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26 January, 2008

A Star for Mr. Pierce, Revisited

One of the reasons that the great Universal classic Monsters are the great Universal classic Monsters is their iconic, trademarked, licensed-to-the-hilt look. From Karloff’s Frankenstein’s Monster, to Chaney’s Wolf-Man, the monsters had one common denominator, one extraordinarily gifted individual responsible for bringing those creatures from sketchpad to silver screen: Jack Pierce.

Born Janus Piccoulas in 1889, Pierce emigrated from his native Greece as a young boy. As a teen-ager, he dreamed of playing baseball, and had some success at the semi-pro level, but his small size prevented him from achieving his goal. Drifting to California, he found work in the fledgling film industry, first as an actor and stagehand, then moving into the make-up department at Universal. One of his first big projects was 1931’s DRACULA; though Lugosi did his own make-up, there’s no doubt that Pierce, as head of the department, would’ve had a say in the finished product. However, it would be Universal’s next big Horror feature that established Pierce’s reputation as a creative genius. That feature was James Whale’s FRANKENSTEIN.

The studio’s original concept for the film version of Mary Shelley’s celebrated novel was to be directed by Robert Florey, starring Lugosi as the Monster. A test make-up was done for this version; however, no footage or stills have survived. Descriptions by those involved would seem to indicate a marked resemblance to Paul Weneger’s 1920 classic DER GOLEM, with a heavy, sculptured, clay-like appearance. Whale had Pierce start from scratch, and he and Boris Karloff, who had replaced Lugosi when the latter had refused the role, worked for hours each night for three weeks perfecting the design. Simply put, they succeeded, and Karloff’s Monster became perhaps the most recognizable film icon ever.

For the next sixteen years, Pierce was responsible for the monsters that we still know and love today. Im-ho-tep / Ardeth Bey, The Werewolf of London, Bateman, Ygor, Kharis, The Wolf-Man… all these and more were given life by his hand, working with little more than collodion, yak hair, and spirit gum. After World War II ended, Universal merged with International Pictures, and a new philosophy was in place. Long gone were the days when Carl Laemmle Sr. ran the studio as if it were just a large family shop. He had given Pierce the job of heading the make-up department with nothing more than a handshake to seal the deal, and, in early 1947 Universal-International took the job back with even less ceremony. Though Pierce remained active in film, he never recovered from this stunning betrayal, and died in obscurity in 1968.

Though few knew his name at the time of his death, Horror fans today recognize the man’s incredible talent, and the debt that Hollywood in general, and Universal Studios in particular, owe this diminutive master of make-up. One fan in particular has worked for several years to see that debt paid.

Scott Essman is perhaps the foremost expert on Jack Pierce, and has, for many years, been the driving force behind an effort to get Universal to recognize it’s obligation to Pierce with a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Though he’s brought them nearly to the point of following through before, always something has arisen that was a “higher priority” for the Publicity department, and the money earmarked for Pierce’s star was shifted to other purposes. Though the amount required isn’t small, (somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000 or so…) neither is it a sum that should prove daunting to a studio still making a healthy profit from Pierce’s genius. But let’s assume for a moment that they are simply unable to carve a sum that’s probably less than the studio’s monthly janitorial budget from the studio coffers. I have a solution that can fund the Pierce star, without taking any profit from Universal’s pockets.

Universal is well aware that the legions of Monster-fans will snap up anything that hints of the classic Monsters… hell, we’ve been doing it for years. Recently, they announced that they would be releasing a new DVD of 1932’s THE MUMMY, starring Karloff, and directed by Karl Freund. This was one of Pierce’s masterpieces, exceeded only by his work on FRANKENSTEIN, and one of the special features on this disc will be a new documentary on Pierce, produced by Essman. Why this couldn’t be done last year, in time for the 75th anniversary of the film’s release, is a mystery to me. Why it’s being done now is obvious; to support the third Brendan Fraser MUMMY film, due out late this year.

My suggestion is simple, and will allow his fans the opportunity to express their appreciation to the man responsible for the iconic look of our beloved Monsters. Whatever price is set for this disc (most likely less than $20.00…) just increase it by $1.00. Just tack a buck onto the price, and use it to pay for that well-deserved recognition for Mr. Pierce.

Come on, Universal… what do you say? I’ll commit to buying my copy right now, and I know a horde of dedicated Monster-fans that would do the same. After all, we’re not asking you to do this out of the goodness of your heart. We’re willing to pay your debt to Mr. Pierce for you. All you have to do is take the money… and admit the obvious.

Without the artistry of Jack Pierce, Universal as we know it would not in all probability exist today. It’s time to say thank you to Jack. It’s time he had a star. (For more information, please go to http://www.jackpierce.com/, Scott Essman’s website.)







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