Icon Of The Month: Dwight Frye

That’s right, this month the legendary Dwight Frye, is my icon of the month.

Dwight Iliff Fry was born an only child in Salina, Kansas U.S.A. on February 22, 1899 after which his parents relocated to Denver, Colorado. As a youngster Dwight was given voice training and piano lessons, showing perhaps a promising career as an accomplished pianist. Despite this, his attentions were drawn more towards the stage, attending numerous performances of travelling stock companies passing through town.
After a brief stint as a secretary in a local business firm, Dwight enrolled into college, but this was short lived when he was offered a position with the Denver stock company headed by O.D. Woodward. Much to his parents’ chagrin the company moved to Washington and Dwight toured extensively for two years progressing into bigger and better roles.

At this time Dwight added an “e” to his surname. He attempted to try his luck in New York where he landed a bit part in a vaudeville act called “The Magic Glasses” which lasted for forty weeks. With this meal ticket, and with other tours of the country, Dwight managed to stay employed. The highpoint of his new vocation developed when the revered New York producer Brock Pemberton, who was so impressed with Dwight’s work that he cast him as a burglar’s apprentice in Broadway’s “The Plot Thickens “of 1922. 

Dwight received favourable notices from the critics, not least from the eminent Alexander Woolcott in his New York Times column. Dwight wisely stayed with Pemberton who cast him in a variety of roles including “6 Characters In Search of an Author” (1922), “Rita Coventry” (1923) and as a gigolo in “The Love Habit” (1923), proving his ability in comedies and musicals. In every role Dwight earned the praises of the critics who voted him one of the ten best actors currently on the stage. Interestingly during this period Dwight performed in “The Devil In The Cheese” that ran for five months on Broadway co-starring with Frederic March and with Bela Lugosi who was cast as a Greek bandit.

While in New York Dwight made his first unbilled film appearance as an extra in a wedding scene for Universal’s “The Night Bird” (1928). That same year he married Laurette Bullivant on August 1st, a dancer who he met during a stage performance together. To bolster his financial status, the newly-weds opened a tearoom at 44 West 69th Street which was frequented by many of the stage personalities of the day. After his latest role in “Mima”, the stock market crash of 1929 put a huge strain on Broadway and the couple lost their lucrative tearoom, forcing them to relocate to the sunnier climes of California where Dwight found work in the play “Rope’s End”.

A scout for Warner Bros. noticed him on stage and offered him a contract. Dwight then appeared as a gun-toting mobster in “Doorway To Hell” (1930), a crime-does-not-pay tale directed by Archie Mayo and starring James Cagney in his second film appearance. His next screen role was as Vint Glade in “Man To Man” (1930), a bank clerk who attempts to frame a robbery on a romantic rival.

Dwight’s next signing was for the role that would permanently change the course of his career. After appearing in Universal’s “Dracula” his portrayal of Renfield was considered to be such a definitive portrayal of madness that with very few exceptions, he found himself being type-cast and faced with serious limitations on his opportunities in Hollywood.

During the production of “Dracula” in 1930, Laurette gave birth to Dwight David Frye who would later become a successful stage personality. As a point of interest, Dwight Jnr. appeared with his father in RKO.’s 1937 production of “The Man Who Found Himself” as a survivor of a train wreck.

Dwight appeared in the first film version of The Maltese Falcon (1931), (known as “Dangerous Female” in America), as the neurotic psychopath ‘Gunsel Wilmer’, but although some of his scenes, like so many others in his future appearances, ended up on the cutting room floor, his presence is certainly a welcome addition to the film’s cast.

Next came a role alongside Bela Lugosi in “The Black Camel” (1931), the second Charlie Chan release with Warner Oland. Lugosi appears as a turbaned fortune teller named ‘Tarnevarro’ while Frye appears as a butler played with a subtle hint of dementia. The film was shot on location in Honolulu and the cast was put up at the luxurious Royal Hawaiian Hotel. Back in Hollywood, Universal were anxious to repeat their success of “Dracula” and were preparing to film the rights to the play by Peggy Webling entitled “Frankenstein”, (Shelley’s original novel had long been in the public domain).
The young Frenchman Robert Florey was chosen as the director with Bela Lugosi expected for the role of the Monster. When Lugosi’s two-reel screen test filmed by Paul Ivano was deemed unsuitable, James Whale finally stepped in to film Frankenstein and retained the services of Dracula’s Edward van Sloan and Dwight Frye. Meanwhile Robert Florey and Lugosi were given the less prestigious assignment “The Murders In The Rue Morgue” (1932).

Dwight’s role of the hunchbacked assistant ‘Fritz’ perfectly complemented Colin Clive as the highly strung ‘Henry Frankenstein’. Once again Dwight found some of his performance trimmed from the final print when British censors refused to grant a certificate until a scene of Fritz found hanging in the dungeon was cut. However, all the controversy boosted the film’s profits and doubled the earnings from “Dracula”.

Frye’s next venture was for the “poverty row” studios at Monogram in “Strange Adventure” (1932) as murder suspect Robert Wayne. The film inherited much of the old-dark-house trappings of “The Cat And The Canary” complete with a hooded killer and frightened black servant (played by Fred “Snowflake” Toomes). 

Later in the year Frye appeared in three pictures for Columbia, a courtroom drama titled “Attorney For The Defense”, a thriller involving a murder on a train titled “By Whose  Hand?” and his only western appearance “The Western Code”.  In 1933 Dwight was back at Universal for an un-billed role as a reporter in “The Invisible Man”, primarily as a favour for his friend James Whale. 
Typecasting reared again in his career when he portrayed ‘Herman Glieb’, the village idiot in “The Vampire Bat”. The feature was filmed on the Universal backlot for Majestic Pictures and starred Lionel Atwill as mad scientist ‘Otto von Neimann’ and Fay Wray. 

‘Herman’s fondness for furry bats Herman makes him the number one suspect in a series of “bat” killings that are plaguing the town of Kleinschloss. Director Frank R. Strayer’s career rarely ventured outside the perimeter of the independent studios, but he seemed to be one of the few directors able to closely match the quality of the Universal horror pictures. That same year Frye was cast as a deranged aerialist in Columbia’s “The Circus Queen Murder”.

For the next eighteen months Dwight became more involved with the theatre where he found that some producers had no qualms about casting him as something other than a demented character. Some of the productions included “The Criminal At Large” and a Charlie Chan murder mystery in New York titled “Keeper Of The Keys”. His last appearance on Broadway was in “Queer People”.

Back on the West Coast he appeared on stage in “The Pursuit Of Happiness” and “Her Majesty The Widow”, but by now Dwight had begun to despair over the film industry’s reluctance to cast him in varied roles despite the critical and public acclaim he received for his stage appearances. As early as 1933 Universal had planned a sequel to Frankenstein titled “The Return of Frankenstein” to be directed by Kurt Neumann, however, the project was derailed when the studio suffered the loss of a million dollars over the year.

In 1934 James Whale was chosen to direct the sequel now titled “The Bride of Frankenstein” and he was allowed to hand pick the cast including Dwight who worked closely with the director for his role of ‘Karl Glutz’ the graverobber.  Of the original script Dwight was considered for two roles, that of Karl and as Fritz, the village idiot. Whale decided to combine the characters into one attempting to showcase Dwight’s talent to portray a likeable lunatic.

When the film was completed Carl Laemmle Jnr. and Whale both agreed that the 92 minute film would benefit from a cut of 17 minutes. Included was a scene of Frye looking into Dr. Pretorius’ laboratory (played with perfection by Ernest Thesiger), and when Karl’s aunt and uncle, (Tempe Pigott & Gunnis Davis), are fleeing from the monster after he has escaped from prison, while Karl watches on as the monster attacks the burgomaster, (E.E. Clive).

Later on at his aunt and uncle’s cottage, Karl sneaks in and murders his uncle for a sack of money. The murder is blamed on the monster and Karl’s grinning face fills the screen as he chuckles to himself:

“Very convenient to have a monster around. This is quite a nice cottage. I shouldn’t be surprised if he visited Auntie too!”
This brief sub-plot was clipped from the finished print with the exception of a shot of Karl leaning against a tree as the villagers chase the monster. To bridge the gap left by the cuts, Whale filmed a sequence of the monster wandering into a gypsy camp. The remainder of Dwight’s scenes remain intact and he would appear again in three more of Whale’s films.
Following “Atlantic Adventure” (1935), a tale about a reporter who captures a murderer on board an ocean liner, Dwight received the highest billing of his career in Republic’s “The Crime Of Doctor Crespi” (1935) supporting Erich von Stroheim. Cast against the norm, and one of the few roles in which he does not have a death scene, Dwight appears as ‘Dr. Thomas’, one of ‘Dr. Crespi’s, (Stroheim), assistants who becomes suspicious when ‘Crespi’ administers a drug to the man who stole the woman he loved.

The drug keeps the man in suspended animation long enough for ‘Crespi’ to declare him dead and have him buried. Even here Dwight has to perform a scene in which he and another assistant have to exhume the man’s body from the graveyard.  

His last line is in complete contrast with his usual roles when, with a twinkle in his eye, he asks a nurse:

 “Doing anything tonight?”

Back at Universal Dwight played a minor role in “The Great Impersonation” (1935), a pre-World War I spy drama, however, audiences expected full blooded horror from the studio and were disappointed to find that the ghost of the Black Bog played by Frye is indeed human, even though the man is mad. Frye is virtually unrecognisable under the mass of tousled hair.

The following years brought Dwight a succession of supporting roles in “Florida Special”, “Alibi For Murder”, “Beware Of Ladies”(all 1936), The Man Who Found Himself”, “Sea Devils”, with James Cagney in “Great Guy”, “The Road Back”, “Something To Sing About”, “Renfrew Of The Royal Mounted” and “The Shadow” (all 1937). Between these films Dwight also found time to return to the theatre to play the lead in “The Night Must Fall”.

1938 saw Dwight in “The Invisible Enemy”, a short titled “Think It Over”, Who Killed Gail Preston?”, and as ‘Marshall’ in James Whale’s “Sinners In Paradise”. Next he appeared in “The Night Hawk”, “Fast Company” for MGM and as the ‘Jackal’ in Columbia’s “Adventure In The Sahara”. He then made his sixth and last appearance in a James Whale film with “The Man In the Iron Mask” (1939) as a foppish valet.

If Dwight was upset by the cuts made in “The Bride of Frankenstein”, he must have wondered what the editors had against him when his entire role as an angry villager was cut from “The Son of Frankenstein”. Universal had initially decided to shoot the film in Technicolor, however, when filming began it became evident that Karloff’s make up didn’t photograph well in colour. Hence Dwight’s entire part disappeared with the abandoned footage and the film was finally released in black and white.

Dwight’s roles continued to become limited in scope and not helped by an appearance in “Conspiracy” (1939), a part in the thin comedy-drama “I Take This Woman”, “Gangs Of Chicago”, “Phantom Raiders” and a role as ‘Professor Anderson’, the curator of a historical museum in Republic’s “Drums Of Fu Manchu”. Directed by serial specialist William Whitney and John English, Dwight only appears in Chapter 5 “The House of Terror”, but is mysteriously billed in twelfth place for all 15 chapters.

His other handful of films were “Sky Bandits”, the swashbuckler “SOn Of Monte Cristo”, “The People VS. Dr. Kildare”, “The Blond From Singapore” and The Devil Pays Off” before being recalled to take his place as an irate villager in “The Ghost Of Frankenstein”. This time Dwight survived the wrath of the editor’s scissors and his scene remains intact.

His other film credits at this time are “Mystery Ship”, “Danger In The Pacific”, “Sleepytime Gal”, and “The Prisoner Of Japan” demonstrating his great versatility in each role, but continually fighting an industry that refused him anything more than small walk-on parts. In 1942 Dwight made a brief return to the stage as ‘Renfield’ in a Los Angeles production of “”Dracula”, this time with Frederick Pymm in the cape.

The “Frankenstein” saga continued at Universal with “Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman” and gave Frye the role of ‘Rudi the tailor’. In the script his character was described as a blushing newly-wed, but he is only spotted dancing with the ‘Baroness Elsa Frankenstein’, (Ilona Massey), during the Festival of the New Wine, suggesting that his role had decreased in size during the transition from script to screen.

Again Dwight found himself as a demented hunchback, this time in PRC’s “Dead Men Walk” (1943), playing opposite not one, but two George Zucco’s as twin brothers. Looking old and tired as ‘Zolarr’ the hunchback, Dwight is given little more to do than scuttle around and utter “Master!”. In his best scene, Zolarr sneaks up on ‘Dr. Clayton’ to beat him to death with a large stick. The close-up of Dwight building up a lather of hatred is the most intense and unnerving scene of the entire film.

During the summer of 1943, Dwight decided to work during the night as a draughtsman for the Lockheed Aircraft Company in aid of the war effort. The bruising schedule he set himself  was due partly to the guilt he felt for being too young to sign up during the First World War and now he was too old for the Second.

He played an unbilled role as a Czech patriot in Fritz Lang’s “Hangmen Also Die” and an equally small role in “Submarine Alert”. His final film credit is as a gangster in Columbia’s “Dangerous Blondes” made to cash-in on the success of the “Thin Man”… series.

Dwight had managed to conceal a series of coronary problems from his family and had refused any medical help as he was a devout Christian Scientist. This was about the time he was offered his first mainstream cinema role as ‘The 1st Secreatary of War, Newton D. Baker’ in a colour production to be filmed by director Henry King. Tragically Dwight succumbed to a fatal heart attack on a crowded bus in Los Angeles while returning from the cinema with his Son.

He died on November 7th 1943 as the ambulance was taking him to hospital, he was 44. He is buried at the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale California. The final humiliation of his career came after his death when it was revealed that his occupation on the death certificate listed him as a tool designer.


(Regarding his typecasting) If God is good, I will be able to play comedy, in which I was featured on Broadway for eight seasons and in which no producer of motion pictures will give me a chance! And please God, may it be before I go screwy playing idiots, half-wits and lunatics on the talking screen! – Dwight Frye

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