By Alexander Miles
To the hardcore horror movie fans, he is the archetype of the raving madman. His manic eyes and energetic presence terrified and enthralled audiences during the hay day of Universal Studios’ horror craze. Although considered one of the finest character actors of his day, Dwight Frye found himself typecast as either the mad or deformed assistant to whoever was in the role of “mad scientist” (usually George Zucco or Colin Clive). So how does one go from being a sheer nobody working in local businesses, to one the greatest unsung hero’s of the Horror genre?
The answer, quite simply, is fate!
Dwight Lliff Fry was born in Salina, Kansas on February 22, 1899. Not long after his birth his parents relocated to Denver, Colorado. His entree into show business came as a young boy when he received voice and piano lessons in hopes of becoming musician. It has been documented that perhaps he would have had a promising career if he stuck to it. But alas, it was not to be. More than music, Frye was drawn to the theatrical stage and attended many performances by travelling stock companies that passed through the area. Frye loved the performances he saw, and from them seed was planted!
Frye worked as a secretary for a local business firm, until he decided to enroll in college. His academic studies came to a halt when O.D. Woodward offered him the chance to come and join the Denver stock company. Though this meant leaving his family, relocating himself to Washington D.C., and doing a great amount of touring, Frye jumped at the chance and toured for 2 years, perfecting his craft and landing bigger roles in productions. It was during this time that he added the ‘e’ to his surname.
After touring with the stock company, Frye went to New York and landed a part in the vaudeville act The Magic Glasses. The production lasted for forty weeks. With his success in the play, and with his touring around, Frye had no problems with staying employed. Many New York producers where very impressed with Frye’s performances, and gave him a variety of roles in their shows. He was an apprentice to a thief in The Plot Thickens in 1922. His performance won him praise from many of the critics. He continued to perform in productions like Characters in Search of an Author (1922), Rita Coventry (1923) and Love Habit (also 1923). Every performance he gave earned him praise from the critics, even being considered to be one of the top ten best actors on Broadway.
In 1928 Frye made his first appearance on film in Universals The Night Bird. He was an extra in the wedding scene, and though known in the theater, he received no billing in the picture. Around this time he married dancer Laurette Bullivant, whom he met during a stage performance. When the stock market crashed in 1929, Broadway was put under a strain and relieved many of their actors. The couple were forced to relocate to California for Frye to find employment.
He had small roles in two Warner Bros. films: Doorway to Hell and Man To Man, both in 1930. But it was his next role that would ultimately change the course of his life, that of the insane Renfield in Universal’s classic Dracula 1931. His interpretation of the character was, and still is, considered the best interpretation of Bram Stoker’s character. Although it was Bela Lugosi who gave the film its unearthly chills with his performance as Count Dracula, it is Frye who really steals the show. Where Dracula is stone faced, menacing and very dream like, Renfield is a burst of energy capable of being manic at times, humorous at times, and even sympathetic at times. Of all the characters in the film it is Frye’s Renfield that displays the greatest emotional range. The viewer finds themselves feeling for the character, even if he does have an appetite for spiders and flies!
After Dracula, Frye played in various other pictures. He played the psychopathic Wilmer in the first film version of Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon (though it was re titled Dangerous Woman in America) in 1931, and in The Black Camel, also 1931, in a role alongside Dracula costar Bela Lugosi.
Universal, anxious to repeat the success of Dracula, decided to make another monster flick, the Mary Shelley classic Frankenstein. Originally Robert Florey was going to direct it, with Bela Lugosi in the role as the Monster. Dracula co stars Frye and Edward Von Sloan where also hired to perform. Lugosi, who realized that he had no dialogue and would perform under tons of makeup, abandoned the role (big mistake) and he and Florey went to make Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) together. The empty slots were filled by Director James Whale and an unknown Englishman named Boris Karloff.
Frye had another delicious role, that of the hunchback assistant Fritz (the prototype for all “Igors” to follow) to Colin Clive’s obsessed Victor Frankenstein. Where Dracula had a fantasy element to it Frankenstein was full blown horror. And Frye’s Fritz has a very nasty death scene. The monster, after taking enormous amounts of abuse from Fritz, attacks and kills his tormentor. The screams heard off screen are quite spin chilling, and the appearance of Fritz’ shadowy, lifeless body hanging from the rafters in the very room he tormented the monster, who observes it with murderous eyes, was enough to make anyone faint in 1931. With both Dracula and Frankenstein under his belt, Frye found himself typecast.
Frye continued to have roles in horror movies like The Invisible Man (1933) and The Vampire Bat (1933). One of his best roles came in 1935, where he again played an assistant to Dr. Frankenstein in The Bride of Frankenstein. In it he plays Karl, a very likable yet evil assistant, like a combination of both Renfield and Fritz. He is absolutely flawless in his performance, even though 17 minutes of his performance was cut from the final film. One scene had him murdering his own uncle for money, and then blaming on the monster. No footage of this scene has survived, but there are still photographs depicting it so there is no doubt it was shot. It is probably the best Frankenstein film ever made, and on of those rare examples of when a sequel is superior to the original.
Frye never found himself in leading roles, and continued to be cast in horror pictures like The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935) Son of Frankenstein (1939, in which his entire performance was edited out) Frankenstein Meets The Wolfman (1942, in which he had no billing) Dead Men Walk (1943) and Fritz Lang’s Dead Men Also Hang (1943). The man who once prided himself on his romantic and comic acting abilities now found himself playing second rate in low budget horror movies. In an interview he once said: “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!”
During 1943 Frye began to experience coronary problems. In spite of pleas from his family he would not accept any medical help. On November 7th, 1943, he suffered a fatal heart attack on a crowded bus. He and his son were returning home after going to the cinema. He was 44 years old. If he felt humiliation from being cast as supporting characters in Horror movies, he would have been devastated to learn that on his death certificate his occupation was listed as a tool designer. He is buried at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale, California.
Though frustrated at his typecast roles, Dwight Frye has earned his place in cinema history as the iconic image of any assistant to a mad scientist. With a loyal fan base which is ever growing, one can’t help but wonder what he would have done had he not died. He may have dislike his roles, but his performances as madmen and monsters have earned him a special place in the hearts of monster movie lovers. And as an actor, that is the greatest reward.