Skip to content

Jack Pierce : Make Up Master

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.

jack-pierce-1928

 

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.

mummy make up

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.

pierce veidt

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.

tumblr_mtr1rjBF7H1rdfgw4o1_400

www.tumblr.com

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.

pierce lugosi

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.

frankenstein-meets-wolfman-chaney-pierce

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.

bride of frank

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.

pierce 8

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.

10 Comments »

  1. Interesting and informative blog. I couldn’t agree more, Jack Pierce deserves any and all accolades he receives. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, he created some of the most iconic images of the horror genre.

    • Last night I attended a screening of The Mummy and the Karloff make up is so awesome. Especially when the camera closes in on his face and the skin is so dry and parched.
      So many great creations to admire from Pierce.

  2. Great article! Jack’s make-up was very minimal on the Dracula character. He just created a slight front window’s peak hairpiece for Lugosi and a slight touch of make-up on his face so he would be photogenic on Film. Some sources say that Lugosi applied his own make-up for the Film role. The look of the Dracula Character is 75% Lugosi’s creation from the successful John L Balderston play. Obviously his natural features has a lot to do with it. Universal wanted Chaney Sr, Conrad Veidt, and others before they even considered Lugosi for the Dracula role. Of course Lugosi had to lobby hard for this role & finally got it for only $500 a week. I believe Lugosi was on the picture for only 2 or 3 weeks! Thanx —RJ (silverscreenshadowplay.wordpress.com)

  3. And there I was thinking that that Wolfman was one of my distant relatives! Now I find out he is a counterfeit but one of the highest order I don’t feel so foolish. Yep I’m a shamed to say I hadn’t heard of him even though his work is so iconic.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Movies ala Mark

With a Cast of Thousands

Classic Horrors

From silent screen to Halloween, and everything scary in between.

IDENTIKIT

The current online container for the writer Konrad Wardh

Just Hit Play

The Good, the Bad and sometimes Ugly in film

Strother Martin Film Project

What we've got here is failure to communicate

Sophia Riley Kobacker

it's all about the story, possums...

Wolfmans Cult Film Club

Cult, B-Movies, cheesy fun films to Film Noir to classics new to me.

Talking Pulp

All things pulp and then some

cinema cities

a personal odyssey through film

Mark David Welsh

Watching the strangest movies - so you don't have to...

Scenes from the Morgue

The Lost Art of Pulp Ads: Film, Booze, Smokes & More!

Film Speech

All things film and television

Diary of A Movie Maniac

A Personal Journey Through Cinema & Television

portraitsbyjenni

My perspective on life & Classic Movie Recommendations

Statis Pro 1978 Replay

Methodically replaying every game of the 1978 baseball season!

4 Star Films

Looking deeper at the best classic movies

everythingnoir

Movies, Television, Books....Everything Noir

Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)

by John Bengtson "the great detective of silent film locations" New York Times

Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

Silent-ology

Uncovering the silent era

Canadian Cinephile

"The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them." - Alfred Hitchcock

Noirish

The annex to John Grant's *A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir*

Cinema Monolith

Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.

Sunset Boulevard

Writings of a Cinephile

The Bogie Film Blog

A Film by Film Affair with Humphrey Bogart

Vienna's Classic Hollywood

Vintage Hollywood films and stars

The Film Authority

You're ten seconds from watching an amazing film...

Once upon a screen...

...a classic film and TV blog

shadowsandsatin

. . where the worlds of film noir and pre-code collide . .

hitchcockmaster

Where Suspense Lives!

Tipping My Fedora

Enjoying mystery, crime and suspense in all media

Silver Screenings

an irreverent blog of old movies

monsterminions

They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To

Comet Over Hollywood

Home for classic movie lovers

filmgeek101

classic movie views for the classic and not-so-classic movie fan

Riding the High Country

Reviews and ramblings

Speakeasy

watching movies

Movies ala Mark

With a Cast of Thousands

Classic Horrors

From silent screen to Halloween, and everything scary in between.

IDENTIKIT

The current online container for the writer Konrad Wardh

Just Hit Play

The Good, the Bad and sometimes Ugly in film

Strother Martin Film Project

What we've got here is failure to communicate

Sophia Riley Kobacker

it's all about the story, possums...

Wolfmans Cult Film Club

Cult, B-Movies, cheesy fun films to Film Noir to classics new to me.

Talking Pulp

All things pulp and then some

cinema cities

a personal odyssey through film

Mark David Welsh

Watching the strangest movies - so you don't have to...

Scenes from the Morgue

The Lost Art of Pulp Ads: Film, Booze, Smokes & More!

Film Speech

All things film and television

Diary of A Movie Maniac

A Personal Journey Through Cinema & Television

portraitsbyjenni

My perspective on life & Classic Movie Recommendations

Statis Pro 1978 Replay

Methodically replaying every game of the 1978 baseball season!

4 Star Films

Looking deeper at the best classic movies

everythingnoir

Movies, Television, Books....Everything Noir

Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)

by John Bengtson "the great detective of silent film locations" New York Times

Sister Celluloid

Where old movies go to live

Silent-ology

Uncovering the silent era

Canadian Cinephile

"The only way to get rid of my fears is to make films about them." - Alfred Hitchcock

Noirish

The annex to John Grant's *A Comprehensive Encyclopedia of Film Noir*

Cinema Monolith

Reviews of movies from my giant DVD tower, and more.

Sunset Boulevard

Writings of a Cinephile

The Bogie Film Blog

A Film by Film Affair with Humphrey Bogart

Vienna's Classic Hollywood

Vintage Hollywood films and stars

The Film Authority

You're ten seconds from watching an amazing film...

Once upon a screen...

...a classic film and TV blog

shadowsandsatin

. . where the worlds of film noir and pre-code collide . .

hitchcockmaster

Where Suspense Lives!

Tipping My Fedora

Enjoying mystery, crime and suspense in all media

Silver Screenings

an irreverent blog of old movies

monsterminions

They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To

Comet Over Hollywood

Home for classic movie lovers

filmgeek101

classic movie views for the classic and not-so-classic movie fan

Riding the High Country

Reviews and ramblings

Speakeasy

watching movies

%d bloggers like this: