Jack Pierce was probably the first Monster Maker I ever became aware of. Not so much as a person, but certainly as a creator of arguably the most famous of all monster designs… that of “The Monster” played by Boris Karloff in Universal Studios’ 1931 film Frankenstein. I had likenesses of his Frankenstein Monster on posters, lunchboxes, puzzles, action figures, model kits, patches, stickers, and just about everything else imaginable all the time I was growing up. I was a certified “Monster Kid” raised on Uncle Forry’s “Famous Monsters of Filmland”. Even as a kid, I was amazed to learn more about the creator behind the creator of the most famous monster of all.
Jack Pierce (born Janus Piccuola May 5, 1889 in Greece) worked just about every station in film from stuntman to Assistant Director. It was on the 1926 film The Monkey Talks that he first showed the chops we know so well by creating the makeup for the talking simian played by Jaques Lernier. It was this makeup that drew the attention of Universal Studios head Carl Laemmle. It was his first known makeup, but would not be his crowning achievement.
His next creation is worth noting not only because of the merit of the movie itself and the fantastic performance of its star Conrad Veidt, but also that it is this character that Jerry Robinson (via Bob Kane) saw as inspiration in his creation of Batman’s most famous rival, The Joker!
But it was only after the untimely death of the Father of Prosthetic Makeup, Lon Chaney, Sr., that Jack Pierce’s position in makeup was firmly anchored at Universal. Chaney was originally contracted to play the title character in Universal’s Dracula, but died before it’s production began. It was then that Jack Pierce, now full-time at Universal Studios, experienced his first bit of Hollywood disappointment when, after designing a subtle but very particular makeup for Bela Lugosi, the star insisted on doing his own makeup… a makeup he perfected in his many stage performances as Dracula for the legitimate theater. Hints of Pierce’s contributions to the makeup remained including the lace widow’s peak Lugosi wore not only in 1931’s Dracula, but also 1932’s White Zombie. Lugosi later mused that Pierce got his revenge when he later designed and applied such torturous makeups as Ygor and even the Frankenstein Monster itself in later films!
Truly, it was his followup to Dracula’s unused makeup that Pierce found his greatest success. The Monster in James Whale’s 1931 classic, Frankenstein was key in establishing Pierce as a makeup master. Whale supposedly sketched a few drawings on some napkins and presented these ideas to Jack Pierce for fleshing out. What came of that collaboration was one of cinema’s most phenomenal and easily most recognizable monsters ever. Pierce designed the makeup to mesh seamlessly with Karloff’s own gaunt anatomy, even incorporating his hollow cheek, the result of the removal of a partial dental bridge! The flat-top head is something of an interesting story…It was Pierce’s assumption that Dr. Frankenstein being a hasty physician, would simply cut the skull across the top and pull the skin back over the cranium like a tent flap. Most film historians argue that this may have been studio talking points as it makes no sense that a surgeon that could reattach nerves, blood supply, and tissue would make the call to simply pull the skin back over the gaping skull. And clamp it in place to boot! No, it is more likely that Pierce had a specific design in mind when creating the iconic look of Karloff’s monster, stretched arms and all!
Certainly, sequels weren’t far behind and Pierce would duplicate his makeup, FROM SCRATCH, every day of filming! Pierce never used molds much to the chagrin of his victims. He would create every brow, every scar, and every stitch over and over again taking almost 5 hours for the makeup application alone. Then Karloff would have to act a full day only to have to endure several hours in the removal process. It has been written that Karloff would eat and even sleep in the monster makeup just to avoid having to endure its application the next morning. He even bore the scars of the neck bolts until the day he passed from this world to the next!
Many actors and actresses suffered that same fate for the sake of art. Some were not as tolerant of Pierce’s obsessive attention to detail as Karloff was. Lon Chaney, Jr. nearly came to blows with the man and accused him of purposely burning him with the curling iron used to singe and curl the yak and crepe hair used on Chaney in 1941’s The Wolfman.
By the time he worked on The Wolfman in 1941, Pierce had reluctantly begun using latex rubber nosetips to somewhat shorten an arduous application process, but even at a time when most makeup men were beginning to abandon out-of-the-kit monster making, Pierce was adamant. He held on to the old world craft of the art. It was this unwavering rigidity that caused his demise at Universal Studios. After creating so many icons of horror, Pierce was unceremoniously released and replaced by Bud Westmore as Head of Makeup at Universal Studios.
Jack Pierce’s last official credits were for his work on television’s Mr. Ed. He worked on the show from 1961 to 1964. He died of kidney failure at the age of seventy-eight years old in 1968. Though he remained friends with Boris Karloff, even appearing on an episode of This is Your Life featuring the star, his stern-natured (some would even say bitter) personality made few other friends in Hollywood.
That is, except for those who would come after him. You could ask any Hollywood special effects makeup artist their inspiration and most would name Jack Pierce in the top three. Among them, seven-time Academy Award winner Rick Baker.
Without a Jack Pierce to inspire them, the Monster Kids of the 60’s and 70’s may not have been at all. His creations are iconic, inventive, and downright frightening. Mostly because they are so realistic. Posthumously, Pierce was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hollywood Make-Up Artist and Hair Stylist Guild.
Jack Pierce’s contributions to motion pictures have endured the test of time and continue to inspire generations of special effects make-up artists. I count him as one of my first, and favorite, of my childhood. To me, Jack Pierce will always hold a special place in my heart, regardless of his reputation. I have learned many things from Mr. Pierce…especially how to treat the talent. Or how not to anyway!
Until next time, keep howling!