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Dwight Frye - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

July 2006

Films starring Dwight Fryeon (re)Search my Trash

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There are not many who would give me an argument if I claimed that Dwight Frye was one of Hollywood's best portrayers of madmen of his time, probably of all times - but despite his impressive performances in classics like Dracula, Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein, Frye, a capable actor who could play pretty much anything, was everything but pleased with being typecast as Hollywood's head madman.

Somehow, Dracula, one of his earliest films, seems to be symbolic for Frye's entire career: He starts out as a sane man in this, but ends up a loony with no turning back. And even though Frye has played some normal, sane roles every now and again, it were invariably his portrayals of madmen that proved to be successful (at least in films, the stage is another matter).

 

Born 1899 in Kansas as Dwight Iliff Fry (why the e was added to his last name later on remains at anybody's guess) and grown up in Denver, Frye initially studied music ,and according to reports he was quite an accomplished pianist by the time he enrolled into college. However his college and his music career weres short lived when the acting bug bit him and he got himself enrolled in the Denver stock company headed by O.D.Woodward in 1918. With the company, he eventually relocated to Washington and soon enough he wound up a successful Broadway actor in New York. On Broadway, Frye played a wide variety of roles, in dramas as well as in comedies (for which he showed a special talent) and musicals, and the critics almost invariably reacted favourable towards his performances.

Interestingly enough, in the 1926 stage comedy The Devil in the Cheese, he played opposite Bela Lugosi ...

 

Having gained quite a reputation as a versatile actor on Broadway, Frye made his move to Hollywood in 1930, the perfect time for successful stage actors to switch to screenwork: In 1930, sound film was still in its infancy, and many of the stars of the silent screen proved to be not fit for the new medium, be it because of mike-fright or just lack of talent, or even both. So Hollywood would welcome everybody with a trackrecord in acting (talking acting that is) with open arms ...

 

Frye's first role was that of a gun-toting gangster in Doorway to Hell (1930, directed by Archie Mayo), a film that belonged to James Cagney though, himself in only his second film. Later the same year came a supporting role in Man To Man (1930, Allan Dwan), a crime drama.

 


It was in 1931 though that Frye would play his signature role and the role that changed his career (and his life) forever, and not necessarily for the better: Renfield in Tod Browning's Dracula. To make one point clear, Dwight Frye is amazing in Dracula, his performance is at least as impressive as that of Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here] as the Count - especially in the first half of the film, when he and Lugosi carry the film in equal parts -, and he makes a convincing transformation from a totally normal, sane guy to a total loony in the end - a transformation that would come back to haunt him for the rest of his career.

 

Dracula, as you might know, wound up to be a phenomenal success, so Universal, Dracula's production company, decided to take this movie's leads - Lugosi, Frye and Edward Van Sloan - and put them into another shocker, Frankenstein, set to be directed by Robert Florey. It all came a little differently though, Bela Lugosi turned down the role out of fear of being typecast (too late, as it later turned out, Dracula alone was enough to typecast him for the rest of his career), and Florey abandoned the project in favour of James Whale - which might have been a good thing, because under Whale's wonderful, slightly eccentric yet dilligent direction and with the then relatively unknown called Boris Karloff [Boris Karloff bio - click here] in the monster role intended for Lugosi, Frankenstein turned into one of the classics of horror cinema, surpassing the success of Dracula both on an artistic and a commercial level.

 


Since Dracula, Dwight Frye had appeared in two films, both of interest: In the first screen-version of The Maltese Falcon (1931, Roy Del Ruth), he played the slightly neurotic gunman Wilmer - a role that would later be played by Elisha Cook jr in the more famous 1941 version -, and in The Black Camel (1931, Hamilton MacFadden), the second Charlie Chan film starring Warner Oland, Frye would play a slightly demented butler. Bela Lugosi would co-star.

 


In Frankenstein (1931, James Whale) though, Frye would truly cement his image as horror cinema's madman with his portrayal of sadistic hunchback Fritz who tortures the monster (Boris Karloff) to a point where the monster kills Fritz and starts going on his killing-spree.

With Frankenstein, Universal's classic horror cycle was born, and Dwight Frye wound up to be a prominent figurehead of that cycle - even though his roles in subsequent films would invariably be smaller than in Dracula and Frankenstein.

 


From Universal and Frankenstein, Dwight Frye moved over to poverty row studio Monogram, to play a supporting character, a murder suspect in the old dark house thriller Strange Adventure/The Wayne Murder Case (1932, Phil Whitman, Hampton Del Ruth), then Frye went to Columbia for a trio of films, the courtroom drama Attorney for the Defense (1932, Irving Cummings), the crime drama By Whose Hand ? (1932, Benjamin Stoloff) and The Western Code (1932, John P.McCarthy), Frye's only Western.

 


Back at Universal, Frye did an unbilled bit part as reporter in The Invisible Man (1933), according to reports as a favour to director James Whale. It was later in 1933 though that Frye made another memorable (and quite loony-tunes) appearance in a horror film, that, though it looked like an Universal shocker (and was actually filmed on Universal's lavish backlot), was actually produced by independent. The film in question is The Vampire Bat (1933, Frank R.Strayer) produced by poverty row studio Majestic. In the film, Frye plays a harmless, bat-loving village idiot in a village terrorized by bats (or so everyone thinks), and ultimately he ends up being killed by a lynch mob. The film also stars Fay Wray, Lionel Atwill [Lionel Atwill-bio - click here] and Melvyn Douglas, but Frye's performance is easily the most memorable.

 


By now probably frustrated that he could only make an impact in films when he played madmen, Frye returned to stage acting for the next year and a half, until James Whale hired him for another movie, The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale) - despite the fact that Frye's character Fritz did die in the previous film. In Bride of Frankenstein, Frye plays a character somewhat similar to Fritz, only this time he is named Karl and the assistant of Doctor Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), not Frankenstein. According to reports, Whale had shot an elaborate subplot about the Karl-character and what made him that way, but because it would have made the film too long, pretty much all of it ended up on the cutting room floor, and Frye's multi-faceted role is reduced to that of a one-dimensional idiot ... that said though, it has to be pointed out that even if Frye's role is a cliché at best, his performance is solid, and besides,the film The Bride of Frankenstein has to be considered as one of the all-time classics of the genre ...

 



But if Dwight Frye's role was comparatively small, it was all the bigger in another 1935 film, The Crime of Doctor Crespi (John H.Auer), an early film by newly formed Republic Pictures (actually produced by Liberty Pictures, but acquired by Republic Pictures after that studio went belly-up). In this film Frye was second-billed only to Erich von Stroheim, and what's more, for a change, Frye plays the normal guy, opposite von Stroheim's madman ... and Frye delivers another solid performance.

The movie itself, a tale about a surgeon (von Stroheim) who tries to exact revenge on the man who stole his love on the operating table, is probably not as good or as interesting as it could have been, but it's still a pleasent little spooker, not at least due to the performances of both von Stroheim and Frye.

 




However, the almost-lead in The Crime of Doctor Crespi did not bring Frye the recognition he had hoped for, and for the next few years he was relegated to supporting roles again - and he did't even receive an on-screen credit in some of these films. The more memorable films of this time included Universal's half-hearted The Great Impersonation (1935, Alan Crosland), in which Frye as a madman impersonating a monster is hidden under heavy make-up throughout the film and is virtually unrecognisable, the James Cagney-starrers Great Guy (1937, John G.Blystone) and Something to Sing About (1937, Victor Schertzinger), Renfrew of the Royal Mounted (1937, Albert Herman), the first in the Renfrew-series starring James Newill, Adventure in the Sahara (1938, D.Ross Lederman), and The Shadow (1937, Charles C.Coleman) and Who Killed Gail Preston? (1938, Leon Barsha), both starring Rita Hayworth, and three films directed by James Whale, The Road Back (1937), Sinners in Paradise (1938) and The Man in the Iron Mask (1939).

 

1939 would be the year predestined to give Frye's career a boost, though on closer inspection, not really. In 1939, Universal decided to revive its horror cycle, which was in steady decline since The Bride of Frankenstein (very probably the best film of the cycle altogether), with a film unimaginatively titled Son of Frankenstein (Rowland V.Lee). Quite naturally, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff, the figureheads of Universal's horror cycle, would play the leads, or rather the monsters, Karloff was the creature and Lugosi the hunchback.

But Son of Frankenstein also had a role for Dwight Frye (an angry villager), another very memorable face from the horror cycle. However, once the film was in the can, it turned out to be overlong, so Frye's scenes ended up on the cutting room floor. Other sources suggest that his scenes were shot in Technicolor before it was found out that Karloff's make-up didn't photgraph too well in colour and thus the film was shot in black and white with all the colour footage just tossed out for good. I cannot verify which version of the story is true and which not, but I tend to believe the first theory since Son of Frankenstein, even without Dwight Frye's scenes, seems a tad overlong.

 

In the course of the next few years, Frye would play in two more films of the Universal horror cycle - Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, Erle C.Kenton) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943, Roy William Neill) -, but his roles in both films were very small (not to say bit-parts), and for Ghost of Frankenstein once again he didn't receive  an on-screen credit.

 


Still, the horror revival did pay its dividend for Frye after all, since at least this enabled him to recreate his character of Renfield in a stage production of Dracula that toured the country and that also starred Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan, also recreating their roles from the screen.

 



With the beginning of the 1940's however, Dwight Frye's career went into definitive decline, his roles in bigger productions were rarely more than bit-parts - e.g. Son of Monte Cristo (1940, Rowland V.Lee), Phantom Raiders/Nick Carter in Panama (1940, Jacques Tourneur), The People vs Dr Kildare (1941, Harold S.Bucquet) and Hangmen also Die (1943, Fritz Lang) -, while even in films for smaller studios he was relegated to supporting roles - e.g. Monogram's sci-fi-Western Sky Bandits (1940, Ralph Staub), another entry into the Renfrew-series, or his only appearance in a serial, Republic's The Drums of Fu Manchu (1940, William Witney, John English), where he appeared in merely one episode.

 


One of Dwight Frye's last role, Zolarr in Dead Men Walk (1943, Sam Newfield), would actually be a revival of his Renfield in Dracula ... in fact, the whole film does seem a bit like a remake of Dracula (and in parts it sticks closer to Bram Stoker's novel than Tod Browning's film did), with George Zucco  [George Zucco bio - click here] playing both the vampire and his Van Helsing-like nemesis. Dead Men Walk, despite being done on the cheap by poverty row studio PRC [PRC history - click here] and being highly derivative of Tod Browning's Dracula, proves to be a nice little shocker. And Dwight Frye, despite being visibly ill (he was suffering from a coronary dysfunciton at that time, a condition he managed to conceal from family, colleagues and friends alike), turns in another fine performance.

 

Frye however would not make many more movies after this one, actually another film of 1943, Dangerous Blondes (Leigh Jason), a meaningless crime comedy would be his last screen performance. He would die in November of that year from a heart-attack. By 1943 however, it seems that Frye had already given up on acting by and large because he was making a living constructing bombsights for Lockheed Aircraft Company as his contribution to the US World War II efforts. His death certificate would state his occupation as tool designer ...

 

The bitter irony of it all was that a short time before his death, he was hired to play a good character part in a major A-movie, that of secretary of war Newton D.Baker in the 20th Century Fox biopic Wilson (1944, Henry King) - based on Woodrow Wilson's life of course -, a role that could have turned his career around and granted him good character roles in many mainstream pictures ... (after his death, his role in Wilson would go to Reginald Sheffield by the way.)

 

With Dwight Frye's death, horror cinema lost its probably best ever madman, but cinema as such also lost an actor who was only very rarely allowed to show his full potential, and who, given the opportunity, could have become really big. As it is, he did at least give a few memorable performances without which horror cinema would be a much poorer genre ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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