I wanted to go ahead and pay tribute to the person who, arguably more than anyone else was responsible for the classic images of the early Horror Monsters we’ve come to recognize so well and so easily.
Jack P. Pierce was Universal Studio’s original “monster maker”. Out of this one mans mind came the ideas and visions for the appearance of virtually all the horror monsters and madmen that came out of Universal during the entire 1930’s and 40’s. Horror’s golden age.
Jack Pierce Makeup Artist
Jack Pierce was born Janus Piccoula in Greece 1889. He immigrated to the United States as a teenager and in 1920, first became connected with the moving picture industry. He had a series of jobs such as cinema manager, actor, stuntman and assistant director.
He decided to forego these however to specialize in creating makeup for other performers.
After seeing the makeup created by Pierce for the movie “The Monkey Talks”, followed by the now famous grinning face of Conrad Veidt in “The Man Who Laughs”, the head of Universal, Carl Laemmle decided to hire Pierce to work full time for the studio.
The opening for Pierce’s creative vision came about when tragically, legendary silent film actor, Lon Chaney passed away leaving an enormous and regrettable hole to be somehow filled.
Chaney was a true genius. Not only a superb actor but responsible for creating all of his own, and often very painful makeup pieces and designs. Films such as, “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” and “The Phantom of the Opera“, contain some of the most recognized examples of this man’s timeless work.
A theme had been set by Lon Chaney which caused audiences to want for more of the very same. Upon this, the new studio boss, Carl Laemmle Jr. wanted to produce more films based on classic horror novels.
By 1930, the first ever horror “talkie” (sound) had been produced. Jack Pierce, however, did not get the chance to apply the makeup for Dracula that he would have liked. Apparently, Bela Lugosi in the lead role insisted on creating his own vampire makeup which he had done so, many times already in the long running stage production of Novel.
Next up was Frankenstein (1931). It is for this film more than any other that Pierce is most respected and esteemed.
The original idea for the look of The Monster was, according to newspaper accounts, based on Paul Wegener’s silent, expressionistic piece, “The Golem” and was initially to be played by Bela Lugosi.
When director Robert Florey was replaced by James Whale however, the Monster’s design changed radically.
Many have taken this to signify the director’s influence on the final makeup design.
It was Jack Pierce though, who was ultimately responsible for giving us the final look.
After considering Dr Henry Frankenstein would presumably be totally straightforward in accessing the creature’s brain, Pierce decided on the flat top, “lid-like” forehead and added the scar and clamps to keep the brain inside!
The creatures’ neck attachment’s which are mistakenly thought of as bolts are actually electrodes used to conduct energy to the brain from the lightning strikes the creature receives.
Actor Boris Karloff collaborated with Pierce on the overall look, removing a dental plate to give his face the hollowed out, gaunt look.
Karloff was known as being a very patient man, never to complain. He would sit every morning for 4 hours undergoing the painful process of having the makeup applied.
His forehead was built up with layers of cotton, collodion (a toxic, flammable, syrupy solution), and gum. A green greasepaint was also applied to the face, neck and hands giving the monster a very pale appearance on black and white film.
The end result was critically acclaimed and has become of coarse, universally recognised.
Amazing work by both Pierce and Karloff!
Raising the Dead!
Next up was The Mummy! Another incredible achievement in early horror makeup design and an enormous feat of endurance by Boris Karloff. This time it took 8 hours to complete!
The mummy’s extremely wrinkled face and hands were achieved by adding layers of cotton and spirit gum (a quick drying adhesive) to the skin. Once dried, it would give the desired aged, wrinkled effect. …So many layers were added to the face that Karloff was unable to speak!
Incredibly, the final product was only glimpsed for a very brief moment at the beginning of the film. For the rest of the movie, Karloff has returned as Ardath Bey and has considerably less makeup.
Bride of the Monster
A sequel to Frankenstein was the next project Universal had in mind. For Bride of Frankenstein, Pierce recreated the original makeup for Karloff but included features such as burnt cheeks/skin and hair after the fire the creature apparently survived from the first film.
Totally opposed to using rubber latex appliances, each makeup session was created from scratch. The head and facial features were once again built up with layers of cotton and collodion. Very painful and grueling work.
The appearance of The Bride (Elsa Lanchester) was Jack Pierce’s idea too. The now infamous “electric shock” hair style was all Pierce’s work.
For Son of Frankenstein, Pierce created the design of Igor for Bela Lugosi. Giving him the hunched back, gnarled teeth and broken neck look. As well as of coarse, another interpretation of The Monster for Karloff.
Man Turned into Wolf!
Two years later, Pierce went all out with the design of The Wolf Man!
By all accounts the perfectionistic artist Jack Pierce wasn’t hugely popular at Universal. This was highlighted by his relationship with lead actor, Lon Chaney Jr. The star of the studio’s newest horror venture, The Wolf Man.
The son of, “The Man of a Thousand Faces”, Chaney Jr. despised having to undergo the long arduous process of not only applying, but removing the makeup as well. The two actually worked together on four Wolf Man films and three Mummy films, so understandably things may have become fairly strained between the two.
The elaborate Wolf Man makeup was achieved by using yak hair. A popular material of the time, being primarily used in wig-making.
This was painstakingly glued to the face and singed with a hot iron to give it a coarse, animalistic look. A prosthetic brow and nose/snout was added and fangs included.
Wolf hands and feet were also created by Pierce.
The iconic image of The Wolf Man formed by Pierce has gone on to be a template for future films dealing with the subject.
By, Ghost of Frankenstein in 1942, the outdated, purist techniques used by Pierce were slowly taking their toll. The time factor was of coarse a major concern for the studio. Rubber appendages were more and more beginning to be used by the master craftsman.
Lon Chaney wore a rubber headpiece for his role as The Monster in Ghost of Frankenstein which helped enormously.
Also during this time, prosthetic masks were made by Pierce to be worn by Chaney as The Mummy in, The Mummy’s Tomb, The Mummy’s Ghost and The Mummy’s Curse. It was then a relatively simple matter of applying the Mummy’s bandages to the actor.
Times were changing for the studio as it was everywhere. It was the end of WWII and Universal was merging with International Pictures, replacing a lot of it’s department heads.
Sadly, Jack Pierce was one of the men to go.
He had been Makeup Supervisor for 19 years and had worked for the studio all together for 30 years!
His dismissal came completely unceremoniously and coldly. The new management at the studio desired to upgrade their image from horror and B-grade pictures to reputable, esteemed films.
The Westmore brothers who were a very prominent name in the makeup industry in Hollywood, influenced Universal/International to hire their youngest brother, Bud and replace Pierce.
With Pierce’s reluctance to cut corners and save time by becoming fully accustomed to using latex, and with the studio standing to gain the prestige of the Westmore name, the change was made. The original monster maker was out..!
It has always been felt that Jack Pierce did not get the attention he truly deserved from Universal. He was like an unsung hero who practically invented the look of some of the most archetypal monsters which have become a celebrated staple of our society!
As the starring guest of This is Your Life in 1957, Boris Karloff was reunited with his old associate and friend Jack Pierce, who he called, “The greatest makeup man in the business”.
Lon Chaney Jr. said of Pierce, “He was a makeup genius. Second only to my Father..!”
Jack went on to finish his career working on low-budget and independent horror, western and television programs during the last 20 years of his life. The last work he did was for the TV series, Mr. Ed. from 1961-1964.
In 2003 he was recognized with a lifetime achievement award by the Hollywood Makeup Artist and Hair Stylist Guild. In 2013, Cinema Makeup School dedicated a memorial gallery in pierce’s honor. A star on Hollywood Boulevard has been proposed for the groundbreaking artist.
A master craftsman and unquestionable innovator, the maker of monsters has been an enormous influence on such legendary names as Rick Baker and Tom Savini.
Thanks very much for checking out my post on Jack Pierce Makeup Artist. I hope you’ve enjoyed finding out more about this underappreciated, original creator.