Jack Pierce (makeup artist)
Pierce working on Boris Karloff
May 5, 1889|
|Died||July 19, 1968
|Resting place||Forest Lawn Memorial Park, Glendale|
Jack Pierce (born Janus Piccoula; May 5, 1889 – July 19, 1968) was a Hollywood makeup artist most famous for creating the iconic makeup worn by Boris Karloff in Universal Studios' 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, along with various other classic monster make-ups for Universal Studios.
After immigrating to the United States from his native Greece as a teenager, Pierce tried his hand at several careers, including a stint as an amateur baseball player. In the opportunist twenties, Pierce embarked on a series of jobs in cinema—cinema manager, stuntman, actor, even assistant director—which would eventually lead to his mastery of in the field of makeup. The small-statured Pierce was never a "leading man" type, and he put his performing career aside to specialize in makeups on other performers. In 1915 he was hired to work on crews for the studio's productions. On the 1926 set of The Monkey Talks, Jack Pierce created the makeup for actor Jacques Lernier who was playing a simian with the ability to communicate. The head of Universal, Carl Laemmle, was won over with the creative outcome. Next came the rictus-grin face of Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs, also a silent Universal picture. Pierce was then immediately hired full-time by the newly established Universal Pictures motion picture studio. The 1930 death of Lon Chaney, who throughout the 1920s had made a name for himself by creating grotesque and often painful horror makeups, opened a niche for Pierce and Universal, Chaney's films provided audiences with the deformed, monstrous faces that Pierce and moviegoers so clearly enjoyed.
Universal's first talkie horror film, Dracula, eschewed elaborate horror makeup. Pierce designed a special color greasepaint for Bela Lugosi for his vampire character, but apparently the actor insisted on applying his own makeup. For all film appearances of the character thereafter, Pierce instituted a different look entirely, recasting Dracula as a man with graying hair and a mustache. The most significant creation during Pierce's time at the studio was clearly Frankenstein, originally begun with Lugosi in the role of the Monster. The preliminary design (from contemporary newspaper accounts and a recollection of the screen test by actor Edward Van Sloan) was similar to the Paul Wegener 1920 German film of The Golem. This is not surprising, since studio head Carl Laemmle, Jr. and director Robert Florey were both familiar with German Expressionist films. When James Whale replaced Florey as director, the concept was radically changed. Pierce came up with a design which was horrific as well as logical in the context of the story. So, where Henry Frankenstein has accessed the brain cavity, there is a scar and a seal, and the now famous "bolts" on the neck are actually electrodes; carriers for the electricity used to revive the stitched-up corpse. How much input director James Whale had into the initial concept remains controversial. Universal loaned out Pierce for the Lugosi film White Zombie. They also loaned out some of the Dracula sets for the troublesome filming. Lugosi had collaborated with Pierce on the look of his devilish character in the film.
Collaboration with Karloff
Pierce's reputation was as bad-tempered, or at least extremely stern, but his relationship with Karloff was a good one. They both cooperated on the design of the now iconic make-up, with Karloff removing a dental plate to create an indentation on one side of the Monster's face. He also endured four hours of make-up under Pierce's hand each day, during which time his head was built up with cotton, collodion and gum, and green greasepaint (designed to look pale on black and white film) was applied to his face and hands. The finished product was universally acclaimed, and has since become the commonly accepted visual representation of Mary Shelley's creation. The Mummy, produced the following year, combines the plot of Dracula with the make-up tricks of Frankenstein, to turn Karloff into an incredibly aged and wrinkled Egyptian prince. Again, Pierce and Karloff's collaboration was critically acclaimed and impressed audiences. Interestingly, that same year Pierce designed the Satanic make-up for Lugosi in White Zombie, although this was an independent film, rather than a Universal production.
On November 20, 1957, Ralph Edwards got Jack Pierce reunited with a smiling Boris Karloff on the celebrity biography program This is Your Life. On that night's program, Jack unveiled some memories of working together with Karloff on the Universal film lot. Karloff, the special guest of the night, was pleasantly surprised to see Jack Pierce once again, and called him the greatest makeup man in the business.
Universal Studios Monster Maker
As the head of Universal's make-up department, Pierce is credited with designing and creating the iconic make-ups for films like Frankenstein, The Mummy (1932), The Wolf Man (1941), and their various sequels associated with the characters. Utilizing his "out of the kit" techniques, Pierce's make-ups were often very grueling and took a considerable amount of time to apply. Pierce was always reluctant to use latex appliances, favoring his technique of building facial features out of cotton and collodion (a strong smelling liquid plastic), or nose putty. Pierce eventually started using latex appliances, most notably a rubber nose for Lon Chaney, Jr. in The Wolf Man (1941) (the edges of the appliance are clearly visible through most of the film), and a rubber head piece for Boris Karloff in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939).
With Lon Chaney, Jr.
Pierce was not especially liked around Universal, which in part led to his demise at the studio. His most notorious relationship being with Lon Chaney, Jr., the two despised each other. Both worked on four Wolf Man films and three Mummy films at Universal. Chaney claimed that Pierce compounded difficulties in the long uncomfortable process with the adding on of sticky appliances. Lon's Wolf Man make-up partially consisted of yak hair being glued to his face, and having it singed with a hot iron. Chaney furthermore claimed, Pierce would purposely burn him with the hot iron. Chaney also had an allergic reaction to the make-up Pierce used on him in The Ghost of Frankenstein. Later, Chaney suffered with Pierce's laboriously wrapped bandages for three Mummy films. In Jack's defense, the use of the fused elements of make-up was a needful 8 hour task for the desired effect that Pierce was looking for, and Chaney was well known for not working well with others on set.
Outside of his unusual horror makeups, a recurring signature of Pierce's makeup was to give actors a widow's peak hairline. Bela Lugosi and his Spanish-language counterpart Carlos Villarias both wore widow's peak toupees in their respective versions of Dracula in 1931, and Lugosi's makeup for 1932's White Zombie included an even more severe widow's peak. Pierce shaved the hairline of Boris Karloff and turned it into an arrow-like widow's peak for the 1934 film The Black Cat, and had comedian Bud Abbott augment his thinning hairline with a widow's peak toupee in his early films with Lou Costello. Pierce even gave Lon Chaney, Jr. a low, pointed hairline in such Inner Sanctum films as Strange Confession and 1943's Son of Dracula. For 1938's Service Deluxe, a comedy in which Vincent Price made his film debut, Pierce flattened Price's natural widow's peak with hair plugs.
Unfortunately for Pierce, throughout the 1940s, make up artists were dropping their "out of the kit" techniques in favor of molded foam latex appliances that were cheaper, quicker, and more comfortable for the actors. Pierce, always known as a stubborn man, continually resisted this way. The old regime at Universal was gone by the late 40s and new studio heads were looking for quicker, more cost-effective make-ups. Pierce was eventually let go from Universal in 1946 after over a decade of creating make-ups. It had become difficult for him to adapt to more modern and less costly methods. Jack was a man of tradition to his own executed designs. In the 1950s, things took a turn for the worse as television broadcasting came onto the scene. The Hollywood studios saw television as competition. Universal started the process of cutting their costs by selling needless studio assets, and trashing the unnecessary things they thought at the time were questionable.
Jack Pierce's enduring work at Universal has become a huge influence to many in the entertainment field, including make-up artists Rick Baker and Tom Savini. Jack Pierce was an innovator in the world of screen entertainment and material design. Pierce understandably felt he never got the recognition he deserved and died a bitter man. Finally, in 2003, Pierce was recognized with a lifetime achievement award from the Hollywood Make-up Artist and Hair Stylist Guild.
In recent years, there is a strong desire to give Pierce a Hollywood Boulevard star for his popular lasting triumphs that have been preserved for decades on the movies he worked on. Pierce undeniably created screen icons to last beyond his lifetime. His contributions still continue to attract droves of attention to his astonishingly memorable, entirely original designs.
- Jack Pierce at the Internet Movie Database
- Jack Pierce at Find a Grave
- Relevant article on Jack Pierce
- Frankenstein Monster Makeup video
- Jack Pierce silicone likeness makeup, created by Lee Joyner for Scott Essman Jack Pierce play
- Jack Pierce: The Man Behind the Monsters; Scott Essman article
- John Stevenson's article on the make-up artist
- Relevant article on Pierce's make-up creations
- Jack Pierce article by James Bowles
- Pierce's make-up transformations on Chaney Jr.
- Brief appearance of Jack with Boris on This is Your Life