During the month of October one will find numerous airings of the classic Universal Studios horror films of the 1930s and 1940s as well as advertising featuring the classic monsters first played by Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney, Jr. However, few people realize that most of these iconic images were created by one man: Jack Pierce.
Pierce was born Janus Piccolous in Greece in 1889. He immigrated to America with his parents during his teenage years and tried his hand at several different occupations, including professional baseball, before entering the movie business. His early Hollywood career included stunt work, assistant director and even a brief try as an actor. Through these experiences he became self-taught in the art of movie make-up.
His first creature was in Fox’s 1926 film The Monkey Talks where he turned actor Jacques Lernier into a simian who can communicate. Universal Studio’s head, Carl Laemmle, was so impressed with Pierce’s work that he hired him to work on the studio’s next big project.
That film was 1928’s The Man Who Laughs based on the novel by Victor Hugo (Les Misérables). The film is about young man, Gwynplaine, whose face was surgically altered as a young boy to have a permanent grin on his face, who makes a living as a freak in carnival shows. Unbeknownst to the man, his father was an English nobleman who was a political opponent of James II. The king had the father executed and the son disfigured as punishment.
The Man Who Laughs was originally viewed as a project for Lon Chaney, with the legendary actor playing the title role. Instead, it was played by Conrad Veidt, who had played the murderous sleepwalker in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and later the chief Nazi officer in Casablanca.
To keep Veidt’s face in a frozen grin, Pierce designed a set of false teeth, with hidden hooks that pushed the corners of the actor’s face into a hideous grin. Pierce also applied light green make-up to Veidt’s face to give his skin an unnatural look. By all accounts it was very uncomfortable.
While The Man Who Laughs is not well known today, (This writer only saw it once in college and has never seen it on TCM.) Pierce’s make-up did serve as the visual inspiration for Batman’s arch-nemesis, The Joker, who debuted in 1940
More importantly for Pierce it landed him a full time job as the head of Universal Studio’s make-up department. The offer was a “handshake deal” and Pierce never signed a contract with the studio.
Despite this, Pierce contributed very little to Universal’s first classic horror film, 1931’s Dracula. Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi played the title role, which was also originally envisioned for Lon Chaney, who had died from cancer prior to shooting. Pierce developed a special grease paint that gave Lugosi an eerie skin tone, but that was about it. Lugosi was vain about his looks and insisted on minimal make-up, and wearing a hairpiece, with the now famous widow peak. Lugosi also put on his make-up himself.
Pierce worked on two other Dracula films; Son of Dracula (1943) with Lon Chaney Jr. as the count and House of Frankenstein (1944) with John Carradine as Dracula. In both these films the vampire was portrayed as an older man with a mustache, much like Bram Stoker described the character in his novel.
The success of Dracula led Universal to rush into production Frankenstein. Lugosi was originally cast as the monster and again insisted on doing his own make-upwhich, according to several accounts, led to disastrous screen tests. “Lugosi thought his ideas were better than anyone else,” according to Pierce.
Before production got much further, Lugosi and the film’s original director, Robert Florey were removed from the project. James Whale, the studio’s top director, took over. One of the first decisions Whale made was to have an unknown British actor named Boris Karloff play the monster.
Pierce was a now given the task of creating what would be his most famous monster. He later claim:
“It was a lot of hard work, trying to find ways and means, what can you do? Frankenstein wasn’t a doctor; he was a scientist, so he had to take the head and open it, and he took wires to rivet the head. I had to add the electrical outlets to connect electricity in here on the neck. I made it out of clay and put hair on it and took it in to [Carl Laemmle Jr.-Universal’s Head of Production]office. He said, ‘you mean you can do this on a human being?’ I said, ‘positively’. He said, ‘all right we will go to the limit.’”
The entire make-up was made from scratch every day. Karloff wore a wig with a cotton roll on top to make the top of the head look flat and round. The forehead was made using cotton and collodion, syrupy solution of alcohol and ether, which was used for coating things in surgery. The eyelids were covered in putty and the whole face was covered in a sky grey make-up created by Max Factor (yes, he was a real person) and black lipstick for the lips. The electrodes were added last. Karloff also removed his dental plate to give him a gaunt visage.
Pierce was involved in the design of Karloff’s clothing, dressing him in black. To give the appearance that Karloff was taller than he really was, the sleeves of his jacket were shorten which also allowed Pierce to add scars to the wrists. Also padded shoes, weighing 30 lbs. each were worn by the actor.
Karloff spent four hours in the make-up chair every morning. He would spend another hour in the chair after shooting to get the make-up off. (Karloff did insist that he have his tea at 4 p.m.) Sometimes, an exhausted Karloff would go home in full make-up and keep his head propped up hoping to do minimum damage. The removal of the electrodes was difficult and often painful, leaving scars on Karloff’s neck for the rest of his life.
Pierce’s design was considered so frightening that Karloff could not walk around the Universal lot without his face being covered up for fear that it might frighten pregnant women. Many early showings of the film had ambulances outside the theatre and reportedly women screamed and fainted when the monster’s face is first shown.
Pierce would be loaned out by Universal in 1932 to work with Lugosi in White Zombie, an independently produced film that is considered the first zombie film ever made. For this role, Lugosi wore a toupee with a sharply pronounced widow’s peak and moustache, goatee and heavy eyebrows. It is considered one of the most sinister make-up designs of the era and it added greatly to Lugosi’s performance as Haitian voodoo master “Murder” Legendre.
Pierce and Karloff reunited in 1932 for The Mummy, in which Pierce had to create two make-up designs for Karloff. One as full Mummy and the other as the mysterious ancient Egyptian Ardath Bey.
For the former, which is seen on camera for only a few minutes at the beginning of the film, Pierce had to cover Karloff’s body in bandages. First he used a set of bandages secured with tape, then a second set treated with acid and burned in an oven and then covering all of Karloff with clay, so when he emerged from the sarcophagus one would see the expected effects of dust falling off and bandages breaking. The whole process took eight hours. Pierce considered it his best work.
Things were simpler for the Ardath Bey make-up which Karloff wore in most of his scenes. Again Pierce used cotton and collodion as a base. He then applied Fuller’s earth clay, which wrinkled as it dried, making Karloff look ancient.
The two men worked together again for 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, generally considered the best of the Universal horror films and one of Karloff’s best performances. Pierce made subtle changes to the Monster’s appearance, showing burn injuries and scars based on the ending of the 1931 film, though he made them “heal” as the film progressed. (One other issue Pierce had to deal with was that Karloff had put on a few pounds since 1931 because he could now afford to eat on a regular basis.) To simplify the make-up, Pierce made a prosthetic piece for Karloff’s forehead.
Pierce, with input from director James Whale, designed the Bride’s make up worn by Elsa Lanchester, which made her resemble the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti. The actress had a chicken wire frame covered in hair placed on top of her head. Compared to Karloff, the rest of her make-up was light. A few scars and pointy eyebrows, but the rest was basically beauty make-up. The actress wore an outfit made up of bandages covered with a white robe, which made going to the bathroom “an ordeal” for her.
Pierce and Karloff collaborated for the last time in 1939’s Son of Frankenstein. Originally, the plan was to shoot the film in color, but even with all his talents, Pierce could not get the monster’s color right, so the film was shot in black in white. Another issue facing Pierce was that Karloff had put on more weight since Bride so he wore a thick-looking wool vest to help hide his girth.
Often overlooked was the four hour make-up job done on Lugosi as Igor, the monster’s “guardian” who survived an unsuccessful hanging. The Hungarian actor is almost unrecognizable in one of his best performances.
Despite all he put Karloff through, Pierce and the actor enjoyed a good relationship. In 1957 the two men were reunited on an episode of This Is Your Life where they shared some old stories. Karloff called Pierce the greatest make-up man in the business. Pierce likewise thought highly of Karloff, calling him a “gentleman.”
In 1941 Pierce began his brief association with Lon Chaney, Jr. in Ghost of Frankenstein. Chaney, the only child the famed silent actor, did not resemble Karloff, so the original make-up had to be modified, with mixed results. An even bigger problem was that Chaney proved to be allergic to the make-up and had to miss several days of shooting.
Later that year Pierce created his last famous creation, The Wolf Man. The make-up design was a rejected concept for 19365’s The Were Wolf of London. Most of the make-up was yak hair that was glued to Chaney’s face and then singed with a hot iron, with a prosthetic nose. The entire process took 5-6 to put on and remove. Pierce called it his easiest monster make-up job. According to legend, Chaney’s make-up scared a dog that hung around the studio’s lot.
For scenes that showed him transforming from human Larry Talbot into the wolf man, Chaney had to sit still while his face was filmed, and then more make-up would be applied and more film shot etc. The transformation scene lasted only a few seconds on film, but took up to ten hours to film.
Unlike Karloff, Chaney did not like working with Pierce. Chaney claimed that when applying the wolf man make-up, Pierce would deliberately burn him. When asked about working with Chaney, Pierce said “Yes and no. That’s about all I can say.” Though it should be noted that Chaney had nothing but praise for Pierce’s professional skills saying he was second only to his father, Lon Chaney, Sr. among make-up artists.
However, Chaney was not alone in his feelings towards Pierce. Lanchester did not like working with him claiming that he acted like he was a god. Besides having a major ego, Pierce, who came to work wearing a medical lab shirt, was known for being egotistical, hot tempered and often stern, which made him generally unpopular.
The lack of a contract came back to haunt Pierce when he was unceremoniously fired from Universal in 1946. There are numerous theories as to why he was let go after two decades of service, though his personality and lack of popularity on the studio lot were probably contributing factors. One theory argues that he was fired because he was resistant to new make-up techniques, though this claim has been disputed.
A far more likely reason is that Universal, now named Universal-International, was under new ownership and the owners wanted to upgrade the quality of their pictures. They hired Bud Westmore, the youngest brother of the famed family of make-up artists to replace Pierce.
To make his dismissal even sadder is that while Universal has and still makes millions of dollars off of Pierce’s creations (all of which are still copyrighted by the studio) from movie rights and merchandising, Pierce never saw one dime of royalties.
After leaving Universal Pierce continued working, mostly in low-budget features and television productions. His last, and perhaps most famous post Universal work was on the t.v. show Mr. Ed which ran from 1961 until 1964. Pierce died from uremia in 1968 at age 79. He was never married.
Pierce’s death occurred just as a new generation of film historians and horror movie fans started to appreciate and recognized his work. Rick Baker and Tom Savini, legendary make-up artists in their own rights, have recognized him as a major influence on their careers.
Pierce never won any major awards for his work during his lifetime. In 1997, the United States Postal Service issued a series of stamps featuring the Universal Studio’s monsters including Frankenstein’s monster, The Mummy and the Wolfman. In 2003 the Hollywood Make-Up Artist and Hair Stylist Guild gave Pierce a posthumous lifetime achievement award.
Today, the monsters that scared movie goers in the 30s and 40s are now considered so tame that they have become “family entertainment.” However their appearances will always be a part of popular culture thanks to the talents of Jack Pierce.
Most of the films mentioned are available on DVD and Blu-Ray and on some streaming services.
Staff Writer/Resident Historian