Today marks the 67th anniversary of the death of my favourite actor. He was neither rich nor famous in his life time and is chiefly remembered from two film performances that are nearly eighty years old, as well as being the inspiration of an Alice Cooper song. I do consider myself relatively knowledgeable and dare I say passionate, when it comes to film so it is perhaps unwise to make such an audacious statement or dedicate so much admiration to one actor. I could try to justify my admiration but I fear it would sound hollow, crass or just plain silly. I can't deny that part of this fandom, derives from a girlish crush I have harboured all these years yet my devotion is so much more than that. There were other actors from this period, some more handsome, some more talented yet none have moved me more than Dwight Frye.
So who was Dwight Frye? Well, to anyone that has ever watched Universal’s horror classics “Dracula” and “Frankenstein”, Frye should be a familiar face. While Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff portrayals are the stuff of legend, Dwight Frye’s contribution is not often as remembered but is no less impressive. As the fly-eating, maniac and Vampire slave Renfield, Frye's performance has never been bettered and in “Frankenstein” as the hunchbacked Fritz, Frye established the first in a long line of crazed, lab assistants in horror movies. Despite being a major character in two of the most prolific films of 1931, success in Hollywood eluded Frye and he was forever tethered to these performances, typecast as a wide eyed lunatic, tragic considering his varied career up to this point. Far from being a one trick pony, Dwight was once voted into the top ten most legitimate performers on the Broadway stage.
Dwight Iliff Fry was born in Salina, Kansas on the 22nd of February 1899 to Charles Fry, a farmer and Ella Fry, a deeply devout Christian Scientist. Early in life, Dwight’s family moved to Denver, it was here that the adolescent showed signs of a brilliant career in music. At the age of fifteen he gave his first solo recital and was immediately hailed as a musical prodigy. However within three years his passion for music had been replaced with a greater love for theatre and Dwight decided to become an actor.
Immediately after graduating from High School, Dwight worked briefly as a secretary in a Denver business firm while studying with celebrated drama coach, Margaret Fealy. The youths acting talents were quickly noticed and Dwight joined the Denham Stock Company, mostly performing farce and "musical specialities". Within a year, Dwight was touring across the country, had added an "e" to his surname (believing Frye looked better in print) and was the juvenile lead with the company. Reading his official biography, it appears that Frye was rarely out of work and in high demand in these formative years. During the great Influenza outbreak of 1918, Frye journeyed to Spokane with the Woodward players and became a local favourite, so much so that when he returned to the company a couple of years later, the audience erupted with a welcoming applause the moment he appeared on the stage. It was around this time he met and began a relationship with a young actress named Laura Mae Bullivant, who would eventually become his wife.
Dwight was only twenty- three when he found success on Broadway in the part of the son of Six Characters in Search of an Author and as romantic lead Patrick Delaney in Rita Coventry. Arguably his greatest succession Broadway was as Melville Tuttle in Patrick Kearney's A Man's Man. The story involved a young couple, Melville (an ineffectual clerk) and his scatter brained wife (Josephine Hutchison) try to better their situation but almost destroy they marriage in the process. Described as a "graphic, unsentimalised portrait of middle- class life" it turned Dwight into a Broadway star and rewarded him with some of his best notices.
Audiences and critics may have loved Dwight's performance but his co-star Josephine Hutchison was not very fond of him. Hutchison would enjoy a successful career on Broadway and Hollywood, she would latterly appear in Son of Frankenstein as Baroness Frankenstein…. a film in which Dwight's scenes would be edited out completely. However in 1925 Hutchison along with the backstage crew found the stars behaviour peculiar. In the book Dwight Frye's Last Laugh, Hutchinson recalls:
At the time, I thought Dwight was … odd. Strange. He was so imbued with working on his part that he wasn't very communicative to his fellow players. When he was in the theatre, all he thought about was his performance. Now after all these years later, I realize: Dwight really was the original "Method" actor.
(Dwight Frye’s Last Laugh, pg 66, 1998)
Dwight's star was rising as he leapt from success to success on the stage. Over the years, he would tread the boards with many performers who would eventually make their mark on Hollywood including, Edward G Robinson, Humphrey Bogart, Rosalind Russell, Lee Strasberg, Frederick March and a certain Bela Lugosi.
In 1928, Dwight married his longtime girlfriend, Laura and along with his mother opened a tea room, close to Central Park. The business was successful with many of Broadway’s finest frequent customers. However, as everything seemed to be going from strength to strength the Wall Street crash exploded and the Great Depression reared its ugly head. The tearoom had to close and Dwight decided to head west to try his luck at Hollywood and its new spectacular – the talking picture!
The Hollywood of the late twenties was renowned as being new, glamorous, a den of iniquity and bursting with exciting opportunities yet its stability seemed doubtful as sound was introduced to film. However it was a town and industry that Dwight Frye, aged thirty was willing to take on. The first success came upon the stage, with Patrick Hamilton's fantastic play, Ropes End, in the role that Farley Granger would eventually play in the Hitchcock adaption.
Dwight had already made his movie debut in the silent film, The Night Bird in an extremely brief role. However he made his "talkie" debut as a ruthless gangster named Monk in The Doorway to Hell, where he played as a ruthless gangster opposite James Cagney and Lew Ayres.
His next film was Man to Man, where he played the pathetic villain Vint Glade. The movie is slow-paced with a bland hero and irritating leading lady, however as the jealous, bank clerk Dwight is very effective. The role was a show case for Dwight’s talent as he revels in biting sarcasm and skilfully displays true pathos. While Vint Glade's actions are truly despicable, Dwight made the character human and his final scenes with despairing cries of mercy falling upon deaf ears are heartrending.
Despite substantial competition for the role of Renfield from apparently Lew Ayres and Bernard Jukes (who successfully played the role in London and Broadway) Dwight won. The character was appealing as the play had been a hit on both sides of the Atlantic with some of the cast including Bela Lugosi repeating their performances from Broadway. Dwight played the character that he would be most associated with perfection demonstrating his versatility. The handsome, sensible, dismissive gentleman for the first ten minutes of the film is effectively transformed into a tragic, tormented maniac, shamed with his desire for blood and eagerness to please his evil master. Bela Lugosi (quite rightly) won plenty of praise in the title role and his performance is iconic as the Count. However the film would probably not be the classic it is without the support of Edward Van Sloan as Van Helsing and fundamentally Dwight Frye as Renfield, who quite frankly keep the story alive, building up the suspense for Dracula's appearance and saving the movie from slipping into complete banality with if left in the hands of the rest of the cast was a real possibility.
This period was a happy one for Dwight, not only professionally but in his personal life. On the 26th of December 1930, he became a father to Dwight David Frye.
In the meantime, Dwight found plenty of work. He was reunited with Bela Lugosi in the Charlie Chan film The Black Camel and he was the original Wilmer Cook in the 1931 adaptation of The Maltese Falcon (the role Elisha Cook Jr would latterly play in the Huston/ Bogart version). While in John Huston's hands, Dashiel Hammett's novel is a groundbreaking masterpiece the earlier version does have its merits. Made a couple of years before the Hays Code was enforced, this adaption strongly hints at the homosexual relationship between the fat man Casper Gutman and Wilmer the gunsel. Dwight, looking incredibly baby-faced, manages to convey the characters danger with very little dialogue. Resembling a boy that has seen one too many gangster pictures, he slowly stalks about with a firm, scowl on his face yet one shouldn't be fooled by his youth as we see when Ricardo Cortez's Sam Spade suggests Wilmer should be sacrificed as a fall guy. Watching this often underrated movie, my one criticism is that Dwight doesn't get as much dialogue or screen time as Cook's Wilmer a decade later.
The highly prolific year came to a close when he gave his classic performance in another horror movie, Fritz in James Whale's Frankenstein. Dwight, along with his colleague and friend from Dracula, Edward Van Sloan both screen tested for Frankenstein along with Bela Lugosi as the monster. Fritz was initially mute but when Lugosi and initial director Robert Florey were dropped from the project and James Whale was brought in, the character was developed. The unknown British actor Boris Karloff was cast as the role of the monster and it would turn him into a movie legend. However Whale liked Dwight, allowing the actor to improvise and would go on to cast him in five further films. Mae Clarke, who played Elizabeth recalled:
Dwight was quiet, charming and might even make a joke. However, once in makeup (and under hump), he would skulk about the soundstage- and scare the hell out of everyone! He was sometimes more frightening than the Monster.
Despite only lasting for the first half of the movie, Dwight is crucial to the plot. The monster's violence is due to Fritz's incompetence when collecting the brain and his sadism drives the creature to commit his first murder. Fritz, the movie's true villain, definitely gets his comeuppance when the monster kills him. As with Renfield, Fritz is much more than a villainous henchman. Though far from endearing, the hunchback is not quite detestable. His jitteriness is understandable and Fritz's cantankerous grumbles as he clambers down the castle staircase echo the comical dialogue, from the porter in Macbeth. As a result Dwight's performance is malevolent yet humorous therefore it distracts from the almost melodramatic, manic tension of the opening half hour and sets the tone for the rest of the movie.
Frankenstein became a massive box office success, compatible with latter hits such as Star Wars or Jurassic Park. Karloff went onto become a major Hollywood star, the image of the monster has become engrained in American culture, so much so that Karloff's face has appeared on three separate US stamps (the only individual apart from a President to achieve such an honour).and was highly effective in the creation of the first acting union. However for Dwight the success of Frankenstein was bittersweet as his worst fear of being typecast had already become a reality. For now Dwight was offered work, though not always to his taste, he persevered as his main concern was to support his family including his mother. Many of his film appearances are forgotten though maybe of interest for anyone that's wants to see Dwight in a change of pace. The Western Code is a curiosity piece for that very reason. A low budget Western, it allows the viewer to see Dwight as a young hot-headed cowboy complete with Stetson, who skilfully rides a horse and protects the honour of his sister and mother by punching villain, Wheeler Oakman. Other films from this period include A Strange Adventure, Attorney for the Defence, By Whose Hand? and The Circus Queen Murder, all of which demonstrated Dwight's ability to play exciting, neurotic often doomed individuals.
The true gem from this period and arguably Dwight's best screen performance was Herman, the "village idiot" in The Vampire Bat. Despite being surrounded by Hollywood notables Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray and double Oscar winning Melvyn Douglas, The Vampire Bat belongs to Dwight who gives a fantastic heart wrenching performance as the innocent accused of a series of vampire-esque murders in a small town and is himself driven to his death by a mob of angry villagers. While they are a few murders in this cult classic, the death of Herman is truly tragic as the viewer questions if the ignorance of the villagers is more threatening than the demented, murderer. Considering this is a cheap B- movie with some questionable plot devices, Dwight truly puts his heart into this performance. Herman is a true innocent, sweet and crying out for friendship. Baby-talking throughout (one wonders if Dwight was influenced by his infant son) Herman turned out to be Dwight's most endearing, sympathetic character and it is this supporting performance that stands out in a flawed movie and is the cause for the movie receiving the cult status it has decades on.
After briefly appearing as a journalist in James Whale’s “The Invisible Man”, Dwight dedicated the next couple of years to the theatre, touring in three productions with Pauline Frederick which gave him the opportunity of acting alongside his wife. He returned to New York to appear in the Charlie Chan thriller “Keeper of the Keys” and made his final appearance upon the Broadway stage in the Howard Hughes produced, flop “Queer People” a biting satire on Hollywood. Dwight possible chose the project as he was already disenchanted with the movie industry but his final Broadway experience was a somewhat bitter and disappointing conclusion to a once glittering career on the New York stage.
In 1935 James Whale approached Dwight to return to the screen with an opportunity that was too exciting to turndown. Playing the ghoulish Karl in The Bride of Frankenstein, Frye hoped to develop his screen profile but sadly the subplot involving his character was cut from the final print, rendering his role a smaller, less memorable sidekick than the hunchbacked Fritz. However his performance was still great and demonstrates how diversely Dwight could portray characters that are not too dissimilar on the page. When, we first see Karl he casually leans against a tree, watching with calm yet sadistic amusement as the hysterical villagers capture the monster. He has no dialogue but stands out from the mob. Similarly ill at ease like Fritz, Karl seems more subtle and dangerous. Where Fritz is eager to please Dr Frankenstein like a puppy would his master, Karl is purely motivated by greed and is bemused by the antics of his bizarre boss, Dr Pretorius. Karl also unashamedly commits murder. Armed with a black sense of humour we see Dwight once again hobble down the huge staircase, manically mumbling his deadly intensions in a similar, improvised manner as Fritz had done a few years prior.
After completing his work in Bride, Dwight took up his film career where he left it, getting small roles in B movies that were quickly forgotten. One major project was Something to Sing About with James Cagney. Dwight played against his usual screen persona as a fastidious, camp make-up artist to the stars. However the movie was a major flop and did nothing to alter Hollywood's perception of Dwight’s abilities. Other performances worth mentioning include the smooth talking crook Spike in Atlantic Adventure, a harassed and embittered employee to an elderly millionaire in Florida Special and a audacious, flirtatious mole involved in a blackmail scam in Beware of Ladies all of which demonstrated that Dwight could do more than play the mad man but due to poor scripts and brief screen time, these appearances were either ignored or completely forgotten.
Republic Studio’s The Crime of Doctor Crespi stands out amongst these movies as it was the highest billing Dwight would receive (second to Erich Von Stroheim) and it was the closest that he would ever get to being the heroic lead, bravely standing up to the tyranny of his insane boss to save a life and rewarded with a hint of romance in the end. However the film, with its low budget, poor direction and dubious script was torn apart by critics, dismissed by an audience and loathed by Stroheim who bitterly referred to it as the “crime of the republic.”
A more polished movie from this period is The Shadow, generally remembered by a few as one of Rita Hayworth’s first movies. Dwight was in familiar territory, once again playing a hunchback named Vindecco, a possible suspect in the murder of his cruel employer. However as the Argentinean horse handler, Dwight played his most sympathetic and likeable character since Herman. With an exotic accent, Vindecco is intelligent, kind to his horses and when he is not being beaten even manages a sense of humour. His early exit is a tragic end to a sad existence. While the character of Vindecco appears to be another insignificant supporting role in a B-thriller, the role was one of Dwight’s best, giving him something more than just the screen lunatic that Hollywood typed him as.
After The Shadow, getting work was becoming an increasing struggle for Dwight with roles getting briefer and fewer, on a few occasions some of his performances were relegated to the cutting room floor whilst others were little better than background characters with a few lines dialogue. Naturally this was frustrating but Dwight never gave up on finding success, filling his spare time playing the piano, painting and for several years handcrafting his family’s Christmas cards. Dwight also continued to work in the theatre when he could, notably playing a murderous bellboy in Night Must Fall and later returning to the role of Renfield in Dracula for the Los Angeles stage.
Dwight’s last notable role before America was plunged into war was in Sky Bandits, part of the Renfrew of the Royal Mounted series. This movie, a weird combination of musical, Mountie adventure and Science fiction featured Dwight in his standard neurotic role where he meets another unfortunate end. It may not be Dwight's best performance but he still steals every scene he appears in, it is good to see him as the crooked, embittered scientist as opposed to the assistant and at this point in his career he was rarely offered parts that were so fundamental to the plot. Dwight's career continued to tragically dwindle as war raged around the world. With his fair hair and blue eyes, the actor was increasingly cast as enemy agents and saboteurs however in reality nothing could be further from the truth. To assist the war effort, as well as support his family, Dwight worked as a draftsman at the Lockheed Aircraft Company. Showing an admirable dedication to his new job, he worked for Lockheed at night while he spent his days seeking film roles.
The real terror of war apparently did not deter the studios from producing horror movies as Dwight, now in his early forties, made his final appearances on celluloid. Dead Men Walk is a low budget, slightly dismal movie from the poverty row studio PRC. Once again, Dwight donned the old hunch to play evil henchman Zolarr, a rather substandard combination of Renfield and Fritz. While this movie is a very poor relation to his earlier horror works, one at least can be consoled by the fact that Dwight has ample screen time and sets the movie in action as he revives his Satanic "master" Elwyn Clayton (George Zucco) and gleefully carries out his macabre instructions. However to watch Dead Men Walk, is often difficult for me as it lacks the class of the Universal horrors or even the exciting, enthusiasm of The Vampire Bat and despite his attempts to put energy into the role, Dwight looks tired and for the first time, old. Everyone else seems to sleepwalk through their parts (with the possible exception of Fern Emmett as mad Kate) and as a result the movie is less horrific and more depressing.
A better horror and Dwight's last in the genre was Universal's Frankenstein meets the Wolfman. This was the fifth time that Dwight had worked on a Frankenstein movie, though his performance in Son of Frankenstein was apparently cut and his role as an angry villager in Ghost of Frankenstein was easily missed in the few seconds of screen time he was given. While the character of Rudi is no where near as significant as his earlier Frankenstein characters, it is pleasant to see a more mature, handsome Dwight playing a respected character that is one of the few voices of calm reason in a hysterical village. As the movie ends, we see one of the few times Dwight's character survives with a smile etched across his face and for the last time his name appeared on the credits.
Dwight Frye would go onto make three more films. His penultimate performance in Hangmen Also Die! directed by Fritz Lang and written by Bertolt Brecht may have appeared as a more highbrow affair on his resume but as always the uncredited character was so minuscule it’s easy to miss Dwight amongst the sea of faces, Even more distressing was Dwight’s next and final movie Dangerous Blondes, where the forty four year old played a hoodlum without one line of dialogue. While this was a dismal conclusion to a career that had spanned nearly 25 years and had once been so promising, it is important to note that the actor was not completely disregarded. The possibility of reviving his once glittering Broadway career was offered to Dwight when he was approached to appear in The Patriots. However his loyalty and admirable dedication to his work at Lockheed and his unwillingness to leave his beloved family during wartime resulted in his declining the lucrative offer.
In the autumn of 1943, Dwight’s hopes for a successful career in Hollywood were renewed when he fought for and won the role of the Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker in the Technicolor epic Wilson. The achievement meant the world to the actor, hoping that the days of his typecasting were finally over. On the 7th of November 1943, three days before shooting on Wilson was scheduled to begin, Dwight Frye took Laura and “Buddy” out to the cinema. Returning home, the Frye’s ran to catch their bus home when Dwight suddenly collapsed. A short time later, Laura and Buddy were informed that Dwight had passed away from coronary thrombosis. He was only 44 years old.
When he died, Dwight Frye was known to only a few in Hollywood. His death certificate stated that his profession was a tool designer. However in New York, The NY Times acknowledged the passing of a once shining star of Broadway with a long, praising obituary. The piece is a reminder that while it is easy for a fan to mourn the loss of so many opportunities in Hollywood, Dwight did have great success and achieved more admiration than most in his profession.
Television was very much in it’s infancy in 1943, so Dwight would never have appreciated that years later, his most remembered performances would be introduced to new generations to enjoy. With countless television broadcasts, then the introduction of home video, DVD’s and blue-rays, he would probably have been gobsmacked that the Universal Horror movies were not only still watched and enjoyed but were considered amongst the best pieces of early cinema with scenes studied and performances scrutinised. Gradually over time, people finally gave Dwight the praise he deserved and though he was never around to enjoy it, both Laura (who remarried family friend Alexis Luce in 1946) and their son did see the growing appreciation of Dwight’s work including Alice Cooper’s 1971 tribute.
While I share the fans’ frustrations regarding the limitations Hollywood put on Dwight, I am grateful that in the last couple of weeks, he succeeded in winning a desired, respectful role. I am full of admiration that despite the disappointments Dwight remained determined and ever hopeful that one day he would be seen as more than a creepy henchman or wide-eyed lunatic. I admire that when things got bad, he remained dedicated to his family, putting them first always. The reality being that Dwight was the opposite of the characters he played, while many of his colleagues revelled in the often hedonistic pleasures that were readily available in Hollywood, Dwight enjoyed time with his family, painting or playing the piano. His normality is refreshing and almost endearing for a profession that is often notoriously so sordid.
Over the years there have been so many fan communities that I have attached myself to and over time my admiration has slowly faded, the once object of my affection becoming a hazy, occasionally embarrassing memory. However in the case of Dwight Frye, my loyalty has not only remained firmly in place but has become stronger over the years. I have rarely read many negative things about him. Though I am sure as he was as human as the rest of us and he had his foibles, there doesn’t seem to be any unpleasant stories or tainted memories that have been worth sharing with the possibility exception that he could be a little over zealous when it came to his craft. Sometimes this can be a little frustrating, how I would like to know more about the man himself. His death at so young an age, so many years ago, means that many of those who met and knew him have now also passed away. His son Dwight David, died in 2003 and would have been eighty this year. I’m grateful for the memories that he had and that he shared them in the fantastic biography “Dwight Frye’s Last Laugh” by Gregory Mank and Jim Coughlin. I am thankful for the medium of film so that we see the performances that Dwight left us with, no matter how brief they are and hope that despite the many disappointments that he faced in his lifetime, Dwight Frye would appreciate the small yet dedicated fan base he has gathered in the past sixty seven years.