Jack Pierce: Universal’s Monster Maker

While you may or may not recognize Jack Pierce by name, you are most certainly familiar with his enduring legacy. As the head of Universal Studio’s make-up department for almost twenty years, Pierce is responsible for the innovative and iconic looks of Frankenstein, the Mummy, the Wolf Man, and countless others. With his trademark surgeon’s smock and slicked back hair, Jack Pierce changed the way we think about movie make-up and inspired generations of artists to push the boundaries and never stop experimenting.

In so far as character makeup is concerned, the work of the makeup artist is closely akin to that of a cinematographer. Each is a creative art of the utmost order. – Jack Pierce

Born in Greece in 1889, Pierce made his way to Hollywood in the 1920s and took on a series of roles for various studios including time spent as a stuntman, actor and even an assistant director. It was on the 1927 film The Monkey Talks where Pierce first tried his hand at make-up effects. The realistic chimp disguise he designed for actor Jacques Lerner caught the eye of Universal head Carl Laemmle and opened the door for twenty years of collaboration and renown for both the artist and the studio.

Jack Pierce works on Conrad Veidt in "The Man Who Laughs"
Jack Pierce works on Conrad Veidt in “The Man Who Laughs”

Pierce’s first job with Universal was working on the silent melodrama, The Man Who Laughs. The exaggerated smile that he created for actor Conrad Veidt was so unsettling, that it led many to categorize the film as horror. The look quickly became iconic and even inspired the design of Batman’s arch nemesis, The Joker.

Following the death of celebrated actor and make-up artist Lon Chaney in 1930, a niche was opened for Pierce to fill. For 1931’s Dracula, Pierce designed a special color greasepaint for lead actor Bela Lugosi. However with a background in theater, Lugosi insisted on applying his own make-up for the film. The two would still go on to collaborate in the future, most notably on the independently-produced White Zombie in 1932 and on the creation of Ygor for 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. After having his input on the look of Dracula rejected, Pierce re-imagined the Count in all future appearances with graying hair and a mustache.

Known for his “out-of-the-kit” techniques, Pierce became infamous for his time consuming, often grueling, method of trial and error. Reluctant to use latex applications, his incredible results were achieved by slowly building facial features with layer after layer of cotton sealed and hardened with collodion, a type of liquid plastic. An overall unpleasant process, it was in the patience and dedication of Boris Karloff that Pierce found a perfect collaborator.

“The best makeup man in the world… I owe him a lot.” – Boris Karloff on This Is Your Life! (1957)

In preparation for his role in Frankenstein, Karloff had a dental plate removed and endured four hours in the make-up chair each day while cotton, collodion, gum, and greasepaint were applied to his face and hands. The result however was universally acclaimed and has since become the cultural standard when visually representing Frankenstein’s Monster. As unpleasant as they were to have applied, Pierce’s applications were also known for their painful removal processes. While playing Kharis is The Mummy’s Hand, actor Tom Tyler commented that the removal of cotton and spirit gum “hurt like the devil”.

Jack Pierce working on Boris Karloff as Frankenstein
Jack Pierce working on Boris Karloff as Frankenstein

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Does it matter if Mary Shelley was bisexual? 

Mary Shelley is a queen. Daughter of modern feminism’s founder, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the radical thinker William Godwin, this rebellious woman wrote one of the earliest and most influential gothic horror novels: Frankenstein. Published in 1818, when Shelley was just 20 years old, it remains a work of genius that can still horrify readers with the depths of man’s depravity and pursuit of knowledge at all costs. It is also a novel that places love, and the desire for love in its absence, at the heart of life. For this, and many other reasons, Shelley has become an idol for those whose souls search for belonging in dark times.

She’s also someone who I thought couldn’t really become any cooler. After all, this is the woman said to have married her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, after losing her virginity to him at the graveside of her mother. And then, after he drowned in a storm in 1822, carried his calcified heart – the only thing to survive his cremation – with her, wrapped in a silk shroud, until her death in 1851. (It was found in her desk, wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems.) But this week, Fiona Sampson, author of In Search of Mary Shelley, taught me something new: Shelley was bisexual. Continue reading

Mary Shelley is a queen. Daughter of modern feminism’s founder, Mary Wollstonecraft, and the radical thinker William Godwin, this rebellious woman wrote one of the earliest and most influential gothic horror novels: Frankenstein. Published in 1818, when Shelley was just 20 years old, it remains a work of genius that can still horrify readers with the depths of man’s depravity and pursuit of knowledge at all costs. It is also a novel that places love, and the desire for love in its absence, at the heart of life. For this, and many other reasons, Shelley has become an idol for those whose souls search for belonging in dark times.

She’s also someone who I thought couldn’t really become any cooler. After all, this is the woman said to have married her lover, Percy Bysshe Shelley, after losing her virginity to him at the graveside of her mother. And then, after he drowned in a storm in 1822, carried his calcified heart – the only thing to survive his cremation – with her, wrapped in a silk shroud, until her death in 1851. (It was found in her desk, wrapped in the pages of one of his last poems.) But this week, Fiona Sampson, author of In Search of Mary Shelley, taught me something new: Shelley was bisexual. Continue reading

The Strange and Twisted Life of “Frankenstein” 

Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley began writing “Frankenstein; or, the Modern Prometheus” when she was eighteen years old, two years after she’d become pregnant with her first child, a baby she did not name. “Nurse the baby, read,” she had written in her diary, day after day, until the eleventh day: “I awoke in the night to give it suck it appeared to be sleeping so quietly that I would not awake it,” and then, in the morning, “Find my baby dead.” With grief at that loss came a fear of “a fever from the milk.” Her breasts were swollen, inflamed, unsucked; her sleep, too, grew fevered. “Dream that my little baby came to life again; that it had only been cold, and that we rubbed it before the fire, and it lived,” she wrote in her diary. “Awake and find no baby.”

Pregnant again only weeks later, she was likely still nursing her second baby when she started writing “Frankenstein,” and pregnant with her third by the time she finished. She didn’t put her name on her book—she published “Frankenstein” anonymously, in 1818, not least out of a concern that she might lose custody of her children—and she didn’t give her monster a name, either. “This anonymous androdaemon,” one reviewer called it. For the first theatrical production of “Frankenstein,” staged in London in 1823 (by which time the author had given birth to four children, buried three, and lost another unnamed baby to a miscarriage so severe that she nearly died of bleeding that stopped only when her husband had her sit on ice), the monster was listed on the playbill as “––––––.”

“This nameless mode of naming the unnameable is rather good,” Shelley remarked about the creature’s theatrical billing. She herself had no name of her own. Like the creature pieced together from cadavers collected by Victor Frankenstein, her name was an assemblage of parts: the name of her mother, the feminist Mary Wollstonecraft, stitched to that of her father, the philosopher William Godwin, grafted onto that of her husband, the poet Percy Bysshe Shelley, as if Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin Shelley were the sum of her relations, bone of their bone and flesh of their flesh, if not the milk of her mother’s milk, since her mother had died eleven days after giving birth to her, mainly too sick to give suck—Awoke and found no mother. [ . . . ]

Continue & listen to audio story at THE NEW YORKER: The Strange and Twisted Life of “Frankenstein” | The New Yorker