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Jewish World Review
Oct. 12, 2007
/ 30 Tishrei 5768
King of Monster Makeup
The undisputed king of Hollywood monster make-up was a man born in Greece in 1889 by the name of Janus Piccoulas. Doesn't ring a bell? Well, maybe you're more familiar with the anglicized version of his name, the name that appeared on Universal movie credits through the 1930's and 40's - Jack Pierce.
There's no question that Jack Pierce was one of the true pioneers of 20th century movie making. Pierce was the genius who created the classic movie monster makeup for Universal Studios' horror films and subsequently influenced generations of make-up artists ever since. His creations are still enjoyed to this day and as popular as ever to fans of horror films and trick or treaters every Halloween.
After immigrating to the United States around the turn of the century, Pierce attempted to play baseball, unsuccessfully trying out for a semi-professional team in California after achieving some success as a shortstop in Chicago. After that he got jobs in the young motion picture industry during the 1910s and '20s, doing everything from early nickelodeon manager to stuntman to assistant cameraman.
Jack Pierce even tried his hand at acting, and then finally went into makeup, working at Vitagraph and the original Fox Studios in the 1920s. By 1928, after Lon Chaney had left Universal to freelance, the studio made Pierce department head of makeup where he worked on the last of the silent films made at the studio. His fortune was made, as they say, when Carl Laemmle named his son, Carl Laemmle, Jr., head of production as a 21st birthday present.
Encouraged by Chaney's huge successes with The Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Phantom Of The Opera at Universal in the mid-'20s, Carl Laemmle, Jr. decided to produce film versions of the classic horror novels, putting Jack Pierce in charge of the makeup. From 1930-1947, Pierce created some of cinema history's most distinguishable screen characters.
In 1930 "Dracula" was first produced, and though Bela Lugosi refused to let Pierce apply his makeup (the actor had come from the stage where he always did his own work), Pierce came up with the styling for the vampire character and his many female victims. Immediately following the success of Dracula, Laemmle, Jr. wanted a follow-up, which led to the production of "Frankenstein" in 1931.
Film fans still argue as to whether director James Whale, actor Boris Karloff, or Laemmle himself contributed to the makeup, but the driving force behind the overall look of the Frankenstein monster unquestionably belonged to Jack Pierce. Each morning Karloff sat for four uncomfortable hours, suffering the makeup's high levels of toxicity, as Pierce and his assistants applied the head, facial buildup and layers of padding and costume modifications that would make him into the movies' most memorable monster. The following year Pierce and Karloff teamed to create "The Mummy."
Then in 1935 came "Bride Of Frankenstein" in which Pierce refined his first version of the monster and also created the famous makeup and designed the electric hairstyle for Elsa Lanchester's bride. Later on Pierce created the makeup for "The Wolf Man" with Lon Chaney, Jr. in the title role. Though the two did not reportedly get along--Chaney did not like wearing the makeup or undergoing the lengthy application and removal period--Pierce excelled again with his werewolf concept. Originally intended as a B movie, "The Wolf Man" was a true horror classic, and Pierce's version of the character has been the model for the numerous werewolves that have come to the screen ever since.
The last original Jack Pierce makeup was in 1943 with "Phantom Of The Opera" starring Claude Rains. This would be the only Jack Pierce monster movie shot in color. Even though his treatment of Rains' makeup--revealed only at the end of the film--was cut down at the request of the producers (Pierce's original concept was considered too hideous!), it nevertheless stands as another horror movie landmark.
Today's Hollywood makeup men and women still study Jack Pierce's work. His makeup artistry will live on as long as there are tapes and DVDs of the classic movies, and as long as there are young makeup artists who want to follow in his scary footsteps. And kids who watch the old classic horror movies, like I did, will continue to be scared out of their wits thanks to his talent and imagination. What better time than Halloween to pay homage to one of the movie industry's true creative geniuses.
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JWR contributor Greg Crosby, former creative head for Walt Disney publications, has written thousands of comics, hundreds of children's books, dozens of essays, and a letter to his congressman. A freelance writer in Southern California, you may contact him by clicking here.
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