New York City, 1889.
1910—projectionist; then theater manager, stage actor, film
stuntman and actor, assistant director; 1914—cameraman for
Universal; then became makeup man in late 1920s: at Universal until late
1940s; then freelance makeup work in films and on TV: worked on
You Are There
Buffalo Bill on the U.P. Trail (Mattison); Davy Crockett at the Fall of the Alamo (Bradbury)
The Monkey Talks (Walsh)
Dracula (Browning); Frankenstein (Whale)
The Mummy (Freund); The Old Dark House (Whale)
The Invisible Man (Whale)
The Bride of Frankenstein (Whale); The Werewolf of London (Walker); The Raven (Landers); The Black Cat ( House of Doom ) (Ulmer)
Son of Frankenstein (Lee)
The Wolf Man (Waggner)
The Mummy's Tomb (Young); The Ghost of Frankenstein (Kenton); Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (Neill)
The Mummy's Ghost (Le Borg); Captive Wild Women (Dmytryk)
The Mummy's Curse (Goodwins); The House of Frankenstein (Kenton)
House of Dracula (Kenton)
Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (Barton)
Beyond the Time Barrier (Ulmer); The Amazing Transparent Man (Ulmer)
The Devil's Hand ( Live to Love ) (Hole)
The Creation of the Humanoids (Barry)
Beauty and the Beast (Cahn)
The Man Who Waited (Luddy) (ro)
Desert Rider (Bradbury) (asst d)
The Speed Demon (Bradbury) (ro)
Masquerade (Birdwell) (ro)
"The Monstrous Genius of Jack Pierce," an interview with Chuck Crisafulli, in Filmfax (Evanston), October-November 1992.
Film Comment (New York), November-December 1978.
Taylor, Al, and Sue Roy, in Making a Monster , New York, 1980.
American Cinematographer (Hollywood), January 1985.
Scarlet Street , no. 9, Winter 1993.
* * *
With the death of Lon Chaney in 1930, Universal began its search for a new "Man of a Thousand Faces." In spite of the studio's later publicity which placed the Chaney mantle on Boris Karloff's square shoulders, the rightful successor to the title was a meticulous, soft-spoken makeup man. Jack Pierce spent some 20 years at Universal creating the monsters that have populated nightmares since the early 1930s.
After a career in semi-pro baseball, Pierce drifted to Hollywood, entering production as an actor and assistant cameraman. Eventually finding his niche as a makeup artist, causing an early sensation with his ape makeup for the 1927 Fox production The Monkey Talks . But it was his transformation of Boris Karloff into Frankenstein's monster in 1931 that made Pierce the movies' premier conjurer of gruesome and fantastic creatures for a generation. Like Dr. Frankenstein's monster, Pierce's creature was made up of pieces—pieces of information from books on anatomy, surgery, criminology, and burial custom shaped a thing with veracity to physiological fact and constructed with the help of volatile collodion and greasepaint. The monster's pot-lid head, abnormally long arms, and distorted features not only gave it a nightmarishly plausible appearance, but also were representative of its inner suffering. The greatest achievement in Pierce's design was that it left Karloff's gaunt features free enough to express a range of emotions that gave the monster its pathos and humanity. The vulnerable quality which emanated from beneath the creature's frightening visage has made the monster, fashioned by Pierce and Karloff, the most enduring icon of Hollywood horror. The makeup was so distinctive that Universal copyrighted it, later receiving huge royalties (of which Pierce saw none) from the licensing of toys and masks.
Unlike the monsters created by today's special effects wizards, Pierce's designs focused on the human face. Pierce, like Chaney before him, possessed the innate knowledge that it is in the face where the cruelty and pain which dwell in a soul become manifest. The Frankenstein monster was only the first in a long series of horrors Pierce shaped for Universal. The same time and attention to detail that went into Frankenstein extended to The Mummy , in which Karloff was subjected to two makeups. For the role of the 3000-year-old mummy, Im-Ho-Tep, Pierce swathed the actor in beauty clay and cotton, rendering him almost immobile. And for the role of Ardeth Bey, the mummy's 20th-century incarnation, Karloff's face was desiccated into a tight expression, evoking centuries of bitterness. Edgar G. Ulmer's Bauhaus poem to necrophilia and spiritual anguish, The Black Cat , featured one of Pierce's subtlest and most effective makeups. The makeup man sculpted Karloff's hairline into a sharp widow's peak, cropping the hair on top into a plateau and thinning it at the sides. The angular effect transformed the actor's benign face into a permanent scowl touched with satanic glamour which blended perfectly with the geometric sets and costumes of the production. Equally effective was Pierce's contribution to the visible portion of Claude Rains in The Invisible Man . The ragged wrappings about the head, outcroppings of thatchy hair and socket-like goggles contrived to suggest the madness in the mind beneath the bandages. Even for those not in starring roles Pierce devised intricate treatments. Bela Lugosi's best performance, the supporting role of the shepherd Ygor in Son of Frankenstein , came from under heavy makeup. The shaggy hair, hooked teeth, and twisted neck submerged the actor's matinee idol looks, and permitted him a greate range of expression and depth of character than earlier roles had allowed.
Because of his heavy reliance on the face, Pierce's artistry could be constrained by the canvas on which he was forced to work. Universal's two forays into lycanthropy featured two very different Pierce designs, dictated by two very different actors. The Wolf Man , in which Lon Chaney, Jr. became the beast by the light of the full moon, was endowed with a more complete mythology, as well as a better script and direction. Yet Pierce's makeup for Chaney was limited by the actor's own round, jowly features and was ultimately a far less ferocious creation than the earlier monster in The Werewolf of London . The star, Henry Hull, refused to cooperate with Pierce's original makeup plans for the earlier werewolf movie; the heavy yak hair design eventually became Chaney's "baby" in the 1940s. For Hull, Pierce developed a lean creature, pared of excess hair, a makeup that fully exploited the severe lines and high forehead of the actor's face. The lupine viciousness of Hull's werewolf could not be equalled by the more elaborate Chaney creature.
By 1947 Universal's monsters were left with only B-budgets and plotlines buckling under the weight of their own clichés. The simple shudders created by Frankenstein's monster and the Wolfman were no match for the horrors of the Second World War and the dawning atomic age. And Pierce's painstaking process of makeup application was giving way to foam rubber and other quicker, less expensive techniques. Pierce found himself unceremoniously dumped from the studio payroll and freelancing for other studios and for television. But the monsters he created have become permanent fixtures in our national mythology.