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.
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”.