This article (before edits or grammar corrections) appeared in the year end issue of The Dark Pages 2013 which featured the film The Killers as it’s centerpiece.
In the world of artists the names of Van Gogh or Picasso might spring to mind. Show me one of their art works and admittedly I probably won’t recognize it by name and I suspect many others in a crowd of people are perhaps just like me. Now show that same crowd of people 3 or 4 creations from the mind of Jack Pierce and in all likelihood the vast majority of these people could identify them by name and yet be unfamiliar with their creator to the extent that his name offers no recollection at all. Such is the world of pop culture.
Jack Pierce is the mind behind many of Halloween’s greatest inspirations. He is the designer of Universal Studios stable of Monsters including Dracula, Frankenstein and his Bride, The Mummy and The Wolf man. Iconic Film images to be sure. His inspirations have trickled down to countless imitations, product marketing and ad campaigns steadily over the last 80 years.
Born in Greece in 1889, Pierce would arrive in California in 1910. With the film industry in it’s infancy Pierce would find himself doing various jobs ranging from a nickelodeon operator to bit roles as well as an assistant camera man in the rapidly expanding world of film making.
It was while working on Raoul Walsh’s 1927 film The Monkey Talks that Pierce first shone as a makeup artist designing the title character. Impressing Universal Studios chief Carl Laemmle with his work on the Walsh film, Laemmle put him in charge of the studios makeup division for future productions. Pierce would hold this position until 1947 by which time the studio would come to be known as Universal International. Next up was the makeup design for Conrad Veidt in the 1928 silent film The Man Who Laughs. This facial design would influence artist Bob Kane in creating his look for Batman’s sworn enemy The Joker.
When Carl Laemmle turned the reigns of the studio over to his son Carl Jr, Pierce’s greatest characters were about to be unleashed. With the success of Dracula came the horror explosion of the early 1930’s. Universal Studios and Jack Pierce would lead the way along with actors Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi.
With James Whale directing and Boris Karloff sitting in a makeup chair for up to 6 hours by some reports, Jack Pierce using Karloff as a canvas created what is probably his most iconic monster, The Frankenstein Monster. The Monster itself evolved over the ensuing years into being known as just plain Frankenstein. With the successful adaptation of Mary Shelley’s story brought the need for more terrors to haunt movie houses. Next up would be the creation of The Mummy. Once again Dear Boris would be putting himself in Pierce’s hands for up to 8 hours to create another iconic screen character.
Other tales of terror that Universal were associated with would find Pierce dabbling in designs for The Black Cat, The Raven and other films. It was in 1935 that The Werewolf of London went into production. Actor Henry Hull was in the title role but he wasn’t so keen on transforming into the creature we have all come to recognize. That was still in the future. The same year brought another being back from the dead. The remarkable Bride of Frankenstein, another magnificent entry in his gallery of horrors immortalizing Elsa Lanchester.
As the 30’s came to a close, there would be another character to add to his list of accomplishments. For the Son of Frankenstein, the character of Igor was designed by Pierce and played wonderfully by Bela Lugosi. This was spoofed years later by Marty Feldman in the Mel Brooks hit comedy Young Frankenstein.
Lon Chaney Jr. was up next in the makeup chair to star in his 1941 horror classic, The Wolf Man. This allowed Pierce to use the design he had created for Henry Hull 6 years previous. With a wonderful script and first rate cast the film was a smash and cemented another classic monster at the Universal studio. With the 1940’s came the sequels to the earlier films. Four Kharis the Mummy films, House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula brought the other creatures together on screen for a shockingly good time keeping Pierce busy behind the scenes. There was also the new Phantom movie bringing Claude Rains to the title role.
There were of course other films that the studio was putting out that Pierce is credited on like the Noir classic The Killers but it is the Universal Monsters that have been his lasting contribution to the studio. MGM had more stars than the heavens, Warner Brothers had the gangster scripts ripped out of current headlines and Universal had the undead characters brought to life by Pierce and actors like Karloff, Lugosi and Chaney Jr.
As 1947 rolled around Jack Pierce was let go by Universal International from the position he had held for the two previous decades and was replaced by Bud Westmore. The reasons vary but Piece was apparently set in his ways and the studio wanted to move forward and have someone in place capable of using new materials, ideas and quicker methods behind the scenes.
Up until his death in 1968, Pierce would find work where he could on low budget films and television including Mr. Ed. With the rights to all his creations held by Universal Studios, Pierce unfortunately died with little to his name and not much fanfare.
By all accounts and photographs Pierce dressed like a surgeon while conducting his experiments using actors to create his images. He could be fussy and wasn’t one to suffer fools gladly, yet the backstage photo’s with Karloff and company show a lighter side and are a wonderful window to a world behind the scenes when the classical era of screen horror began.
Future makeup artists like Rick Baker and Tom Savini would look to Pierce as an inspiration and find success of their own. Baker has won multiple Academy Awards for his work and one would think if there had been Oscars for makeup designers in the 1930’s and 40’s that Jack Pierce would have rivaled Edith Head as a yearly contender and multiple winner.
As it stands if one looks around on any given day a design or idea inspired by Jack Pierce is probably visible on a billboard, magazine or television ad, especially in the month of October. Not to mention the replaying of a classic monster film on some late night channel for our enjoyment.
Thank you Mr. Pierce.