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raymac Written by raymac
Oct. 27, 2006 | 1:07 AM
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Jack Pierce: The Man Behind the Monsters



Jack Pierce, born as Janus Piccoulas in 1889, was a make-up artist who created some of the most iconic images in the history of motion pictures during Universal Studios? legendary horror period in the 1930s and 1940s.

After immigrating to the United States during the turn of the century, he tried his hand at several careers including that as a baseball player which led to an unsuccessful try-out with a semi-professional baseball team in California. A growing film industry provided him with his next series of jobs as he moved from theater manager, stunt man, actor, and finally make-up. His break came during preproduction on Universal’s THE MAN WHO LAUGHS after Lon Chaney pulled out of the project and Jack Pierce was called on to create the carved smile that appears on the titled character played by Conrad Veidt.

In 1928, Jack Pierce was promoted to the head of Universal’s make-up department where he worked on some of the last silent films the studio produced. Carl Laemmle Jr., who was made head of production as a 21st birthday present by his father, wanted to adapt Bram Stoker’s DRACULA as a film. Originally envisioned as a big budget vehicle for Lon Chaney, The Man of a Thousand Faces, whose death from throat cancer in 1930 provided an opening for Jack Pierce. He proceeded to create a number of different make-ups for a series of actors who tested out for the part. Eventually the studio went with the actor who has successfully played the part in the popular Broadway stage adaptation, Bela Lugosi. However, Lugosi, who was used to doing his own makeup on the stage, refused to let Pierce work on him. He did work on the other cast members including Dracula’s three vampire brides.

Released in 1931, the film was a smash hit and the decision was made to follow it up with an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN. Bela Lugosi, working with director Robert Flory, created a test reel for the new film. However, the studio rejected Lugosi’s design for the monster which was based on the creature in the 1915 German silent, Der Golem. A new director, James Whale, was brought in. Who was ultimately responsible for the final design of the Frankenstein Monster, Jack Pierce or James Whale, has been the subject of much speculation and controversy over the years. However, given his future works, there is no question that Jack Pierce played a very significant part in the design.


In an interview, Pierce explained how he came up with one of the most distinctive features of the Monster, the flattened head:

?I did three months of research in anatomy, surgery, criminology, ancient and modern burial customs, and electrodynamics. My anatomical studies taught me that there are six ways a surgeon can cut the skull in order to take out or put in a brain. I figured that Frankenstein, who was a scientist but no practising surgeon, would take the simplest surgical way. He would cut the top of the skull off straight across like a pot lid, hinge it, pop the brain in, and then clamp it on tight. That’s the reason I decided to make the Monster’s head square and flat like a shoe box and dig that big scar across his forehead with the metal clamps holding it together. ?

Although his relationship with the director may have been rocky, Jack Pierce worked well with the film’s star, Boris Karloff, who had to endure four hours of make-up each morning as his head was built up with cotton, collodion and gum; toxic green paint (which looked pale gray on black and white film) was applied to his face and hands; and the now famous bolts were applied to his neck. Pierce completed the look by having Karloff wear large boots to give him height and a short jacket to make his arms seemed longer. The look was almost complete but Karloff felt his eyes looked too alive and asked Pierce to do something about it. Mortician?s wax was added to Karloff?s eyes to give it a half opened droopy look. Karloff removed a dental plate on his right side to create an indentation that Pierce accentuated with makeup, to give himself a hollower look. It would prove to be perhaps the greatest make-up job of all time.

The film was an even bigger hit than DRACULA and Pierce and Karloff were soon making THE MUMMY. The bandaged creature that we all associate in our minds when we think of the Mummy was only seen for a few seconds in the film. However, Pierce’s make-up for Karloff as Ardath Bey, the incredibly aged and wrinkled Egyptian priest is no less effective or memorable.

After a proposed werewolf film with Karloff fell through, Pierce soon found himself working with both titans of terror, Karloff and Lugosi, in a pair of films, THE BLACK CAT and THE RAVEN. He pulled out his previous designs for WEREWOLF OF LONDON, but the film’s star. Henry Hull, refused to wear such heavy make-up and Pierce was forceful to create a simpler but still visually effective look.

An old friend would reenter his life with the sequel, THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. For the new film, burns were added to the Monster’s make-up to reflect the fiery end of the first film. It was his makeup for the Bride which would be the masterstroke creation of the film. The image of Elsa Lanchester in a long white gown, bandaged arms, extremely pale skin, and tall Egyptian Queen like hairdo with long white streaks suggesting a lighting bolt is only seen for the brief period at the end but remains an iconic image over 70 years later.

The release of Son of Frankenstein in 1939 reignited the horror genre and provided Jack Pierce with the opportunity to make his last great creation. THE WOLF MAN gave him the chance to finally use the designs that he created for Karloff almost a decade earlier. The make-up was largely achieved using applications made of yak hair, collodion, spirit gum and cotton. It took over six hours each day (some days longer) to apply the applications to Lon Chaney Jr., who hated it and was not shy about letting his feelings known. Censorship issues prevented any direct man to wolf transformations and so the effect was achieved through a series of cuts. However, the final scene where he transforms from a wolf back into a man is very effective and poignant.

Jack Pierce, would get to follow in the footsteps of Lon Chaney Sr., when Universal decided to a lavish remake of THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA. However, his original make-up design was deemed to hideous and he was forced to create a simplified version at the request of the producers.

Although he was working on sequels such as FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLFMAN and HOUSE OF DRACULA, the world of motion picture make-up was changing around him but unfortunately, Jack Pierce did not want to use the newer techniques such as rubber appliances. Citing his methods as too slow and expensive, he was fired from Universal in 1946. He continued to work in B-pictures and in the new medium of television on shows such as MR. ED.

Jack Pierce died in relative obscurity in 1968 but he was rediscovered by a new generation of make-up artists such as Rick Baker and Dick Smith. In 2003, he was given a post-humous life achievement award from the Hollywood Make-up Artist and Hair Stylist Guild.


For his complete filmography, check out his IMDB page.


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