Sunday, January 25, 2015

WAS JACK PIERCE REALLY A "CRANKY LITTLE MAN"?

Jane Wyatt as Dinny in James Whales' One More River, with freshly-plucked eyebrows.

I read with great amusement a quote in Gregory William Mank's latest book, The Very Witching Time of Night (McFarland, 2014). It appears in the essay regarding James Whales' project that was filmed between BY CANDLELIGHT and THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN entitled, ONE MORE RIVER (released 6 August1934). It stars Colin Clive as a cruel and perverse husband who comes to reclaim his wife (Diana Wynyard) after she tries to leave the physically and emotionally abusive relationship. In the film, Whale, known for his camera movement, used a similar shot to effectively introduce Colin Clive as the villain much like he did with Boris Karloff as the monster in FRANKENSTEIN. The film was considered controversial because of its themes of rape, brutality, and adultery, and, as a result, was heavily censored by Joseph Breen's newly-blessed Motion Picture Production Code.

The quote is by newcomer Jane Wyatt, who played Dinny in the film. She remembered her first meeting with Jack Pierce like this:

"I went into makeup at Universal for the first time, and the makeup man was little Jack Pierce, who was quite celebrated (which I didn't know at the time)...and he started pulling out all my eyebrows! I cried out 'Stop! Stop! I don't want you to pull out all my eyebrows!' He said, 'Listen, little girl; I have made up the greatest. Don't you tell Jack Pierce what to do. Look!' And he waved his arm toward all the pictures he had up on the wall. Well, they were not glamour pictures, they were Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi and I don't know who else [laughs]! He was a wonderful little guy and I got to be very, very fond of him."

Now, statements such as these are not unique among actors and actresses who worked under the hot makeup lights and skilled hands of Jack Pierce, then head of makeup at Universal Pictures. By 1934 Pierce had cemented his respect in makeup mastery in the eyes of many. He still had a number of years to go where he would continue his friendly relationship with Boris Karloff and create many more memorable monster makeups, including one of his best, Lon Chaney's Wolf Man. Nevertheless, more than one actor, including Chaney and Elsa Lanchester, were perturbed at Pierce's perceived intolerance for anything other than what he wanted. It could have been just a case of "his way or the highway".

Janey Wyatt and Frank Lawton in One More River.


In this particular case, however, and in Jack's defense, it was Miss Wyatt's very first film (she went on years later to play the dutiful housewife in FATHER KNOWS BEST), as well as her first experience in the makeup chair of a notable Hollywood professional. And, as the head of the department he was no doubt adhering to a hectic shooting schedule to produce the expected results from studio executives. After all, no matter how long it took to complete all the necessary makeups prior to a shot, there was always the expectation of coming in under budget and on schedule. As a result, this left precious little time to stroke egos and negotiate the application of makeup with a persnickety actor. Pierce was a consummate professional who took extreme pride in his work, and rightly so judging from his respect in the industry. Consequently, if he wanted to pluck the eyebrows off a brand new, 23-year old starlet fresh from Schwab's ice cream counter, he darn well would!

Still, there were instances where an experienced, veteran actor considered "cranky" behavior exhibited from the "little man". While his physical stature cannot be disputed (he stood about 5' 5" and weighed about 140 lbs.), the degree of "crankiness" could be considered subjective according to the whims of an egotistical actor who thought it beneath them to undergo such indignities as having crepe hair pasted on their photogenic countenance -- to which I would say, didn't they know what they were signing up for? In any case, actors would have to put up with Pierce and learn to like, even "adore" him...at least when they were in his chair.

[Screen caps source: World of Cinema website]

No comments: