March 1, 2010

The Gentlemanly Madness of Lionel Atwill

Lionel Atwill was born in Croyden, England, 125 years ago today, March 1st 1885.

The British-born actor became a Broadway sensation in 1918, starring in no less than five top productions that year. An April New York Times article, entitled The Rise of Lionel Atwill, stated, “Atwill is riveting his position as one of the most valuable stage importations from England in several seasons.”

Despite his success on stage, often directing and producing in addition to his performing, Atwill abruptly turned his back on New York in 1931. Reprising his part as a lawyer from his last play, Silent Witness, in a 1932 film, he would, from then on, work exclusively in Hollywood. His very next film, Doctor X, introduced him to horror films. He appeared in six horror and mystery titles released in quick succession, literally within a year, outpacing rivals Karloff and Lugosi. Of these, Murders in the Zoo (1933) with its grisly revenge plot, opened notoriously with Atwill sewing a man’s lips together. “You’ll never lie to a friend again," he cackles. "You'll never kiss another man’s wife!

Paired in three films with the incandescent Fay Wray, their encounter in The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) proved the most memorable, captured in warm, two-strip Technicolor, with Wray punching and cracking Atwill’s wax face to reveal the burned monster underneath. Her scream still resonates.

Atwill returned to the genre in 1939, going on to appear in five consecutive Frankenstein films, opposite every actor who played The Monster at Universal: Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr, Bela Lugosi and Glenn Strange.

Uniformed and ramrod-straight, manipulating a monocle and an articulated wooden arm with Teutonic precision, and delivering his lines in machine-gun, clipped tones, Atwill forged one of the most iconic and memorable characters in the Frankenstein film canon as Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein (1939), a part beautifully spoofed 35 years later by Kenneth Mars in Young Frankenstein (1974).

In The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Atwill was the mad scientist who catastrophically swapped Ygor’s brain into the Monster’s flat skull, and in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), he appeared in a small supporting role as a the Mayor of monster-infested Vasaria. Finally, Atwill returned to his trademark Inspector parts, called Arnz in House of Frankenstein (1944), and Holtz in House of Dracula (1945).

Among his many menace and mystery roles, Atwill played opposite Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes twice, most notably as Professor Moriarty in Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943). He specialized, typecast perhaps, as a mad scientist in numerous programmers. As the Frankensteinian Dr. Rigas in Man Made Monster, a sleeper hit in 1941, he turned Lon Chaney Jr’s Lennie-like Dynamo Dan McCormick into a glowing electrical zombie, exclaiming "Of course I'm mad!"

Atwill’s private life would provide newspaper fodder throughout his career, starting with a sensational divorce case in 1925, while at the peak of his Broadway years. In 1930, Atwill married the stunning and very opinionated Louise Cromwell Brooks, a famous socialite, recently divorced from General Douglas McArthur. “I traded four little stars for one big Hollywood star” she quipped. Her Palm Beach lifestyle, her political connections and frequent one-liners made “Mrs. Lionel Atwill” a gossip column favorite.

Movie press agents fed Atwill stories to the papers. A 1934 article boldly credited Atwill as having “discovered” director Joseph Sternberg. In 1936, a plug for the spy drama Till We Meet Again made the papers as “Papa Atwill Stumps Sonny With Monocle. The item related how Atwill had amused his family by wearing his movie monocle at a family dinner, supposedly prompting his son Walter to ask, “Why is it that in the pictures your monocle always stays on, but at home it always falls in the soup?

The Atwill’s opulent homes made the news, too. A mansion evaluated at $42,000 burned to the ground in the California fires of October 1935, and coastal storm in December 1936 destroyed two of Atwill’s homes, said to be undermined and sliding into the ocean along with $12,000 worth of antique furniture. The Atwills’ estate in Green Springs, Maryland, where they had married, was burglarized twice in August 1937. The house had served as a honeymoon retreat for the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

All the press attention turned sour shortly after the Atwills separated in 1939, the Mrs. retiring to a mansion in Palm Springs. Atwill became the focus of a highly publicized, career-crippling scandal over a Christmas 1940 party held at his Malibu home. Guests, some possibly underaged, were said to have cavorted in the nude on a tiger skin rug while stag movies were screened. In a court appearance, an emphatic Atwill claimed that he was “absolutely not guilty”, resulting in a felony charge for perjury. Then came the tragic news, in 1941, that his 26-year old son, John Arthur, had been killed in action.

Atwill’s perjury case would be dismissed in 1943, after the actor came clean and said he had “lied like a gentleman” to protect his family and friends from embarrassment. The judge recognized that the American censor board, the Hays Office, had restricted the actor’s appearance in films. “It would constitute unusual punishment to continue this situation,” Judge McKay noted, “which would prevent the defendant from earning a living.” But the damage was done, with Atwill already relegated to B-pictures and threadbare serials.

Lionel Atwill remarried in 1944 and fathered a son, Anthony, but the actor’s health declined and he died on April 22, 1946, after a long, debilitating battle with pneumonia. He was 61.

On YouTube: The grisly opening sequence from Murders in the Zoo, the complete Mystery of the Wax Museum, and Atwill in full Mad Doctor mode in Man Made Monster.

Lobby cards: Heritage Auctions.


Wich2 said...

Pierre, a great salute to a real talent.

In the interest of accuracy, though, I've always read that the cause of "The Other Lionel's" (I love Barrymore, two) death was cancer?


The Vicar of VHS said...

In the long history of Mad Scientists in the Movies, nobody did it better. He is yet to be equalled.

Great article, as always.

Rick said...

Very nice and concise recap of a fascinating career. And a lovely tribute to the actor and the man.
Happy birthday, Pinky.

Pierre Fournier said...

I love Lionel, and I always think of him as one of the grand, classic horror men, up there with Boris, Bela and Lon.

Craig: Regarding cause of death, I relied entirely on contemporary news reports. Quotes here:

Ludington Daily News, Apr 23, 1946
Atwill, 61, died at his Pacific Palisades home Monday night soon after suffering a relapse of pneumonia with which he was stricken several weeks ago, but from which he was believed recovering.

St.Petersburg Times, Apr 23, 1946
Lionel Atwill, Actor, Dies… from a pneumonia attack.

The Milwaukee Journal, Apr 23, 1946
…died… from a long illness… He has been confined to his bed more than a month after returning to his studio too soon after partially recovering from pneumonia.

Syndicated columnist Walter Winchell was a bit late reporting, tersely, on Apr 24:
Lionel Atwill is in a coma.

The last news item found on Atwill is from Hugh Dixon’s “Hollywood” column in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 6, 1946:
Lionel Atwill left an estate of more than $250,000 to his widow and six-month old son.

Christopher said...

..if its got Lionel in it..Its gonna be alright ;o)

wich2 said...

Pierre, I think that may have been because:

1. Then, the term "cancer" itself was almost a dirty word.

2. Then, (as now) many in the public eye try to downplay the specifics of their ailment.

Most modern sources list bronchial/lung cancer as the cause of Atwill's death; though of course, pneumonia is often a contributing factor in many cases where another illness has compromised the system.


Pierre Fournier said...

Craig: Perfectly agreed on both counts. Again, I relied on contemporary news items. I haven't found a reliable source for the cause of death revision. Perhaps his son?

mistressmarilyn said...

I'm watching 'Son of Frankenstein' on my DVR right now and came across your excellent blog. Your recounting of Lionel Atwill's scandal and the tragedy of his final years is by far the best I've read on line. I'm surprised nobody's made some sort of latter-day bio of Atwill. I can't believe it would be off limits at this point. What a marvelous actor, and never better than in the movie I'm watching now!

Anonymous said...

Atwill was 'the maddest doctor of them all' playing each role with great bravado.
As his illness began to overtake him, during the final scenes of House of Dracula, you can hear him cough, off screen. He passed away during the filming of the serial Lost City of the Jungle, and stand ins were strategically used in order to complete the film.