Beyond Boris and Bela: Universal horror’s supporting players
Bela Lugosi, David Manners, Helen Chandler, Dwight Frye and Edward Van Sloan in “Dracula.”
Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney and Lon Chaney Jr. are among the iconic figures of the Universal horror films of the 1920s-1940s. But these films were also filled with a stock company of character actors -- Oscar-nominated stage actors, ingenues and even a tiny Russian actress, who was taught her craft by Stanislavsky -- who helped bring these classic films to terrifying life.
With the release of “Universal Classic Monsters: The Essential Collection” on Blu-ray and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ “Universal’s Legacy of Horror” film series this month, it seemed the right time to pay tribute to these often unsung heroes of the genre.
Basil Rathbone and Lionel Atwill in “Son of Frankenstein.”
Before the horror: The tall, aristocratic South Africa-born British actor earned supporting actor Oscar nominations for 1936’s “Romeo and Juliet” and 1938’s “If I Were King.” Although he excelled at villain roles, Rathbone is best known as Arthur Conan Doyle’s brilliant, complex detective Sherlock Holmes opposite Nigel Bruce’s Dr. Watson in a series of popular mysteries, first at 20th Century Fox and then at Universal.
Iconic Universal roles: Rathbone made a strong impression as Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, Dr. Frankenstein’s offspring, who makes the mistake of following in his father’s footsteps in 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein.”
Memorable quote: “It appears that my father thought that he could extract from lightning some super-violet ray of life-giving properties.” (“Son of Frankenstein”) (Scott Essman and Eric Hoffman Collections)
J. Carrol Naish in “House of Frankenstein.”
Before the horror: An Oscar nominee for 1943’s “Sahara” and 1945’s “A Medal for Benny,” the character actor appeared in countless films during his near 50-year film career, including such classics as 1936’s “The Charge of the Light Brigade” and 1939’s “Beau Geste.”
Iconic Universal roles: Naish created demonic magic in 1944’s “House of Frankenstein” as Daniel, the hunchback henchman of the mad, revenge-filled doctor (Boris Karloff). He appeared in several other horror films at the studio including 1944’s “Jungle Woman.”
Memorable quote: “Could Frankenstein have made me like other men?” (“House of Frankenstein”) (Scott Essman and Eric Hoffman Collections)
Dwight Frye in “Frankenstein.”
Before the horror: Frye appeared on Broadway in several productions in the 1920s and continued to work in New York theater while appearing in films in Hollywood.
Iconic Universal roles: Known as “The Man with the Thousand Watt Stare” and “The Man of a Thousand Deaths,” Frye became typecast as mentally unbalanced characters in Universal horror films after making his mark as the fly-eating madman Renfield opposite Bela Lugosi in 1931’s “Dracula.” The same year, he also played Dr. Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant Fritz, who takes the wrong brain in “Frankenstein.” (Marty Feldman brilliantly sent up the character in Mel Brooks’ 1974 comedy “Young Frankenstein.”) Frye also played Karl, a henchman of the ruthless Dr. Pretorius in 1935’s “Bride of Frankenstein.” He appeared in smaller parts in 1942’s “The Ghost of Frankenstein” and 1943’s “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man.”
Memorable quote: “Rats. Rats. Rats! Thousands! Millions of them! All red blood! All these will I give you if you will obey me.” (“Dracula”) (Scott Essman and Eric Hoffman Collections)
Edward Van Sloan and Bela Lugosi in “Dracula.”
Before the horror: The character actor worked on Broadway before reprising his stage role as vampire hunter Dr. Van Helsing in 1931’s “Dracula.”
Iconic Universal roles: He made such an impression as Bela Lugosi’s nemesis in “Dracula” that Van Sloan found himself playing variations of the same character in the Universal horror movies. He even reprised his role in 1936’s “Dracula’s Daughter,” though the character’s name was altered slightly to Von Helsing. In 1931’s “Frankenstein,” he not only played the concerned Dr. Waldman, he also appears out of character in the film’s prologue warning audiences that the film was not for the faint of heart. He also played the occultist of Egyptology, Dr. Muller, in 1932’s “The Mummy.”
Memorable quote: “And I will have Carfax Abbey torn down stone by stone, excavated a mile around. I will find your earth-box and drive that stake through your heart.” (“Dracula”) (Scott Essman and Eric Hoffman Collections)
Anne Gwynne, Broderick Crawford, John Eldredge and Alan Ladd in “The Black Cat.”
Before the horror: A former Catalina swimwear model who was featured on the cover of Look magazine in 1940, Gwynne appeared in such popular serials as 1940’s “Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe” and “The Green Hornet” before becoming one of Universal’s scream queens. Actor Chris Pine is her grandson.
Iconic Universal roles: Gwynne was one of the studio’s favorite scream queen ingenues, appearing in such horror films as 1941’s “The Black Cat,” 1944’s “Weird Woman” and most notably as Rita, a victim of Dracula (John Carradine), in 1944’s “House of Frankenstein.”
Memorable quote: “Were you insinuating that Grandmother’s death wasn’t accidental?” (“The Black Cat”) (Universal Pictures)
Lionel Atwill in “Son of Frankenstein.”
Before the horror: The burly, pit bull British actor became a Broadway star in 1918 and made his film debut in short order, generally cast in macabre or villainous roles. Prior to joining the Universal family, he appeared in several horror films, mostly notably 1932’s “Dr. X” and 1933’s “Mystery of the Wax Museum” at Warner Bros.
Iconic Universal roles: The disfigured Inspector Krogh in 1939’s “Son of Frankenstein” has a difficult time maneuvering his cumbersome artificial arm, which he’d been wearing since a child after the Frankenstein monster ripped his limb out from the roots. Atwill also appeared in such chillers as 1941’s “Man Made Monster,” 1942’s “The Ghost of Frankenstein,” 1943’s “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man,” 1944’s “House of Frankenstein” and 1945’s “House of Dracula.”
Memorable quote: “The Monster had escaped and was ... ravaging the countryside, killing, maiming, terrorizing. One night he burst into our house. My father took a gun and fired at him but the savage brute sent him crashing to a corner. Then he grabbed me by the arm!” (“Son of Frankenstein”) (Universal Pictures)
Lon Chaney Jr. and Evelyn Ankers in “The Wolf Man.”
Before the horror: The Chilean-born British actress began working in films in England, appearing in such tony period dramas as 1936’s “Rembrandt” and 1937’s “Fire Over England” and “Knight Without Armor.”
Iconic Universal roles: The “queen of the screamers,” Ankers starred as Gwen, Larry Talbot’s (Lon Chaney Jr.) gal pal in 1941’s “The Wolf Man.” Her credits also include 1942’s “The Ghost of Frankenstein” -- as Elsa Frankenstein -- and 1943’s “Son of Dracula,” 1944’s “The Invisible Man’s Revenge” and 1945’s “The Frozen Ghost.”
Memorable quote: “He smiled at me. A cruel smile. It was dreadful.” (“The Ghost of Frankenstein”) (Scott Essman and Eric Hoffman Collections)
Maria Ouspenskaya and Lon Chaney Jr. in “The Wolf Man.”
Before the horror: The petite Russian actress and acting teacher defected to the U.S. in the early 1920s and became a respected Broadway star, later founding the School of Dramatic Arts in New York. In order to keep the institution funded, she agreed to appear in William Wyler’s 1936 drama “Dodsworth,” for which she earned a supporting actress Oscar nomination. She earned a second supporting actress Oscar nomination for her work in 1939’s “Love Affair.”
Iconic Universal roles: She nearly stole 1941’s “The Wolf Man” as Maleva, the elderly Gypsy woman who warns Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr.) of his fate after he’s attacked by a wolf in the forest. She reprised her role in 1943’s “Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man” with Chaney.
Memorable quote: “Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives becomes a werewolf himself.” (“The Wolf Man”) (Scott Essman and Eric Hoffman Collections)
John Carradine in “House of Dracula.”
Before the horror: The tall, rangy actor with the distinct baritone - father of actors David and Keith Carradine - excelled at playing crazed, offbeat or villainous men.
Iconic Universal roles: Carradine had tested for the title role of Dracula in Tod Browning’s 1931 classic only to lose out to Bela Lugosi, who had played the famous vampire on Broadway. He ended up donning the count’s black cloak in 1944’s “House of Frankenstein” and 1945’s “House of Dracula.” Carradine also appeared in such other studio chillers as 1944’s “The Invisible Man’s Revenge” and “The Mummy’s Ghost.”
Memorable quote: “I will explain everything, before sunrise.” (“House of Dracula”) (Scott Essman and Eric Hoffman Collections)
Charles Trowbridge and George Zucco in “The Mummy’s Hand.”
Before the horror: The British character actor toiled on Canadian, British and Broadway stages before coming to Hollywood in the mid-1930s. He’s best known for his role as Professor Moriarty in 1939’s “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” with Basil Rathbone.
Iconic Universal roles: Zucco brought theatrical gravitas to such horror films as 1940’s “The Mummy’s Hand,” 1942’s “The Mummy’s Tomb,” 1943’s “The Mad Ghoul,” 1944’s “The Mummy’s Ghost” and 1944’s “House of Frankenstein.”
Memorable quote: “You are very beautiful ... so beautiful I’m going to make you immortal. What I can do for you, I can do for myself. Neither time nor death can touch us.” (“The Mummy’s Hand”)