Tyrolean garb with few lines to speak.

Working nights as a draftsman at Douglas Aircraft in Santa Monica, supporting the war effort and his family, the actor still hoped to revive his screen career when he died suddenly, of a heart attack, in 1943. He was only 44 years old.

Today, Dwight Frye is a cult figure, his signature roles immortalized in resin kits, his reputation sealed by an Alice Cooper song, The Ballad of Dwight Fry (no “e”). Frye’s creations, referenced and exaggerated by TV sketch comics in the 60’s and 70’s, are the unmistakable template for every mad scientist’s assistant or, for that matter, Dracula’s too. The Renfield and Fritz characters often merge, perhaps because the same actor played both parts back to back.

Memorable spinoffs include the canoe-footed vampire aide Koukol (Terry Downes) in The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) and, of course, the inimitable Marty Feldman as Igor — pronounced Eye-Gor! — in Young Frankenstein (1974).

It was probably through this last film that the name “Igor” became permanently attached to the character’s caricature, completing the cliché. The name, spelled Ygor, was originally that of the broken-necked, snaggletooth blacksmith played by Bela Lugosi in Son of Frankenstein and The Ghost of Frankenstein.

Next time you spot a hunchbacked or otherwise damaged and demented lab assistant, a darkly humorous grave robbing ghoul or a lunatic vampire’s helper, played straight or funny, remember Dwight Frye. Though the concept of Frankenstein's Assistant evolved over more than a century’s worth of melodramatic and burlesque plays, it was Frye whose inspired performance forever crystallized the character in popular culture.

Presumption!; or, The Fate of Frankenstein (1823), the first Frankenstein play, by Richard Brinsley Peake.

Frankenstein: or, the Man and the Monster (1826), a play by Henry M. Milner.

A short online biography of Dwight Frye, and Wiki page.

One of many clips showing Alice Cooper performing “The Ballad of Dwight Fry”.

An excellent biography, Dwight Frye’s Last Laugh, written by Gregory William Mank, James T. Coughlin, and Dwight D. Frye.


Anonymous said...

Another great post, Pierre. The Fritz/Igor character is entrenched in our Frankensteinal imagination yet not found in the novel, so I often wondered where/how he came into the picture. Interesting to learn that the character began as a proto-Crypt Keeper in the early plays but the final version owes so much to Frye's tasty performance in Whale's film (love his improv throughout). Thanks.

Guy Budziak said...

I just recently watched both Dracula and The Bride of Frankenstein, not for the first time, but the most recent of numerous times. Frye was not just memorable, he was truly unforgettable, I love this guy. Such a shame he wasn't given more work to sink his teeth in, and died so relatively young, I'm reminded of Conrad Veidt, who also died in the prime of his career. He was given some great lines in The Bride, especially when he was down in the crypt with Pretorius. I also seem to recall him in a gangster film in the early Thirties, it may have been Beast of the City, where Frye's gangster had his machine gun in a violin case, perhaps the first time the two had been paired together in a film (certainly not the last).

SID TERROR said...

The gangster film was called THE DOORWAY TO HELL and it actually pre-dated DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN by a year, coming out in 1930. Dwight played a gangster named "Monk". Great film. It may have been Cagney's first gangster role (he was 5th billed), Lew Ayres was the lead star.