If it’s true that a movie villain is only as good (or should that be “as bad”?) as his henchman, then the mad scientists and other assorted fiends from the Universal monsters movies of the 1930s certainly had their malevolent bona fides burnished by the sinister assistance of Dwight Frye, a talented stage and screen actor whose leering, wide-eyed stare and maniacal laugh made him an iconic figure in the early days of horror cinema…even as those same traits more than likely precluded him from getting the more conventional screen roles his talents merited.
The only son of a devoutly Christian Scientist farming couple, Dwight Iliff Fry was born in Salina, Kansas in February of 1899 and at an early age displayed an aptitude for music. After the family moved to Denver, young Dwight studied the piano diligently, and his recitals as a teenager, performing works by Beethoven, Mozart and the other classical giants, were well received. While in high school, however, the desire to switch from music to acting took hold, and after graduating and briefly working as a secretary and studying business at the University of Colorado, Dwight leapt at the chance to join a Denver stock theatrical company. The next few years would see the neophyte actor join with stock and touring troupes everywhere from Spokane, Washington (where he met his future wife, actress Laura Mae Bullivant) to Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and onto the vaudeville stage in New York.
Frye (he added the “e” to his surname believing it looked better in playbills) was taken under the wing of producer Brock Pemberton in 1922 and made his Broadway debut that same year, playing a young burglar in a flop comedy entitled The Plot Thickens. Later in ’22, he found greater success and critical notice as The Son in the surreal Pirandello work Six Characters in Search of an Author. Over the next decade Dwight would be a Broadway mainstay, portraying everything from a romantic prince and a hapless clerk to a gigolo and a villainous white slaver, and work with such notables as Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne, Edward G. Robinson, Fredric March, and a Hungarian-born actor named Bela Lugosi, who would cross paths with Frye a few years and 3,000 miles down the road.
His screen debut came courtesy of a bit part in a silent Universal comedy, The Night Bird, in 1928, but by the following year Frye and wife Laura were ready to make the (semi-permanent) move to Hollywood. He took to the L.A. stage in 1929 in one of the two “thrill killers” in Rope’s End, the Leopold/Loeb-based thriller which Alfred Hitchcock would bring to the screen two decades later as Rope. 1930 would bring Dwight his first credited performances: as a gangster in The Doorway to Hell, a Warner Bros. crime drama that also featured a pre-fame James Cagney, and as a jealous bank clerk in a minor melodrama, Man to Man, but bigger things were just around the corner.
For better or for worse, 1931 brought Frye the two roles that would forever identify him to moviegoing audiences. Universal cast him as Renfield, the fastidious real estate agent who arrives in Transylvania to arrange the sale of an old English abbey to a mysterious nobleman and winds up a demented, fly- and spider-eating asylum inmate, in director Tod Browning’s screen version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Reunited with his former stage co-star Lugosi as the title vampire, Frye’s Renfield is a marvelous mix of chills (the scene where the ship carrying a coffin-bound Dracula arrives in port and is boarded to find everyone on board dead, save for a hysterically laughing Frye), dark comedy (a grinning–and thirsty–Renfield crawling over to where an asylum nurse fainted) and pathos (“Don’t kill me! Let me live, please! Punish me, torture me, but let me live! I can’t die with all those lives on my conscience, all that blood on my hands!,” he cries out just before he’s strangled by the Count).
The heads of Universal clearly took notice of Dwight’s performance in what proved to be one of their biggest hits of the year, because he returned to the horror realm that same year in James Whale’s Frankenstein. This time there was nothing sympathetic in Frye’s portrayal of Fritz, the hunchbacked lab assistant to Colin Clive’s mad doctor whose butterfingers and apparent inability to read lead him to give his employer an abnormal, criminal brain to put inside the hulking body of Frankenstein’s man-made monster (Boris Karloff). Fritz, in fact, takes sadistic glee in torturing the poor monster with fire, until the creature finally turns on his tormentor. As villainous as Fritz was, however, there is one (apparently ad-libbed) moment in the film which points out the wonderful eccentric detail which Frye would bring to all his performances: climbing up the twisted stone stairs of Frankenstein’s laboratory tower, Fritz–his tiny walking stick in hand–abruptly stops and stoops over to adjust his socks!
Along with his supporting turns in Dracula and Frankenstein, 1931 also gave Dwight two more memorable screen roles. His manic gaze served him well as trigger-happy “gunsel” Wilmer Cook in the very first movie version of Dashiell Hammett’s detective classic The Maltese Falcon, starring Ricardo Cortez as private eye Sam Spade and Dudley Digges as “Fat Man” Casper Gutman, whose relationship with Wilmer seems even more…shall we say, intimate that was able to be implied in the better-known 1941 remake, which featured Elisha Cook, Jr. as the young hood. Frye was also reunited with Lugosi in an early Charlie Chan whodunit for Fox, The Black Camel, playing a lovelorn butler who may or may not be the guilty murderer (given his other performances that year, I frankly wouldn’t bet against him).
Over the next couple of years Frye devoted most of his professional energy to his stage work, with small parts in a few minor films, from a Tim Holt oater, The Western Code (1932), to a “B” mystery, The Wayne Murder Case, later that year. A more substantial role was that of Flandin, a crazed big top aerial artist, in 1933’s The Circus Queen Murder, starring Adolphe Menjou and Greta Nissen. Also in ’33, Dwight was once again “up at bat,” so to speak, in the low-budget shocker The Vampire Bat. Lionel Atwill is top-billed as the mad scientist behind the sanguinary goings-on, and Fay Wray (who screamed her lungs out in King Kong the same year) is the damsel in distress, but Frye steals the show as Herman, a hapless “village idiot” who keeps bats as pets (“Bats, they soft…like cat! They not bite Herman!”) and is pursued to his death by a stereotypical angry mob of villagers who suspect him of being a bloodsucker. It was the pressbook for The Vampire Bat that contained a lament from the actor about his screen roles to date, a lament which would wind up encapsulating Frye’s Hollywood career: “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!”
Horror would still be Dwight’s go-to genre, however. After casting him in a bit part as a reporter in 1933’s The Invisible Man, Frankenstein director Whale brought Frye back, along with Karloff and Clive, in 1935 for Bride of Frankenstein. Fritz was still dead, of course, but Frye’s new role, Karl, was still a lab assistant to Baron Frankenstein (and still able to wind up on the bad side of Karloff’s Monster, this time through no fault of his own) as well as a cutthroat in the employ of Ernest Thesiger’s ghoulish Dr. Pretorious. “What d’ya say, pal, if there’s much more like this, we give ourselves up and let ’em hang us?,” Karl tells a grave-robbing colleague after a night in the graveyard with Pretorius. “This is no life for murderers.” Sadly, an entire subplot where Karl uses the Monster’s return as a chance to kill his miserly aunt and uncle and pin the blame on him was shot, only to be cut out and lost for good when Universal feared the movie was running too long.
Another 1935 tale of strange experiments gave Dwight the best billing of his screen career, and a rare chance to be the hero. The Crime of Dr. Crespi, a liberal adaptation of Poe’s “The Premature Burial,” featured Erich von Stroheim as the demented title medico. Using a serum of his own invention, Crespi sets out to put a professional/romantic rival in suspended animation and then have him buried alive. Dwight played Dr. Thomas, an underling of Crespi who learns of the macabre plot and finally stands up to stop him. Not only does Frye’s character get to help save the day, but he also manages to survive all the way to the end of the picture (!), where he takes the opportunity to flirt with pretty nurse Jean Brooks.
Such meaningful turns would be few and far between for the actor over the rest of the ’30s, however. He had an uncredited part in the 1936 James Cagney crime drama Great Guy, and re-teamed with Cagney the following year as a campy makeup artist (“When I look at that hairline I could almost cry!”) in the Hollywood self-satire Something to Sing About. He was a hysterical patient (and was even billed as such!) in the medical melodrama The Man Who Found Himself (1937), and that same year played another hunchback–this time a horse trainer–in Columbia’s The Shadow. The two most memorable things about the latter film were Rita Hayworth being top-billed under that name for the first time and the scene where someone asks Frye’s character how he came by a belief and he replies mischievously, “I have a…hunch.” Surprisingly, Dwight was not the answer to the title question Who Killed Gail Preston in 1938, but he nonetheless wound up dying while running from the law, and he had an unbilled role as a valet in the 1939 filming of The Man in the Iron Mask, directed by Whale. His scenes in the third of Universal’s Frankenstein films, Son of Frankenstein (1939), wound up on the cutting room floor, though.
By 1940 Dwight was a permanent West Coast resident, doing regional theatre work while taking small, mostly uncredited parts in such fare as the swashbuckler The Son of Monte Cristo (1940), the Canadian Mountie actioner Sky Bandits (also ’40), and MGM’s The People vs. Dr. Kildare (1941). Universal kept Frye in the picture–barely–with “blink-and-you-miss-him” spots in The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) and Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1944), while he was unbilled as a Czech freedom fighter in Fritz Lang’s 1943 WWII drama Hangmen Also Die. And he “had a…hunch” once again in ’43, playing the misshapen assistant to magician George Zucco in in his final horror outing, the “B” chiller Dead Men Walk. His rather haggard on-screen appearance in Dead Men Walk foretold the health problems he was having but, due to his Christian Scientist background, never sought medical treatment for.
With America’s entry into World War II, Dwight signed on as a draftsman and tool designer with the Douglas aircraft company, working (appropriately enough) the graveyard shift so he could still act in films during the day. His final screen appearance would come as a hoodlum in a minor 1943 Columbia crime comedy, Dangerous Blondes. In the fall of ’43 Frye finally got the serious dramatic part he’d been longing for when 20th Century-Fox signed him to play Secretary of War Newton D. Baker in Wilson, the studio’s big-screen biodrama of 28th U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. Frye’s striking physical resemblance to Baker clinched the role for him, and it might have marked the start to a new phase of his career. In a sad twist of fate, it was not to be, as a heart attack claimed the man who’d put chills up the spines of audiences for more than a decade in November of 1943, after a night out at the movies with his wife and 12-year-old son. Dwight’s legacy in the genre that he feared would typecast him, ironically, also served to ensure his fame to new generations of fans, with everything from photos and articles in such magazines as Famous Monsters of Filmland and collectable action figures to an Alice Cooper song, “The Ballad of Dwight Fry” (sic). Clearly, there was a method to Frye’s madness.