Dwight Iliff Frye (February 22, 1899 – November 7, 1943) was an American stage and screen actor, noted for his appearances in the classic horror films Dracula (1931), Frankenstein (1931), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). He is frequently seen on-screen as a simple, sometimes deranged, sycophantic assistant to a more intelligent, malevolent character.
Born in Salina, Kansas on February 22nd 1899, after which his parents relocated to Denver, Colorado, Dwight was given voice training and piano lessons, showing signs of a promising career as an accomplished concert pianist. His unusual middle name derives from a character in Tennyson’s poetry cycle, Idylls of the King, one of the few nods towards the arts his parents gave.
An appearance in a school play led to Frye catching the acting bug, to the dismay and alarm of his parents, particularly his mother who was a devout Christian Scientist. Despite their concerns, he followed his dream to Washington, appearing on-stage in a variety of roles, with the ambition of appearing on Broadway.
After a series of successful theatre notices and being described as one of the ten most accomplished stage actors in the country, Broadway did indeed come calling, culminating in a play which opened in 1926 and ran for 165 performances – The Devil in the Cheese. This play is particularly notable, not only for its successful five month run but that it pitched him against two particular actors; Fredric March, best known for his Oscar winning performance in 1931’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and one Bela Lugosi. Remarkably, the omens did not stop there, Frye appearing a Renfield opposite Frederick (“not very scary”) Pymm in a stage production of Dracula in 1929/30.
It was in New York that Frye made his first screen appearance, unbilled in a wedding scene for Universal’s comedy, The Night Bird (1928). Marrying Laurette Bullivant the same year, his stealthy rise to fame was unexpectedly stifled by the stock market crash of 1929 – however, it was during this period in which he appeared in provincial theatre to make ends meet that he was spotted by a Warner Bros. executive.
Before working for Warner’s, it was Universal that gave him his first major role, that of the fly-eating, wide-eyed, babbling Renfield in Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931). Despite actively campaigning to win the coveted role, the actor who played him on Broadway, opposite Bela Lugosi, Bernard Jukes, was unsuccessful – indeed his career never recovered. Frye’s portrayal became the template for all future portrayals of the character, his high-pitched, hissing voice and the creepiest laugh in film history. Sadly, it also typecast him for the remainder of his career – despite superb notices from the press for his role, he was a new face to most of the watching public and their attention was constantly dragged to the fruity-vowelled Lugosi – Frye was the mental one.
Dwight appeared in the first film version of The Maltese Falcon, as the neurotic psychopath Gunsel Wilmer, although some of his scenes, like so many others in his future appearances, ended up on the cutting room floor. Back at Universal, a brief stop-off in The Black Camel followed, opposite both Lugosi and Charlie Chan-favourite Warner Orland (also seen in Werewolf of London) but it was in another film that Dwight once more found his calling as a subservient lunatic, this time as Fritz in James Whale’s game-changer, Frankenstein (1931). But for Fritz mistakenly swapping over the required brains needed to give life to Frankenstein’s creation, who knows where the film would have gone; it was actually something of a slight role yet Frye captured the ghoulish glee and castle-dwelling torch-wielding of the character magnificently.
It says much about Colin Clive and Boris Karloff that they were not blown off the set, Whale having seen his potential and giving the role of Fritz a far more expanded role than the book, for the first time with dialogue. Reporting to the make-up chair of Jack Pierce every morning for his hunched-back and smeared-on mask, his enthusiastic method acting slightly reduces him to comic relief, in a film where Karloff’s portrayal literally had audiences running for the exit in fear. It reinforced his reputation for playing supporting roles of a certain mentality.
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In 1933 Dwight was back at Universal for an unbilled role as a reporter in The Invisible Man, primarily as a favour for his friend James WhaleHe had been determined for typecasting not to happen and had taken roles in film genres ranging from comedy to gangster but none had lead to the wide-spread acclaim as his horror roles. Inevitably then, his role as Herman Glieb, the village idiot in The Vampire Bat, returned to gibbering, sound-bites and furtive looks to the camera. The feature was filmed on the Universal back-lot for Majestic Pictures and starred Lionel Atwill as mad scientist Otto von Neimann and Fay Wray. Herman’s fondness for furry bats makes him the number one suspect in a series of ‘bat killings’ that are plaguing the town of Kleinschloss. It’s a brilliant, rather overlooked role, with some wonderfully perverse dialogue:
“Bats…they soft, like cat! They not bite Herman!”
“See? Blood! Herman like you…me Herman! You give me apples, Herman give you nice, soft bat!”
In 1935, a good cast was indeed well worth repeating and Bride of Frankenstein was released, perhaps the greatest film from Universal’s golden period. So enamoured was Whale with Frye’s earlier performance, that he essentially gave him three roles; Fritz, the loyal, disturbed assistant of the doctor; Kark, the village local who murders his family and blames the Monster and an unnamed grave robber who assist Ernest Thesiger’s Dr Pretorius procure fresh corpses. Ultimately these roles were combined into the role of Karl. Note, Frye never appeared in any film as the oft-misquoted ‘Igor’. Some of Frye’s role ended up on the cutting room floor, most famously the scene of him murdering the village burgomaster, (E.E. Clive) but also scenes of him murdering his aunt and uncle, some more background on his character and some more scenes opposite Thesiger. It was perhaps the only vehicle outlandish enough to make Frye’s performance seem appropriate but it was the final nail in his coffin as far as his acting career was concerned – despite putting every last bit of energy into capitalising on his fame, he was destined never to have a break-out role.
Frye did actually receive top-billing (nearly) in one of his next films, the much over-looked The Crime of Dr Crespi, alongside acting titan, Erich von Stroheim. Based on Edgar Allan Poe’s The Premature Burial and sporting the poster tagline, ‘It Starts Where “Frankenstein” Left Off!’, it again features him in the shadows of the medical profession and again with shovel in hand bothering the dead.
For the remainder of the 1930’s, Frye worked tirelessly, both on camera and in the theatre but none of his roles were anything more meaningful than ‘supporting’. A potential return to the ‘big’ time was denied him with 1939’s Son of Frankenstein, in which his role as an angry villager (allegedly) was lost entirely due to studio tomfoolery, being unable to decide whether Technicolour was the way forward – an eventual decision to stick with black and white meant Frye’s parts were unusable. Without the out-of-favour Whale at the helm and with chaotic shooting, the film was, incredibly, a box-office success. Frye was appalled. Ironically, this is the film with Igor (actually Ygor) in it, played by…Bela Lugosi.
Frye did appear in two further Frankenstein efforts, yet another angry villager in Ghost of Frankenstein and a tailor in Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. These incredibly reduced roles must have been a real kick in the teeth for an actor so integral to the success of three of the biggest horror films of all time. Frye’s final notable role was that of, yes, a hunchback in 1943’s Dead Men Walk. Low-budget and relatively little-seen, the film echoes much of Dracula and is surprisingly effective. It did little to help either Frye’s career or his ailing health – Frye had secretly being harbouring a heart problem for many years and the stress and toil of his endeavours was beginning to slowly draw the curtain on a frustrating career.
Not only price prevented Frye from attending to medical matters – his faith as a Christian Scientist forbade the intervention of professionals and, alas, it was to cost him his life – Frye died of a heart attack whilst taking a bus journey to the set of a film he was shooting, 1944’s political biopic, Wilson. He is interred at Glendale’s Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery, alongside such appropriate luminaries as Forrest J Ackerman, Lon Chaney Snr, James Whale and composer Max Steiner. Frye’s legacy can be both seen and heard – Alice Cooper’s 1971 song, “The Ballad of Dwight Fry (sic)” is sung from the perspective of one of the actor’s creations,
Daz Lawrence, MOVIES & MANIA
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