July 23, 2009

The Monster : Glenn Strange

Glenn Strange is a contemplative Monster in this striking portrait, which recently appeared in a Heritage auction.

Glenn Strange (1899-1973) first came to Hollywood in 1930 as a singing cowboy with The Arizona Wranglers. With rugged good looks and the strapping six-five frame that earned him the nickname “Pee Wee”, Strange was immediately cast in horse operas, embarking on a career that would span 40 years and over 300 films, almost all of them westerns.

Sporting names like Slim, Bull, Bat, Bart, Blackie, Tex or Stu-Bum, Strange’s characters operated both sides of the law, equally reliable in lynch mobs or a sheriff’s posse. He was just as likely to appear as a dirty low-down rustler or some poker-faced gunman as he was a stalwart Marshal, a steadfast stagecoach driver, or an easygoing harmonica-playing cowhand. A standout part was that of the murderous Butch Cavendish, The Lone Ranger’s nemesis, which he repeated in movies and on TV between 1949 and 1955.

In the Fifties, when westerns were a television staple, Strange worked all the classic series from Hopalong Cassidy and Gene Autry to The Rifleman, Cheyenne, and Rawhide, eventually earning a regular spot, starting in 1961, on Gunsmoke, quietly polishing shot glasses through 210 episodes as the rock steady, mustachioed bartender, Sam.

For all the interchangeable cowpokes he portrayed, Strange fairly shined in his rare appearances outside the western genre. He showed great flair for comedy as a memorable Hillbilly character, Devil Dan Winfield, in the otherwise minor Abbott and Costello vehicle Comin’ Round the Mountain (1951). In fantasy films, Strange first appeared, briefly and uncredited, as one of Ming’s minions in a 1936 Flash Gordon serial. In 1942’s The Mad Monster, a Poverty Row B-movie devised to cash in on the runaway success of Universal’s The Wolf Man (1941), Strange’s size served the part of Petro, a hulking, simple-minded handyman who turns into a hairy, fanged monster. In 1944, Strange played a hulking orderly in the bizarre acromegaly horror film The Monster Maker, and he was back in heavy makeup — created by Jack Pierce, freelancing after being dumped by Universal — as Atlas, a hairy giant whose brains get switched with Huntz Hall’s in Master Minds, a 1949 Bowery Boys comedy.

Glenn Strange’s most famous and enduringly popular role, no doubt, was playing the last of Universal’s Frankenstein Monsters. By 1944, the Monster had become a stock character, trotted out with Dracula and The Wolf Man in kitchen sink monster rallies. In House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), the monsters, with attendant hunchbacks and mad doctors, were displayed and quickly dispatched in what amounts to individual vignettes, with little or no interaction. Strange’s Frankenstein, after spending most of the show strapped to a slab, was activated in time for a short, climactic walkabout and a quick, catastrophic end.

Without a lot of screen time and very little to do besides glowering at torch-bearing villagers, Strange’s contributions might have been a footnote to Frankenstein film history if not for an unlikely third film, the brilliant Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). With a stellar cast that included Chaney as The Wolf Man and Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Strange’s Monster was a central character, interacting with the principals and chasing The Boys in a wild, genuinely funny romp that became one of the most influential movie comedies ever made.

Strange would go on to promote the film with a number of personal appearances wearing an over-the-head mask made for him by Don Post, eventually appearing again with Abbott and Costello, with The Creature from the Black Lagoon thrown in for good measure, in a 1954 episode of The Colgate Comedy Hour on TV. The affable actor even participated in one of fan-filmmaker Don Glut’s 16mm epics, the Frankenstein’s Fury episode of Adventures of The Spirit, in 1963.

The Frankenstein makeup worked very well with Strange’s craggy deadpan. With a boxy head, big shoulders and his trademark windup-toy thread, Glenn Strange gave the Frankenstein Monster its definitive pop culture profile. It was Glenn Strange’s features that would be sampled for a best-selling Frankenstein rubber mask, and his face that was repeatedly used on toy packaging. Significantly, perhaps inevitably, when Boris Karloff died in 1969, most newspaper obits were illustrated with a photo of Glenn Strange in Frankenstein makeup.

An excerpt from The Bowery Boys’ Master Minds
A look at Glenn Strange's career in westerns.


The Vicar of VHS said...

A great look at Strange's career in this post, Pierre. The poor guy often gets trotted out as an example of how the mighty had fallen by the time the "House of..." movies rolled around, but I've never thought he was the worst of the Monsters--hell, not even the second worst. (Bela's miscasting in "meets the Wolf Man" is the wooden spoon winner for me, much as I love the old guy; and while Chaney's monster in "Ghost" isn't bad, I don't think Strange's interpretations were any worse.) It was hardly his fault he was given so little to do comparatively, and he definitely had the look.

One of my favorite classic outtakes is from A&C meet Frankenstein, with Lou sitting (unknowingly) on Strange's lap, pulling his unmatched "goofy scared" faces, and after a moment of deadpan Strange can't take it anymore and just cracks up. Fun stuff; I don't think I could have kept a straight face either.

Isn't there some story about Karloff trying to coach Strange in one of the later movies, and Glenn just doing his own thing anyway? Maybe he should have listened, but on the other hand, the monster was his by that point.

Anyway, great stuff as usual!

Doc Atomic said...

I had no idea that the pervasive image of the Monster was based on Glenn Strange. I just assumed it was artistic license on the part of so many illustrators. Fascinating stuff, thanks for teaching me something new.

Uranium Willy said...

Hvae not dropped by your site for a while as Blogger is blocked in China, where I live and work, and commenting via proxy is 50/50 gamble that it will go through.

Usually hate three column blogs but you pulled it off well. I will have to catch up on things here as I sip my black tea.


Mathe Attila said...

I only now found out about this blog and it's simply amazing. A pity I did not find it earlier. I wrote a book on the "Frankenstein" phenomena and about the change the story and the characters suffered throughout time, and this blog would have been an extremely useful resource. Anyhow I like the idea. Keep up the good work!

In case your interested, here's the book: http://www.amazon.com/Monstrosity-Popularity-Two-Century-Long-Metamorphosis-Frankensteins/dp/3639101790/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1248386134&sr=8-1

Christopher said...

I just LUV Glenn Strange...good ol' texas boy!..Hes always reading comic books in old "on the Set" fotos I see of him..I hear he was a big comics fan..He appears real down to earth..Watched him again just the other night in the A&C comedy Comin'Round the Mountain(a personal fave)Wiiiiilbert!

Ryan Harvey said...

I find it tricky to judge Strange's performance since he gets so little to do in the two House of… films; but in appearance he really is truly fearsome and towering, and the make-up on him works better for him than it did for Chaney or Lugosi. His method of playing the monster, the lumbering silent giant with the arms stretched forward (inherited from the dropped "blindess" aspect, I imagine), is certainly one of the most iconic visions of the creature, so even if Strange can't get close to Karloff, he has an important legacy to the character nonetheless. And when he is allowed to go into action, he's damned impressed and frighteningly physical. Not sympathetic, but he is definitely scary. Both House of… films needed more of him.

Christopher said...

It was Strange's Monster I was seeing more of as a little collecting monster models and other toys in the early 60s.His image was used more than Karloffs

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post to read after reading the book. It is interesting to see how a story can be transformed once exposed to Hollywood, and I think that happened with Frankenstein as well- not that it is a bad thing. I found the book to be entertaining and the few parts of movies I have seen about Frankenstein, I found those to be very entertaining.

Kid said...

Interestingly, the Aurora box art is an amalgam of Strange and Karloff, as it features the 'spikes' (sometimes called 'horns') that only ever appeared in test shots of Boris as the monster, before the make-up was finalised. However, the model inside is definitely based on Karloff as he appeared in 'Bride'.

Great blog.

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Anonymous said...

I find it fascinating that Strange usually ended up with a 3 inch thick skid, 6 inches long, by the end of filming each evening!