Jack P. Pierce (born Janus Piccoula; May 5, 1889 – July 19, 1968) was a Hollywood makeup artist most famous for creating the iconic makeup worn by Boris Karloff in Universal Studios’ 1931 adaptation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, along with various other classic monster makeups for Universal Studios.
Born in Greece, Piccoula changed his name after emigrating to America, causing much upset in his family. He worked in and around the film industry for several years, from cinema manager to actor to director, though never achieved much of any worth in any of these fields, though all would influence his meticulous work when he eventually settled behind the camera in the make-up and effects department. Some of his earliest work can be seen in 1927’s Monkey Talks, even here, his work is startling considering the very basic equipment that was available at the time.
Pierce was immediately signed up by Universal and was responsible for carving the rictus grin into Conrad Veidt for 1928’s The Man Who Laughs as well as developing the look for Bela Lugosi’s Dracula in 1931, though the actor preferred to apply his own make-up. Veidt’s look was influenced by the work of Lon Chaney Snr, who shared Pierce’s desire to add as much as possible to the story-telling without diminishing the actor’s work. Pierce’s work at Universal coincided with the arrival of Carl Laemmle Jr as head of production. This was extremely fortunate as the early success of Dracula had convinced him that horror was exactly what America wanted.
Boris Karloff referred to Pierce as ‘the greatest make-up man in the business’. The actor was frequently in Pierce’s chair, beginning with his genre-shaping work on 1931’s Frankenstein, as well as the many sequels. An enormous amount of thought went into the development of the Monster, not just in terms of practicality but also taking into account the back story – the disfigured head explained by the brain implant, the electrodes on the neck the method of delivering life; though the relationship between Karloff and Pierce was a strong one, it’s unlikely he was too impressed they left permanent scars in his neck.
An interview in Modern Mechanix magazine in 1933 saw Pierce describing his most difficult assignment was creating a suitable appearance for Karloff in 1932’s The Mummy. After studying 35 books on Egyptology and mummification, as well as over a month of experimentation, he eventually settled on a method of slowly toasting 1500 feet of cheesecloth inches at a time to create the crumbling, ancient effect the wrapping demanded.
“Wrapping Karloff was the hardest job I’ve faced in 20 years in the motion picture business. Cooking the cloth gave it the appearance of cloth that had rotted under the earth but it had become so fragile that sometimes it fell apart in my hands”.
Although methods of creating effects using cheap and easy to manipulate latex were already available, Pierce insisted on using cotton, putty and the liquid plastic, collodion, more usually used in surgical dressings. Upon applying collodion to human flesh, it slowly shrinks with the solvent, creating wrinkles and scar effects. The use of make-up in conjunction with the human face as opposed to simply creating removable masks, is both beautiful and extremely time-consuming and painful, often taking over eight hours just to apply. Karloff often slept with his Frankenstein Monster make-up still on to avoid the laborious process.
Karloff was the exception to the rule in respect of Pierce’s working relationships. He was notorious for falling out with actors and the studio, none more-so than Lon Chaney Jnr, of whom Pierce had little time, allegedly.
During make-up for The Wolfman (1941) in which thousands of yak hairs were first glued to Chaney’s face then slowly singed with a hot iron, the actor protested that Pierce was deliberately burning his face and not the hairs. It’s difficult to know where the truth lies here, both men were spiky characters and putting the two together was always going to cause problems.
Further troubles between the two arose when Chaney suffered an allergic reaction to the make-up applied to him in 1942’s Ghost of Frankenstein. Up to and throughout the 40’s, Pierce worked on every Universal horror picture of note, plus the myriad of ‘son of’ ‘ghost of’ etc derivatives. Very sadly, although the results of his toils are captured forever on screen, only one appliance still exists, that used on Chaney (again) in 1944’s The Mummy’s Curse.
By 1948, following various company and personnel changes, Universal dispensed with his services, the expense and time taken proving just too much. He continued to work on lower budget films and television, notably the long-running Mister Ed, until his death in 1968.
Pierce’s influence on artists since cannot be overstated, from Dick Smith to Rick Baker to Tom Savini and beyond. He was decorated with a posthumous lifetime achievement award by the Hollywood Make-up Artist and Hair-Stylist Guild in 2003.
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA