The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly!
By Tom Weaver
It wasn't until I recently read an article in an old SATURDAY EVENING POST that I realized how pervasive "sidekick" characters were in Universal horror movies. One of the interesting facts revealed in Richard G. Hubler's well-researched article "Scare Em To Death---And Cash In" (May 23, 1942), written after interviews with two of Universal's resident monster moviemakers (Curt Siodmak and George Waggner), was that the studio's various monster series all obeyed this unwritten "rule": "Besides the major monster, there must be a secondary character of weird appearance, such as Ygor, the broken-necked mentor of Frankenstein."
Many of the studio's "sidekick" characters were interesting and colorful: Fritz in Frankenstein, Sandor in Dracula's Daughter, some of the High Priests in the Kharis movies, Daniel in House of Frankenstein and, of course, old Ygor. But quite a few of them are very superfluous to the plots and serve no real purpose for their masters: Renfield in Dracula, whose sole function seems to be waking Dracula up at nightfall, could have been easily replaced by a wind-up alarm clock. (But, since Dracula "pays" Renfield with promises of flies and a hallucinatory vision of rats, it's not like Drac wasn't getting his money's worth!) So let's take a look back at some of these "secondary characters of weird appearance," rating them on the basis of job skills, workplace performance, pertinence to the plot, and whatever other oddball criteria seem applicable.
Of course, there's no telling at this point when the "edict" went into effect; surely it was not at the outset of Universal's horror dynasty, but rather after a number of these movies had been made. Limply leading the parade of sidekicks is Renfield, the real estate agent who becomes Bela Lugosi's slave in Tod Browning's Dracula (1931). Perhaps no movie Man Friday was ever as pointless or ineffectual, both in terms of what the character does in the story and of the actor's performance. Dwight Frye's enduring "popularity" among horror film fans is probably less a result of the performances he gave than the simple, Kato Kaelin-ish fact that He Happened To Be There: Frye has the enviable (to us) distinction of being on the sets of Dracula, Frankenstein (plus Bride and Son and Ghost and Meets the Wolf Man) and The Invisible Man. In the movies other than Frankenstein, however, Frye was either not very good or he was in them so little that (if you were watching the movie to see him) it wasn't a good idea to look away from the screen at any point, even just for a few seconds.
Renfield was probably no more efficient or effective at the office of the London real estate firm where he nine-to-five'd; otherwise, why would they assign him to do the work of a postage stamp, delivering a few pieces of paper thousands of miles to Count Dracula? (Fey and mousy, Renfield wasn't the kind of guy with whom you wanted to be seen spending too much time around the watercooler.) The "human stamp" is soon bitten by Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi)---the vampire's one male victim---and becomes his mad slave, but to the best of the audience's knowledge, Dracula never gives him anything to do. Aboard the Vesta, he does a rooster's job and wakes up Dracula (as though Dracula could sleep on that storm-swept ship!), and upon their arrival in Whitby, England, he's immediately spirited off to Dr. Seward's sanitarium. After that, the loony is of no use to Dracula or to the plot. Dracula appears at the window of Renfield's padded cell and wordlessly conveys commands involving Mina, Dr. Seward's daughter, but the audience has no idea what those commands are, what they possibly could be, or whether or not Renfield carries them out. For the most part, his function in the movie is to escape from his cell---frequently---and interrupt boring conversations between Dr. Seward and Prof. Van Helsing (and start new, boring conversations of his own!).
In the end, Dracula kills Renfield because he thinks Renfield betrayed him (Van Helsing and Harker secretly follow Renfield to Dracula's lair in Carfax Abbey), but it's not like Van Helsing didn't already know that Dracula lived there; it's practically all the vampire ever talked about. In the one "action" moment in the whole picture, Frye (or, rather, a stunt man) tumbles down a winding staircase after Dracula has choked him and broken his neck. Possibly the nicest thing that can be said about Frye in Dracula is that he isn't quite as bad and as annoying as the loud, obnoxious Pablo Alvarez Rubio is in the Spanish Dracula.
Dracula made enough money for Universal to continue down the dark path of horror cinema; next up was Frankenstein, with Colin Clive in the title role and Frye as his slobbering assistant Fritz. Working with a better script, and acting under a much better director (James Whale), Frye does a very good job of exercising his hambone in the offbeat role. But once again, the actor is plagued by plot inconsistencies (not his fault), and he is forced to contend with a silly prop: a too-short cane, which causes him to stoop as he hurries from place to place. (You get the impression that if Fritz had simply sprung for a taller cane, his disability would vanish!) One interesting aspect of the Fritz character is that he isn't afraid of the rampaging, powerful Monster (Boris Karloff), but he is terrified of the dead: he moans and cowers when Frankenstein orders him to climb a gibbet and cut down the corpse of a hanged man; he howls with fear when he finds a skeleton in Prof. Waldman's classroom; and he shrinks with fear again when he sees the Monster's dead hand hanging off the operating table. But after the Monster is brought to life, the seemingly cowardly Fritz now becomes a veritable tiger, threatening the Monster with a torch, beating him with a whip, and tauntingly running in and out of his reach.
Of course it's Fritz who gets the rap for the Monster having an abnormal (criminal) brain, but Frankenstein is every bit as much to blame: The criminal brain that Fritz delivers to him is in a glass jar that's so clearly marked ABNORMAL that Frankenstein had to be blind not to notice. Also, Frankenstein was ready and willing to transplant the brain of the hanged man into the Monster, so, obviously, using a criminal brain was just fine as far as Frankenstein was concerned; he just "scapegoats" Fritz when things don't work out the way he'd planned.
Frye was known for complaining about his "entrapment" in the horror genre, but, truth be told, he never gave the impression of being a particularly good actor in general, and he should have been grateful for the amount of movie work he did get. He was a very callow and eminently forgettable Cook in the 1931 The Maltese Falcon, indicating that his forte wasn't gangster roles. He played the "hero" in The Crime of Doctor Crespi (1935), but villain Erich von Stroheim (playing Frye's hospital boss) browbeats and dominates him throughout, and even beats him up in a scene in which little Frye doesn't even fight back. We get the vague feeling that we're supposed to like his character in Doctor Crespi (at the end, he even flirts with nurse Jean Brooks), but it's not possible to do so; the wimpiness that we associate with Frye comes through, and he seems every bit as slimy here as he was in the subservient roles he played in his other horror films. On stage, Frye was a song-and-dance man (or so the record books say), but I don't think I could stomach the sight of Frye dancing with Ginger Rogers or acting boyish and coy in some Dick Powell-type role. In fact, it's awfully hard to imagine what Frye might have thought his "slot" in movies should have been.
Much better than Dwight Frye was Noble Johnson, although in fairness to Frye, it should be pointed out that Johnson hardly opens his mouth in his sidekick roles (Murders in the Rue Morgue and The Mummy), while Frye played characters who never shut theirs. But Johnson was an imposing and, yes, noble presence in the small parts he played in these two films. In Rue Morgue he was Dr. Mirakle's (Bela Lugosi) assistant Janos, the Black One. (In the film, the black actor wears light-colored makeup that makes him appear white; the inclination in our new Affirmative Action era might be to try the opposite!) Janos' duties are many: He's an assistant in Mirakle's sideshow act, helps his master abduct prostitutes off the streets of Paris, and disposes of their bodies in the Seine. (The character gives no indication that he's interested in furthering the cause of science, so we have to assume that Mirakle pays him well. Or, perhaps, Janos just enjoys working in showbiz and meeting girls.) At the end, Janos even gives up his life, blocking the door of Mirakle's warehouse-like Rue Morgue home against the police, and getting shot in the process (which he had to know was going to happen). In the days of glass ceilings, Janos the Black One rose to the very top of his profession (mad scientist's sidekick) by merit; Johnson doesn't have enough to do in the movie so that we can rave about his acting, but his workplace skills and get-the-job-done attitude are both admirable.
Johnson was also good in The Mummy, but in a much smaller part: He plays the Nubian who falls under the spell of Karloff's evil sorcerer Ardath Bey. Acting under the ancient wizard's influence, the Nubian steals a scroll and later (wearing a pair of Egyptian swimming trunks and a sporty white skullcap) mixes up a steaming cauldron of embalming chemicals. But when Ardath Bey tries to compel him to knife Princess Anck-es-en-Amon, her pleas stay his hand. Shrinking at the sight of Ardath Bey's extended fist and ring, the Nubian duckwalks backwards through a doorway, around a corner, and out of the movie. The part wasn't much, but Johnson (in his stripped-to-the-waist scenes) had a not-bad-for-1932 physique and a great, formidable, lined face, which combined to make the minor character a memorable one.
Exceptions to the sidekick "rule" included The Invisible Man (who had an unwilling human assistant in Dr. Kemp), the WereWolf of London, and Claude Rains' Phantom of the Opera, none of whom seemed to need any help. In Bride of Frankenstein, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger) was abetted by Karl (Dwight Frye) and Rudy (Neil Fitzgerald), but they're not in the movie very much and they obviously don't relish the grave-robbing chores they perform for their waspish boss. (Karl to Rudy: "If there's much more like this, what you say, pal, we give ourselves up and let 'em hang us? This is no life for murderers!") The original version of the movie gave Karl more to do (he commits a murder or two, figuring the Monster will be blamed), but in the cut that now exists, he's just a (very) supporting character. Unlike Fritz, Frye's Karl stands erect and has an entirely different makeup, but the Monster acts as though Frye is still Fritz: With absolutely no provocation, and even though Karl has contributed a murdered girl's heart to the creation of the Bride, the Monster chases him to the top of the watchtower and throws him to his death. This is just one of many brutal, unprovoked murders committed by the Monster in a movie that has mystifyingly achieved the reputation of depicting the Monster as pitiable and more sinned-against than sinner.
Another monstrous "underling" character that doesn't quite fit this article's scenario is Karloff's Bateman in The Raven. Bela Lugosi runs away with the picture as the wacky Dr. Vollin, but the Bateman role was meant to be a costarring one, not just an odd, extraneous sort of background character. (Lugosi gives such a colorful, full-blooded performance that that's pretty much what happens, though.) Lugosi was supposed to briefly reprise his Count Dracula role in the 1936 sequel Dracula's Daughter, but parents' groups and civic organizations began condemning undue gruesomeness in horror films, and Universal reacted by minimizing the horror content in Dracula's Daughter (i.e., cutting Lugosi's part out of the script). Remaining in the screenplay, however, was an equally creepy character, Dracula's daughter's servant Sandor (Irving Pichel). Sandor is one of the Golden Age of Horror's most interesting sidekick characters: He's been promised the "kiss" of vampirism by his mistress Countess Zaleska (Gloria Holden), who is slow to deliver. He may also be in love with her in some weird way, but if he is, she doesn't know it (or just doesn't acknowledge it). Sandor may not yet be a vampire, but he likes to act like one: He's never seen in daylight, and in one scene he turns his cadaverous face away from the sight of a cross. When the Countess tries to convince herself that she can shed her vampiric traits, Sandor cruelly taunts her; the tune she's playing on a piano during the scene becomes increasingly unearthly. (It's an excellent sequence, perhaps the best in the picture.) And in the end, when it's clear to Sandor that the Countess loves her human psychiatrist (Otto Kruger), Sandor attempts to kill him, and he does succeed in killing the Countess with a wooden arrow in the heart.
Pichel, with his weird white face, hair parted in the middle, and sepulchral voice, was an excellent choice for this beefed-up henchman role. A graduate of Harvard (where he was very active in dramatic organizations), Pichel had hopes of becoming a stage director and (early on) felt that he never wanted to be an actor. He worked for 16 years in the legitimate theater, both as a director and an actor, before making his film debut in The Right to Love (1930) opposite screen star Ruth Chatterton (whom he once directed on stage). He gave a good, showy performance as the prosecuting attorney in Paramount's An American Tragedy (1931), and as a direct result of that role, the studio "rewarded" him with a ghoulish part in Murder by the Clock.In this gloomy 1931 release, Pichel was the retarded, brutish son of an old woman with a fear of premature burial. (The climax of the picture finds Pichel attempting to rape a woman in the tomb of his dead mother!) Paramount evidently saw Pichel as their answer to Lugosi; he was considered for the title role(s) in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and it was announced that he would star in and direct Paramount's horrific The Man with Red Hair (which was never made). But Pichel, fortunately, managed not to fall into the "horror rut"; he alternated between acting, producing, and directing (The Most Dangerous Game, She, and Destination Moon, among many others) throughout the rest of his interesting (if unspectacular) career. Pichel should rate high on the list of horror henchmen, except that at the end he kills his boss. Let's give him passing marks for job performance, low ones for employee-employer relations, and a new job in the Post Office!
Monsters were offscreen in the mid-to-late 1930s, an event that horror film historians routinely blame on England's horror ban (although no one has ever satisfactorily explained to me why Hollywood should drop one of its most profitable genres in reaction to a boycott in a tiny, far-off island roughly the size of, say, Ohio). A moneymaking re-release of Dracula and Frankenstein (on a twin-bill) convinced Universal to put horror movies back on their assembly line---moms, dads, sissy Brits, critics, and all other pesky ankle-biters be damned. In December 1938, the League of Nations Advisory Committee on Social Relations demanded a means of protection to barricade youth against the "harmful effects of the cinema" and condemned crime and horror films as the greatest motion picture menace to the child mind.) First out of the gate was Son of Frankenstein (1939), which in one important way was emblematic of many of the Universal monster movies that followed: Suddenly the henchmen had the spotlight, and the monsters, uninteresting, slow, and duncelike, were shunted off to the sidelines. (This would hold true in The Ghost of Frankenstein and most of Universal's Kharis movies.)
This "reversal" had to sit well with Bela Lugosi, who turned down the Monster role in 1931's Frankenstein because he felt that the role could be played by a halfwit extra. In 1931, Lugosi was wrong about the role; in 1939, he was entirely correct. Basil Rathbone plays the title role, returning to the ancestral estate, where geography has been rearranged to the extent that Frankenstein's lab now adjoins the family castle. Ygor (Lugosi) introduces himself to Frankenstein as a blacksmith (in a line ignored for years by writers who insist he's a shepherd) and escorts him to a torchlit tomb below the lab, where the Monster (Karloff) is stretched out atop a sarcophagus. Unbeknownst to Frankenstein, Ygor has been using the Monster as an instrument of revenge: At Ygor's behest, the Monster has been secretly killing the burghers who condemned Ygor to hang years before (for grave-robbing).
It's not hard to convince oneself that Lugosi was aware of the delicious irony of the situation. Here was Karloff, the horror star who eclipsed him, sweating his you-know-whats off under pounds of makeup, heavy boots, sheepskin jersey, etc., doing the work of a wooden Indian, while Lugosi had a field day as the wicked Ygor; Lugosi upstages Karloff, acts circles around him, and treats him like the human prop that he is. (In fact, is there any movie in which Lugosi gives the appearance of having a better time?) "Ygor" would be a gift to any ham actor, and Lugosi, who was perhaps savoring the taste of revenge, throws himself into the role; it's one of his most marvelous performances. (Hopefully, nobody spoiled his fun by pointing out to him that, under all of his makeup, he was just as unrecognizable as Karloff was!) There were a lot of great highlights in Son of Frankenstein, and wonderful performances from Lugosi and Lionel Atwill, but otherwise it had enough poky pacing, talking heads, and dead-end scenes to warm the cockles of a Hammer fan's heart.
Lugosi was Ygor again three years later in The Ghost of Frankenstein, acting opposite "Monster" Lon Chaney, Jr. (who Lugosi reportedly liked much better than he did Karloff). Chaney is a bit better as the Monster here than Karloff was allowed to be in Son of Frankenstein, and Lugosi again has a good time as a more ambitious Ygor. In Son of Frankenstein, all Ygor wanted to do was urinate on the graves of the men who sentenced him; in Ghost, he wants to have his brain transplanted into the Monster's body and then take over the whole countryside. (For some reason, Ygor isn't fazed by the fact that, early in the picture, he saw the Monster get his ass handed to him by a gaggle of middle-aged cops!)
In Universal's Kharis series, the Mummy was a bandage-wrapped killer, fueled by tana leaves and doing the bidding of whatever High Priest had been sent over from the Gods of Egypt and the Tombs of Arkham (not to mention Central Casting). Here again, as in Son and Ghost of Frankenstein, the monster was the servant and the human character the boss. (Actually, these mummy movies probably shouldn't be covered in this article, since the High Priests aren't "characters of weird appearance"---although they do look pretty funny in fezzes.) Unfortunately for poor Kharis, he keeps getting stuck with mentors who let their little heads do the thinking for the big ones: George Zucco has the hots for Peggy Moran in The Mummy's Hand, Turhan Bey falls for Elyse Knox in The Mummy's Tomb, and John Carradine (taunted by a silly inner voice) falls in love with Ramsay Ames in The Mummy's Ghost. Finally, in The Mummy's Curse, the Mummy gets a master (Peter Coe) who's not interested in girls (hmmm...)---but Coe gets stabbed in the back by his henchman, Martin Kosleck, who is! (By the 1940s, Universal's horror plots were running the gamut from A to B, and the acting generally belonged to one of two schools, Hat On or Hat Off.)
Universal must have known they had something in J. Carrol Naish, because they gave the actor special "and" billing in House of Frankenstein (1944) and the best role in the movie. (Naish was Oscar-nominated in 1943 for his supporting role in Sahara; in March 1944, while House of Frankenstein was preparing to go into production, he lost on a Jack Benny-hosted Oscar night to actor Charles Coburn, who was in The More the Merrier. Naish plays the hunchbacked Daniel, servant of Dr. Niemann (Boris Karloff), and tags along as Niemann rounds up all the classic Universal monsters: Count Dracula (John Carradine), Larry Talbot/the Wolf Man (Lon Chaney), and the Frankenstein Monster (Glenn Strange). Like the granddaddy of movie hunchbacks, Quasimodo, Daniel falls in love with a gypsy girl, Ilonka (Elena Verdugo). But his little humpbacked ego is crushed when he realized that Ilonka prefers Larry Talbot, and he proceeds to take out his frustration on the unconscious Monster. In the end, after being cruelly strung along by Niemann for five reels and putting up with Karloff's crummy, condescending acting, Daniel attacks him and breaks his back in a scene that had to have elicited a few cheers from audiences back in 1944.
According to Universal publicity, Naish found a hunchbacked derelict in a poverty-stricken area of L.A. and hung out with him, observing his mannerisms. (Maybe Naish took him to the Oscars!) No Oscars were handed out to House of Frankenstein, which has such a silly, kiddie-matinee plot that no damage would have been done to its "integrity" if it had been made as a 12-chapter serial rather than as a feature.(Chapter 1: DR. NIEMANN---MADMAN!, Chapter 6: FANGS OF DEATH, Chapter 12: SANDS OF DOOM, etc.) Maybe the reason Naish comes across so well in the movie (even though he dresses like an organgrinder's monkey) is that most of the other acting is so bad, but let's give them their due and admit that Naish and Carradine are the best parts of House of Frankenstein. Daniel, who slavishly obeys Niemann, gets a good job evaluation report; for killing Niemann at the end, he gets a job (next to Sandor) at the Post Office.
The idea of a sympathetic hunchback character was exploited again a year later in House of Dracula; making up for the fact that the Hunchback killed the Mad Doctor in House of Frankenstein, it happens the other way around in House of Dracula. The two best features of the movie are Carradine's presence (as Dracula again) and Karloff's absence.
Horrific henchmen (sometimes named Ygor) reemerged in the next decade as well: Chaney in The Black Castle and The Black Sleep, Charles Bronson in House of Wax, and others; more recently, they've been used for humor (Marty Feldman in Young Frankenstein, Carradine's hunchbacked assistant in Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex) or to give a spoofy flavor to the cheaper horror pictures. Sinister sidekicks are now an indispensable ingredient in the horror film formula and---as usual---Universal led the field, doing it first and doing it best.
This article originally appeared in the Premiere Issue of MONSTERS FROM THE VAULT back in the summer of 1995. Since this issue sold out years ago, we're reprinting it on our Web site so that the readers who joined us too late to get a copy can get a taste of what it was like. We plan to have more articles from our sold-out issue on our site in the future.