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Lionel Atwill - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

August 2008

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He was not horror's biggest star, but simply put, classic horror cinema wouldn't be the same without him. He was certainly not leading man material - he was neither handsome and wiry nor indeed young enough to make it as your typical celluloid hero -, but his would be the supporting characters that gave the films colour, like the police inspector, the general, the local doctor or, most prominent of all, the mad scientist. And as far as old Hollywood goes, Lionel Atwill was one of the best character actors there were, a man who could effortlessly do A- and B-movies ... and yet his career ended disgracefully with the Hollywood establishment almost uniformly turning its back on Atwill, not even attending his funeral when he died from pneumonia at age 61 - and all thanks to the Hays Office's iron grip on the film industry paired with Hollywood's general opportunism .... but now I'm getting way ahead of myself, let's instead start at the beginning.

 

Lionel Atwill was born Lionel Alfred William Atwill into a wealthy family in Croydon, England in 1885. Originally he was to study architecture, but he soon found himself drawn the stage and at the age of 20, he had his acting debut at London's prestigious Garrick Theatre. Over the next 10 years he would play various London venues, acting in plays by the likes of Henrik Ibsen and George Bernard Shaw.

In 1915, Lionel Atwill came to the USA to resume his acting career on Broadway, appearing in some 25 plays until 1931 - and besides that already collecting his first on-screen credits between 1918 and 1921, starting with the Famous Players-production Eve's Daughter (1918, James Kirkwood). However these films didn't earn him much fame, and if anything, they prove that silent cinema was not Lionel Atwill's medium.

 

In 1927, Warner Brothers released the first ever commercial (part-)talking picture, The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland) - a film that would change Hollywood forever: All of a sudden, actors and actresses who could carry dialogue were in demand, and many of the established Hollywood stars did not have the voice, the phrasing, or indeed the talent to do just that, and something called mike-fright destroyed many a career.

What Hollywood needed now more than ever was established stage actors: On one hand they were sure to be able to deliver dialogue, on the other hand, they already had a certain degree of popularity - if modest compared to their Hollywood counterparts - to sell their films by. And so it fell upon Lionel Atwill to make a series of sound shorts for Fox Film from 1928 onwards. Essentially, these films are quite forgotten or even lost nowadays - and maybe deservedly so - but back in the days, they helped to further the popularity of Lionel Atwill, making it only a question of time as to when he would graduate to feature films ...

 

Atwill's first sound feature came in 1932, in the form of Silent Witness (Marcel Varnel, R.L.Hough), a courtroom drama once again produced by Fox Film. In the film Atwill plays a lawyer who has to defend his own son (Bramwell Fletcher) in court after he is accused of having killed a golddigging lady (Greta Nissen). The film might not be a true classic or a masterpiece of any sort, but it already shows Lionel Atwill's great talent for character roles.

 


However, it was the same year's Doctor X (1932, Michael Curtiz) - a Warner Brothers-production - that can be seen as Lionel Atwill's ultimate breakthrough performance: In this film, shot in early (and inferior) 2-strip Technicolor and co-starring Fay Wray, Atwill plays the head of the Academy of Surgical Research - exactly the academy that is suspected to house a serial killer dubbed the Moon Killer, whose killings have to do with scientific flesh and cannibalism. In the end, the killer turns out to be not Lionel Atwill and he turns out to be merely a scientist, not a mad scientist, but his nevertheless sinister performance made him an instant star of the horror genre ...

 


1933's The Vampire Bat (Frank R.Strayer), a film produced by small-fry Majestic but looking like an Universal-shocker, reunited Lionel Atwill with Fay Wray - but this time, Atwill is evil as can be behind his benign facade, a truly mad scientist who hypnotizes his assistant Robert Frazer into murdering people and then tries to put the blame on village idiot Dwight Frye [Dwight Frye bio - click here].

 


The pairing of Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray in fact proved so successful that they were soon reunited for a third (and final) time in the Warner Brothers-production Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933, Michael Curtiz), which came out a mere month after The Vampire Bat and which like Doctor X was shot in 2-strip Technicolor. In this film, Atwill plays a mad sculptor who loses his hands in a fire and who now uses real corpses for his wax figures ...

(By the way: In House of Wax [1953, André De Toth], the 3D-remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum, Atwill's role was played by another horror great, Vincent Price [Vincent Price bio - click here].)

 

In 1933, Atwill also played in his first historical drama, the MGM-production The Secret of Madame Blanche (Charles Brabin) a movie set in the late 19th century about showgirl Irene Dunne who marries Phillips Holmes, the son of a rich man, but that rich man (Atwill of course, turning in another bad guy performance) doesn't approve of his son's choice of women and cuts his financial support, driving the boy into suicide. Then he has Dunne's baby taken from her, leaving her, the actual star of the film, to fend for herself in French bars for about 20 years until she is reunited with her son at the beginning of World War I by coincidence.

Of course, Atwill was perfect for period pieces, his old world looks, charms and accent paired with his sincerity and his charisma simply made him a natural, as he would prove in this and other films ...

 

In the Paramount-production Murders in the Zoo (A.Edward Sutherland), also from 1933, Atwill plays an animal collector who relishes in killing those who get too close to his wife (Kathleen Burke). Top-billing however goes to Charles Ruggles who adds his style of slapstick to the otherwise horrific proceedings (Atwill likes to use his animals to do his killings), making sure this is a comedy as much as it is a horror flick.

 


The Sphinx (1933, Phil Rosen) was Lionel Atwill's first collaboration with B-movie-production-outfit Monogram. As a murder mystery, in which Atwill plays a deaf mute and his murdering twin brother, The Sphinx was as convoluted and confusing as especially poverty row murder mysteries tended to be these days, but Atwill - with able support given amongst others by Lucien Prival as his assistant and Sheila Terry as his would-be victim - sees to it that the film is one of the best B-whodunnits of its time and of its production company ...

 

With The Song of Songs (1933, Rouben Mamoulian), Atwill made another excursion into A-movie period drama territory, co-starring with Marlene Dietrich, with whom he would share the screen again in 1935's The Devil is a Woman (Josef von Sternberg). In the latter film, which is above all a visual feast, he plays the older lover, who fights over Dietrich with Cesar Romero ...

Both The Song of Songs and The Devil is a Woman were produced by Paramount by the way ...

 

Secret of the Blue Room (1933, Kurt Neumann) is a Universal-produced ghost story about 3 men who want to marry a woman (Gloria Stuart), but to prove their worth, they first have to spend a night in the blue room of a haunted castle ... Lionel Atwill, who receives top-billing as the father of the bride, actually only has a supporting role in this one, little more than a red herring.

(By the way, Secret of the Blue Room was the remake of a German film from 1932, Geheimnis des Blauen Zimmers [Erich Engels] and reused many exterior shots as well as a song from that film.)

 

The Solitaire Man (1933, Jack Conway) is a routine MGM crime caper in which Atwill plays a Scotland Yard inspector trying to track down a jewel thief on an airplane from Paris to London. The film however is carried by Mary Boland and May Robson, two elderly actresses playing it for the laughs - and doing the film a heap of good.

 

Nana (1934, Dorothy Arzner, George Fitzmaurice) was actually a Samuel Goldwyn-produced big budget vehicle to introduce Russian actress Anna Sten - who had already been successful first in Russia then in Germany - to American audiences. Unfortunately though the picture failed miserably at the box office and Sten never became the big star Goldwyn wanted to make out of her.

 


With the Monogram-produced Beggars in Ermine (1934, Phil Rosen) it was back to low budget filmmaking for Lionel Atwill, but the film itself is not without interest: In it, Atwill plays a factory owner who loses everything when he is crippled in an accident caused by a rival, but owning nothing of his own, he organizes a gang of beggars into a powerful union to help him retaliate. Unfortunately, the premise sounds much more promising thant he film - a cheesy melodrama - actually is.

 

Stamboul Quest (1934, Sam Wood) is an MGM-produced World War I melodrama with plenty of espionage, mystery and intrigue headlined by Myrna Loy and George Brent. Atwill has quite a prominent role as the chief of the German counter-intelligence.

 

One More River (1934) is one of those melodramas with which director James Whale wanted to break away from his horror-image - however this attempt proved to be unsuccessful, and his melodramas by and large are far less special than his horror classics. Lionel Atwill merely plays a small role in this one.

 

The Age of Innocence (Philip Moeller), a 1934-adaptation of the novel of the same name by Emily Wharton (which was adapted in 1993 by Martin Scorsese) about New York's high society of the 1870's, is strictly a vehicle for Irene Dunne, who - as an aristocratic divorcee shaking up high society - overshadows everyone else.

 

The Firebird (1934, William Dieterle) is another murder mystery, this time set in Vienna, Austria, in which Atwill plays the father of a girl (Anita Louise), who might have been deflowered by downsstairs neighbour Ricardo Cortez - and thus, when Cortez is murdered, Atwill finds himself among the suspects, but ultimately he's just a red herring.

 

The Universal-production The Man Who Reclaimed His Head (1934, Edward Ludwig) was first and foremost designed as a starring vehicle for Claude Rains, who had just shot to fame with The Invisible Man (1933, James Whale). Basically the film is a political parable about a pacifist writer - Rains - exploited by warmongers, among them Lionel Atwill at his cruelest. The film, that also stars Joan Bennett as Rains' wife, seems to be as relevant today as it was in the 1930's.

(By the way: The film was remade in 1945 as Strange Confession [John Hoffman] as part of the Inner Sanctum-series with Lon Chaney jr in Claude Rains' role [Lon Chaney jr-bio - click here] and J.Carrol Naish playing Atwill's part. However, the political undercurrents of The Man Who Reclaimed His Head are sadly lost in this one.)

 

The MGM-production Mark of the Vampire (1935, Tod Browning) marked Bela Lugosi's return to the screen as a vampire (at least sort of, in the end it turns out he was only pretending to be one) in a remake of director Browning's own London after Midnight (1927) starring Lon Chaney. Unfortunately, Mark of the Vampire is one of Browning's lesser efforts, especially since he turned one of the earlier film's most original plot elements - that the vampire and the head investigator were one and the same person - topsy turvey and split the character up into Bela Lugosi and Lionel Barrymore. Atwill can be as a stern police inspector in this one, another role he seems to be cut out for.

 

Atwill also plays a police man in another MGM-production of 1935, Murder Man (Tim Whelan), a staring vehicle for Spencer Tracy, then one of the superstars of American cinema. The film also sees James Stewart in one of his very first roles.

 

In the espionage comedy Rendezvous (1935, William K.Howard) - yet another MGM-production, starring William Powell and Rosalind Russell - Atwill can be seen as an army major, and even on the right side of the law this time around, while Binnie Barnes portrays a femme fatale-type German spy and Cesar Romero her accomplice.

 


The Warner Brothers-production Captain Blood (1935, Michael Curtiz) was actually Errol Flynn's breakthrough film in the USA, with Olivia De Havilland providing his love interest and Basil Rathbone in a villainous role. Lionel Atwill makes the most of his role as De Havilland's pompous and unlikeable Colonel-uncle, who is supposed to be the principal villain but absent from most of the proceedings in this classic pirate flick.

 

In the British production The High Command (1936, Thorold Dickinson), Atwill is top-billed as an army general who, during the hardships of World War I, has to come to terms with a crime he committed years ago and protect his daughter from the scandal that might ensue. This might very well be one of Lionel Atwill's best and most multi-layered performances, even if the film today seems to be largely forgotten. By the way, it was also one of young James Mason's first films.

 

The Paramount-production Till We Meet Again (1936, Robert Florey) is another film about World War I (Atwill was in quite a few of them). In this film about British spies trying to destroy the Big Bertha - the long-range gun bombarding Paris -, and ultimately succeeding in doing so too, Atwill plays a German officer.

 

Back at MGM, Atwill made the programmer Absolute Quiet (1936, George B.Seitz), a film in which he is the baddie who crosses and couble-crosses everybody a few too many times for his own good and that has airplane action and indeed crashes aplenty. Later cult actor J.Carrol Naish and cowboy actor Robert Livingston co-star in small roles in this one.

 

In The Road Back (1937, James Whale), the adaptation of a novel by Erich Maria Remarque of All Quiet on the Western Front fame, Atwill only plays a minor role. As a matter of fact, Whale intended the film about German soldiers returning home from World War I and trying to come to terms with their lives to be his masterpiece. However, the powers that be at the film's production company Universal administered a few drastic changes during the final cut of the picture - among other things they removed the complete anti-Nazi subtext, which in 1937 was still a sensible issue - so nowadays one can only guess at Whale's true vicions for the film ... which is quite a pity.

(By the way, by and large, this film is regarded as a sequel to All Quiet on the Western Front [Lewis Milestone] from 1930, even though it features a different set of characters.)

 

In the same year, Atwill also collaborated with James Whale on The Great Garrick (1937), a comedic bio-pic about the famous 18th century British actor David Garrick that starred Brian Aherne in the title role as well as Olivia de Havilland, Edward Everett Horton, Melville Cooper, Luis Alberini, and 16-year-old Lana Turner in one of her first film appearances.

 

Yet again another film about World War I was Lancer Spy (1937, Gregory Ratoff), a 20th Century Fox-production headlined by Dolores Del Rio, George Sanders and Peter Lorre [Peter Lorre-bio - click here]. Again, Atwill plays a German officer in this one.

 


The early Repuclic-picture The Wrong Road (1937, James Cruze) is actually nothing short of ridiculous: It's about a good-natured young couple turned bankrobbers because they think they deserve the money. Once they have held up the bank, they actually turn themselves in in hopes to live off their loot after a short prison stretch ... and Lionel Atwill plays the insurance detective who gives them every opportunity to be let off lightly ...

 

Like The Road Back from 1937, 1938's Three Comrades (Frank Borzage) was based on a novel by Erich Maria Remarque, and once again it's about soldiers returning from World War I. This one, in which Atwill once again only plays a minor role, is about three comrades from the war (Robert Taylor, Robert Young, Franchot Tone) who are in love with the same woman (Margaret Sullavan) who is dieing from tuberculosis. It might be interesting to note that great America writer F.Scott Fitzgerald co-wrote the screenplay with Edward E.Paramore jr. And while Fitzgerald worked as (co-)screenwriter on a handful of movies during that time, this is the only one he was ever given credit for.

(By the way, Erich Maria Remarque's novel Three Comrades is often considered the third part of a trilogy, the other two parts being All Quiet on the Western Front and The Road Back. The novels share no lead characters though.)

 

Besides these films, Atwill also made a number of melodramas during the second half of the 1930's, like Lady of Secrets (1936, Marion Gering), the Dorothy Lamour-starrer The Last Train from Madrid (1937, James P.Hogan), which also starred a young Anthony Quinn, and the bio-pic The Great Waltz (1938, Julien Duvivier) about composer Johann Strauss the younger.

 


It was in 1939 though that Lionel Atwill turned in what would become his most memorable (if not best) performance: That of the one-armed Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein (Rowland V.Lee). The film was Universal's attempt to revive their horror cycle, and even though on a quality level it was nowhere near James Whale's by now classic Frankenstein adaptations, it was a big success on a commercial level and spawned many a sequel (more about that later) - and it boasted one of the best casts ever assembled for a horror film: Boris Karloff [Boris Karloff bio - click here] plays Frankenstein's monster for the third and final time, Basil Rathbone [Basil Rathbone bio - click here] plays Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here] can be seen as the obligatory hunchback Igor - and then there's also Lionel Atwill. And even though all four actors are great in their roles, critics agree by and large that the film goes to Bela Lugosi despite playing a rather ungrateful role and second fiddle to Boris Karloff. That said however, it is Lionel Atwill, and especially his treatment of his wooden arm (in one scene he sticks darts into it to keep them with him during a game of darts), who gives the film some dashes of much-needed colour, and the comic effect of his role is only heightened by the fact that he plays his role totally straight ... and thanks to this performance, Atwill has become a fixture in the second wave of the Universal horror cycle.

(By the way, in Mel Brooks' parody Young Frankenstein [1974], Kenneth Mars plays a role modelled after Atwill's one-armed inspector, however, he plays it for laughs and his performance doesn't come off nearly as funny as Atwill's.)

 


Flix.com


With the success of Son of Frankenstein, Atwill's future as a horror actor seemed to be set more than ever, and eventually he would find himself doing nothing but horror flicks - but also for another reason I'll explain later -, but in the late 1930's/early 1940's, he still played in a wide array of genres in both A- and B-pictures:

  • The Three Musketeers (Allan Dwan) from 1939 was actually a parody of the actual Three Musketeers, with Don Ameche playing D'Artagnan fronting for the cowardly Ritz Brothers posing as Musketeers.
  • The horror/murder mystery/comedy The Gorilla (1939, Allan Dwan) reunites Lionel Atwill with the Ritz Brothers, but neither the comic trio nor Atwill nor Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here] who's also in this one can do anything to save the film.

  • The 20th Century Fox-production The Hound of the Baskervilles (1939, Sidney Lanfield) is the first in a series of Sherlock Holmes-films starring Basil Rathbone as the master detective and Nigel Bruce as his sidekick Watson. In this film, one of the best adaptations of the classic story, Atwill plays Dr Mortimer, one of the many suspects who turns out to be a red herring. A young (21 years) Richard Greene plays Sir Henry Baskerville in this one.
  • Lionel Atwill and Basil Rathbone met again in The Sun Never Sets (1939, Rowland V.Lee), an A-film produced by Universal set in colonial Africa in which Rathbone plays the heroic brother of the even more heroic Douglas Fairbanks jr while Atwill plays an eccentric entomologist who ultimately turns out to be the baddie trying to cause unrest among the natives.
  • Mr. Moto Takes a Vacation (1939, Norman Foster) is part of the Mr Moto series starring Peter Lorre [Peter Lorre-bio - click here] as the Japanese detecitve (odd choice if there ever was one) that 20th Century Fox has created to cash in on the success of their own Charlie Chan-series. Interestingly, Lionel Atwill also acted in two Charlie Chan-films in 1940, Charlie Chan in Panama (Norman Foster) and Charlie Chan's Murder Cruise (Eugene Ford), both starring Sidney Toler as the Oriental supersleuth.

  • In 1939, Lionel Atwill also starred in a trio of lesser melodramas, The Secret of Dr. Kildare (Harold S.Bucquet), an entry into the Dr. Kildare hospital-series starring Lew Ayres, Balalaika (Reinhold Schünzel), a film about the Russian revolution starring Nelson Eddy, and the Mexican-American co-production The Mad Empress (Miguel Contreras Torres), a tale about the Mexican revolution.
  • Johnny Apollo (1940, Henry Hathaway), another 20th Century Fox-production is a film about a young man (Tyrone Power) who turns to a life of crime to get his father out of jail. Dorothy Lamour plays Power's love interest, Atwill only has a small role in this one.
  • Girl in 313 (1940) was the last directorial effort of Ricardo Cortez, who was more famous as an actor but who directed 7 films between 1939 and 1940. This solid B-crime drama stars Florence Rice as a police officer infiltrating a gang of jewel thieves and Kent Taylor as the jewel thief she falls in love with.
  • With The Great Profile (1940, Walter Lang), Atwill was back in A-movie heaven. Essentially this film is a self-parody of its lead actor John Barrymore (or rather the scandals and rumours that surrounded him), with 17 year old Anne Baxter in only her second film giving support.

  • Boom Town (1940, Jack Conway) was another A-movie, featuring the amazing cast of both Clark Gable and Spencer Tracy, plus Claudette Colbert and Hedy Lamarr. The film is set in the oil fields out West, with Gable and Tracy playing two oil hunters. Atwill is once again reduced to a small supporting character.
  • With 1941's Man Made Monster (George Waggner), Lionel Atwill returned to the Universal horror cycle. The film features a rather silly story about a mad scientist turning a man into a remote controlled monster designed to do his bidding and carry out his evil plans. Atwill plays the mad scientist with aplomb, while Lon Chaney jr - who has yet to leave his mark on the horror genre with The Wolf Man (1941, George Waggner) - plays his unfortunate victim [Lon Chaney jr-bio - click here].
  • If Man Made Monster was silly, The Mad Doctor of Market Street (1942, Joseph H.Lewis), another entry into the Universal horror cycle, was even sillier - but in a good way. This one has Lionel Atwill as a - you guessed it - mad scientist who's on the run from the law and eventually sets up shop on a South Seas island, where he poses as the natives' God over life and death ... until justice catches up with him and ultimately he is killed by exactly the natives he wanted to rule over as God ...


  • Lionel Atwill also had a role in Ernst Lubitsch's legendary To Be or Not to Be (1942), a film about a theater troupe led by Jack Benny and Carole Lombard that outwits the Nazis in World War II-torn Poland. Along with Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940), this is possibly the best and sharpest anti-Nazi comedy of all wartime (and maybe of all time even).A twill plays a ham actor in this one, which seems kind of fitting ...
  • The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942, Erle C.Kenton), the fourth of Universal's Frankenstein-films, sees Lionel Atwill as a mad scientist once more while Bela Lugosi returns as Igor. The monster is this time around played by Lon Chaney jr, and Cedric Hardwicke plays another son of Frankenstein.
  • In The Strange Case of Dr RX (1942, William Nigh), an unsuccessful mix of horror-,sci-fi- and murder mystery motives, Lionel Atwill only makes a cameo appearance - and its maybe for the best since the film is a total mess and only just kept alive by the comic performances of Mantan Moreland [Mantan Moreland-bio - click here] and Shemp Howard.
  • Junior G-Men of the Air (1942, Lewis D.Collins, Ray Taylor), another Universal-production, was Lioel Atwill's first serial. Basically the serial was at once a showcase for the Dead End Kids and the Little Tough Guys, a sequel to the serial Junior G-Men (Ford L.Beebe, John Rawlins) from 2 years earlier and an American propaganda effort - after all it was 1942, and the USA was at war with the Axis. Lionel Atwill has the rather unusual and unexpected role of a Japanese spy in this one.
  • Pardon My Sarong (1942, Erle C.Kenton), yet again produced by Universal, is a comedy starring Abbott and Costello, and while this comic duo never lived up to the quality of other comic duos of the time, most notably Laurel and Hardy, Pardon My Sarong is at least one of their better films. In it, the two play busdrivers who somehow land on an island in the South Seas ruled by evil Lionel Atwill.
  • Night Monster (1942, Ford L.Beebe) is a horror/murder mystery in the best old dark house-tradition in which several people are locked into a house and a mysterious killer picks them out and kills them one by one. Atwill plays a physicist who eventually turns up to be one of the victims while co-star Bela Lugosi as the sinister butler has a classic red herring role in this one. The heroics in this Universal-production are handled by Don Porter while Irene Hervey plays his love interest. Interestingly, the climax of this film (the old dark house finally blowing to Kingdom Come) was lifted from The Ghost of Frankenstein.
  • With MGM's Cairo (1942, W.S.Van Dyke), Atwill was back in A-picture territory. The film, starring Jeanette MacDonald and Robert Young, is at once a romantic comedy, a musical, an espionage film and at the same time yet another American propaganda effort. In the credits, Lionel Atwill's role is described as Teutonic gentleman - which is quite a bit of a giveaway, actually.

Unfortunately, Cairo would remain Atwill's last A-picture ever, because 1942 was the year desaster struck: Apparently, Atwill was holding sex parties and orgies at his house, led a swinger lifestyle and showed pornographic films at his parties - which would be alright if the whole thing was kept out of the public eye properly - but unfortunately at his 1940 Christmas Party, a girl was allegedly raped (not by Atwill himself), and at the trial resulting from it, Atwill, as they say, lied like a gentlemen to shield his friends. Because of that, Atwill was convicted for perjury to 5 years on probation in a seperate trial in 1942. 

Seven months after his conviction however, he applied for and was granted termination of his sentence and his record was expunged ... and that should have been that.

Unfortunately, in 1940's Hollywood there was an organisation that saw itself above the law, the Hays Office, and the office saw to it that Atwill, who now was innocent in the eyes of the law, was blacklisted with all the major studios on grounds of his personal predilections rather than anything that had to do with his work - and Hollywood, which was ruled then by almost as many opportunisits and turncoats back than as it is now, uniformly turned its back on Atwill, even though quite some of the people who now dropped him like a rotten apple might have been attending his parties regularly before (unfortunately though, there is no concrete evidence for that).

 

Fortunately though, this did not mean the end of Atwill's career since the Hays Office was only strict concerning Hollywood's A-picture output while it didn't mind to much about B-movies (B-pics might simply have been below that totalitarian organisation), and thus Atwill could - besides the theatrical work he once again picked up after his fall from grace - at least act in Bs and serials for UniversalRepuclic and PRC [PRC-article - click here], who gladly jumped the chance of getting an actor of his caliber. Interestingly enough, PRC is even now constantly criticized for exploiting Atwill by employing him when (almost) no one else would - when actually the studio was supporting him and helping him paying his bills when Atwill's high-rolling Hollywood friends had turned their backs on him when he needed them most. Sure, PRC-films did not look nearly as polished as MGM-films and were produced on only a fraction of the typical MGM-B-budget, but fact is that MGM did put out many a dud while PRC was able to release at least the occasional gem ...



  • The Sherlock Holmes-film Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon (1943, Roy William Neill), the second of the series produced by Universal starring Basil Rathbone [Basil Rathbone bio - click here] and Nigel Bruce, was also one of the more interesting ones, inasmuch as it took Holmes from Victorian era to modern times London and had him fight Nazis as part of the American propaganda efforts. Of course the film, loosely based on the Arthur Conan Doyle story The Dancing Men is by far less convincing than 20th Century Fox' The Hound of the Baskervilles from a few years earlier, but somehow it's still fun to watch. Lionel Atwill by the way plays Holmes' perennial nemesis Moriarty in this one, and does quite a fine job at that.
  • (By the way, Sherlock Holmes and the Secret Weapon was not the first film to use Sherlock Holmes for propaganda purposes, Sherlock Holmes and the Voice of Terror (John Rawlins) from the previous year was pretty much of the same ilk.)

  • For Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943, Roy William Neill), Atwill returns to the Frankenstein-series that by the time this one was made was in the process of becoming a monster-omnibus series - so this one not only features the Frankenstein Monster (as played by Bela Lugosi) but also Lon Chaney jr's Wolf Man [Lon Chaney jr-bio - click here] (later entries into the series would also include Dracula, but more of that later). Lionel Atwill is rather wasted in this one, playing the minor character of the mayor, as is Dwight Frye, playing a mere villager [Dwight Frye-bio - click here].
  • The next film in the series was House of Frankenstein (1944, Erle C.Kenton). Here Atwill is given more to do as the police inspector, but unfortunately this inspector is nowhere near as great as the one he played in Son of Frankenstein. In all, House of Frankenstein is a rather silly and forgettable yet unintentionally hilarious film, and it boasts one of the best horror casts of the 1940's, starring besides Lionel Atwill and the series' regulars - Glenne Strange as the monster, Lon Chaney jr as the Wolf Man and John Carradine as Dracula [John Carradine-bio - click here] - also George Zucco as a travelling showman  [George Zucco bio - click here], J.Carrol Naish as a hunchback and first and foremost Boris Karloff  [Boris Karloff bio - click here] as the obligatory mad scientist.


  • House of Dracula (Erle C.Kenton) from the following year, in which Atwil plays yet another inspector, does not boast that same stellar cast - only Strange, Chaney jr and Carradine return in their respective roles - and is for that all the more forgettable, but still (unintentional) fun to watch.
  • Captain America (1944, Elmer Clifton, John English) is a Repuclic-serial [Republic history - click here] based on the then popular propaganda comicbook character created by Joe Simon and the overrated Jack Kirby and published by Timely (later Marvel Comics). Interestingly though, Captain America, a superhero whose costume is modelled after the star-spangled banner and whose missions are invariably patriotic ones in the comicbook to boost American morale during World War II, has been turned into a regular crimefighter with no patriotic agenda whatsoever in the serial. The Captain in this serial is played by Dick Purcell while his sidekick/love interest is played by Lorna Gray. Lionel Atwill can be seen turning in another villain performance.


  • Lady in the Death House (1944, Steven Sekely) was Atwill's first film for PRC [PRC-article - click here]. In this one, Lionel Atwill plays a famed criminologist who tries to prove death row convict Jean Parker's innocence (she is supposed to have murdered the blackmailer of her father) in what ultimately becomes a merciless race against time as Parker's execution is a mere few minutes away ...
  • The Universal-produced serial Raiders of Ghost City (1944, Lewis D.Collins, Ray Taylor) is one of Atwill's very rare appearances in a Western. In this film, set during the Civil War, Atwill plays the leader of a gang of fake Confederates who rob Union gold shipments merely for their own benefit. Dennis Moore and Joe Sawyer play the heroes out to stop him.
  • Repuclic's Secrets of Scotland Yard (1944, George Blair) is yet another American propaganda effort, otherwise a pretty unremarkable film.


  • The PRC-feature Fog Island (1945, Terry O.Morse) did not only star Atwill as the bad guy of this old dark house style shocker but also George Zucco  [George Zucco bio - click here], another great badman of horror cinema of the 1940's. The two of them alone should be enough reason to watch the film - which is actually rather good even aside of them.
  • Atwill also lends some colour to Crime Inc (1945, Lew Landers), a PRC-produced gangster flick in which he has a supporting role as a mobster.
  • Genius at Work (1946, Leslie Goodwins) was actually an RKO-production, if only a B-picture at that. The film, a comedy that also starred Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here], was actually a vehicle for the comic duo of Wally Brown and Alan Carney, who played in 10 or so films together between 1943 and 1946. However, neither the film in question nor the comic duo is really worthwhile.


In 1946, during the filming of the Universal-serial Lost City of the Jungle (Lewis D.Collins, Ray Taylor), Lionel Atwill died from pneumonia. George Sorel filled in for Atwill in the remaining scenes. Atwill was 61 years of age, and left behind a wife - he has been married a total of four times - and a son - he had two sons, but his first son, John Anthony Atwill, a flying officer with the Royal Air Force, was killed in action in 1941. His second son, Lionel Anthony Guille Atwill, was born only months before Lionel Atwill's untimely death.

 

With Lionel Atwill, Hollywood lost one of its finest character and genre actors of his time, but actually, Hollywood (at least big business Hollywood) dropped Lionel Atwill years before when it they failed to stand up to the Hays Office and let Atwill be convicted for somethingthat had nothing to do with his acting abilities or his criminal record (which was cleared anyways) but a weird set of morals some wanted to force upon many. Lionel Atwill's son Lionel Anthony Guille Atwill consequently despises Hollywood and his father's connection to it, and only recently he had his father's ashes removed from a Los Angeles cemetary to keep in his own home and wants to have nothing to do with the actor's fanclub's initiative to get him a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame - and can you blame Lionel jr ?

I think not.

 

Today, Lionel Atwill should be remembered as the great actor he quite simply was, but also as a warning that there still are forces and organisations out there determined to bring down actors regardless of their talent because of their personal believes and personal mistakes, organistaions that are normally led by people who are in no position to throw the first stone ...

 

© by Mike Haberfelner


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