Jack Pierce was arguably one of the most impactful artists of the 20th century. Yet today, few people know his name or even what he did.
Pierce (born Janus Piccoula) was a Greek immigrant who tried his hand at several careers, including professional baseball, before landing a career in movies, where he also did several different things before finally realizing his calling as a makeup artist. Pierce became the preeminent movie makeup artist of his day, and his day was the Golden Age of Hollywood (approximately 1910 to 1960).
In 1931, nearly a hundred years ago, motion pictures had just begun to talk. Character makeup was only one facet of filmmaking that exemplified all that was achievable under the rubric of “movie magic.” But this was that moment of cinema history when the nascent art form was making its first, perhaps most enduring, impressions, and just beginning to enthrall the world at large. Among the most memorable of the images from this era of astonishing, never-before-seen moments in a medium made up of images that moved was Jack Pierce’s character design for the Creature from James Whale’s indisputable classic Frankenstein.
Today Pierce’s masterpiece is so well-known that it has become part of the American ether, an indelible imprint on the collective consciousness, so ingrained in our pop-culture psyche that oftentimes it doesn’t even register that at some point it had to be created – that it is the direct product of one person’s imagination, talent and skill.
Aside from the movie itself – which the United States Library of Congress selected for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant,” and which is still around and prominent on streaming services, DVDs, and even being shown at movie houses – you’ll see representations of Pierce’s design referenced, copied, riffed on and parodied in comic books, comedy shows, cartoons, posters, T-shirts, coffee, buttons, mugs, and of course, Halloween decorations and masks in addition to a host of other objects and mediums.
It is perhaps more fixed in the public imagination even than Mary Shelley’s original tale, an acknowledged pillar of the Western canon. Pierce’s design for Frankenstein’s monster is that rarity, a genuine 20th century icon. (How many first-time readers of the book were shocked when they first read Shelley’s drastically different description of the character?)
Legend has it that when Frankenstein opened on November 31, 1931 and Boris Karloff first turned and presented his face on the screen, audiences screamed; some fainted or ran from the theater altogether. Today, that seems hard to believe after one hundred-plus years of communal consumption of visual media, and the steady raising of the bar of screen horror and shocks from that day to this. Yet, the sheer ubiquity of Karloff’s monster makes it apparent that on that dreary November night all those years ago, an experience was had that the world has literally never forgotten.
Taken on its own, the Frankenstein monster makeup is crude by contemporary standards. It was, of course, a pioneering moment, and a lot has been learned and achieved since then. And yet, even though more than seventy-five adaptations of Frankenstein have made it to the silver screen, there is still only one version of the Frankenstein monster that everybody recognizes.
Whatever Pierce’s design might lack in materials, it more than makes up for in conception and execution. It gets its weight from the fact that it is so comprehensively imagined: the flat head, the electrodes in the neck, the scars, the stitches. “Worldbuilding” may not have been a term that was widely used in 1931, but Pierce’s character design for the Creature does exactly that, all on its own. It feels like it has history, logic and utility: Even the parts you don’t understand, you understand.
The makeup took four hours to put on and another two to take off after a day of shooting. It was a masterpiece of ingenuity, utilizing spirit gum, cotton, and collodion (a liquid plastic). The most recognizable aspect is, of course, the flat head. Pierce’s idea was that Dr. Frankenstein was not a practicing surgeon; that he would take shortcuts and therefore to get to the brain would just cut straight across the top. In a 1967 interview with the For Monsters Only magazine, Pierce said “He was apt to cut the top of the skull straight across like a pot lid, hinge it, pop the brain in and then clamp it tight. That’s why I made the monster’s head square and flat like a shoebox and added that big scar across the forehead with the metal clamps to hold it together.” Hence, as well, the clamps on either side of the forehead.
It says a lot about the power of complete commitment to an idea that this logic isn’t actually logical. If you cut straight across someone’s skull and then popped it back (as you do), well, their skull would still have the same shape. But who cares? The flat head makes emotional, aesthetic, horrific sense, and that’s all that matters.
Then, of course, Pierce added electrodes on either side of the neck to conduct electricity. This idea may not have been Pierce’s at first. A call was put out to artists at Universal Studios and they came back with various renditions of what a possible monster might look like. An artist named Karoly Grosz has a sketch that has the electrodes on the side of the neck, but it is unknown whether this is an idea he came up with on his own.
Pierce gave the monster stitches to signify the places where body parts had been attached. To increase the creature’s height and make him more lumbering when he walked (the boots weighed 13 pounds apiece), Pierce had Karloff wear giant boots used to lay asphalt. Steel rods were placed down Karloff’s pant legs and hidden in the back of his costume to stiffen his gait and posture. Pierce used morticians’ wax to create heavy eyelids to deaden the monster’s gaze, a Karloff idea. He shortened the sleeves to make the monster’s arms more long and gangly. “For Boris,” Pierce said in that same interview, “the coat was cut down so the length of arms and the fingers would look long. Everything was in black to give him the height. Also, I padded him to look eight feet tall.” Karloff in life wore partial dentures, which were removed for filming to make his face more sunken. Pierce painted the monster’s lips and fingernails black to further the illusion of death. Even the green color so closely associated with the monster came from Pierce actually painting the monster with a grayish-green greasepaint to give a more ghastly pallor.
None of Pierce and Karloff’s collaboration was on a whim. It was the product of extensive research and preparation, experimentation and implementation. “I spent three months of research,” said Pierce, “in anatomy, surgery, medicine, criminal history, criminology, ancient and modern burial customs, and electrodynamics.” Pierce made drawings and models and then tried stuff out on Karloff himself, bringing new ideas and throwing out old ones. What they came up with was, of course, a magnificent success, unparalleled in the annals of cinema.
Lon Chaney, the famed Man of a Thousand Faces, had died the year before, and now Jack Pierce stepped into his spot as the king of movie monster makeup. With Dracula earlier the same year, and then Frankenstein, Universal had hit upon a well-needed gold mine and started cranking out monster movies as fast as it could. What later came to be known as the Universal Classic Monsters included, but were not limited to, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935; another iconic look that everyone recognizes), The Mummy (1932), The Invisible Man (1933; in which Pierce created the look that Griffin wears when he’s hiding his invisibility) and The Wolf Man (1941). All of them received Pierce’s painstaking preparation and implementation, and each was a commercial and critical success. Most were pinnacles of the field, groundbreaking in their day.
In a lesser-known but just as impactful achievement, Pierce was the man who designed the makeup for Conrad Veidt in the 1927 silent film The Man Who Laughs. Why is this significant today? Because this character inspired the look of Bill Finger and Bob Kane’s The Joker, Batman’s greatest arch-nemesis – and The Joker, of course, like the Frankenstein monster, has become a cultural archetype in the 21st century.
Pierce eventually had a falling-out with Universal and moved on to other work in television and film. There is some evidence that he may have been difficult to get along with. But it seems just as possible that he was a gifted and exacting artist, working in a field in which he didn’t have a lot of real-world power. He was a huge influence on other influential monster-makers in Hollywood such as Rick Baker (An American Werewolf in London, Videodrome) and Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead, Creepshow). And it is said he died in obscurity, which sounds like a bad thing.
But sometimes maybe people just get tired, or don’t want the hoopla, or don’t want to do the damn thing anymore. Regardless, there is no denying that Jack Pierce permanently altered the face of a culture. Happy Halloween.