Dwight Frye’s Last Laugh – Before and Beyond Dracula and Frankenstein

Dwight Fryes Last Laugh'Tis the season and so after I recently finished up the new Myrna Loy biography and await arrival of the massive new Spencer Tracy book by James Curtis, I went in for an altogether different sort of Hollywood royalty when I finally pulled Dwight Frye's Last Laugh from my bookshelf.

Published in 1997 Dwight Frye's Last Laugh is an authorized biography of Frye, the actor you know from his iconic support as Renfield in Dracula (1931) and Fritz in Frankenstein (1931), authored by Gregory W. Mank, James T. Coughlin and Dwight D. Frye. Frye, the actor's son, passed away in 2003. He includes many memories of his father from the perspective of a son, plus touching accounts of his Dad's posthumous resurgence. Reading Dwight Frye's Last Laugh there can be no doubt that the son enjoyed more of the fruits of Dwight Frye's movie career than the father did himself.

Gregory Mank is the author of numerous film books including 1990's Karloff and Lugosi: The Story of a Haunting Collaboration which was expanded by several hundred pages and reissued by McFarland in 2009 as Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff: The Expanded Story of a Haunting Collaboration. He's also the author of Hollywood's Hellfire Club, and, no surprise after reading Last Laugh, Hollywood's Maddest Doctors which puts the focus on Lionel Atwill, Colon Clive and George Zucco, all of whom feature prominently in Dwight Frye's Last Laugh.

James T. Coughlin has had articles appear in genre and general classic film periodicals such as Midnight Marquee, The Real Stars, and Leonard Maltin's Film Fan Monthly.

In Dwight Frye's Last Laugh Frye's career is presented as a tragedy which decades later has brought us fans unending joy. Frye appeared in a bit role in a 1928 film, but you might notice he didn't start appearing in movies regularly until 1930. Like so many of our favorite legends of the Golden Age: James Cagney, Paul Muni, Edward G. Robinson, and so many others, Frye went West because he had a stage voice. Unlike those others the call didn't go out to him, but after the Stock Market crashed he took it upon himself to move his wife out there "on spec" (89) as the authors note.

Dwight Frye in Dracula

He played on stage in California, hoping to get noticed and he did. Frye had a small but billed role as a gangster in The Doorway to Hell (1930), notable as the aforementioned Cagney's second film. After what the Last Laugh authors described as a good role in Man to Man (1930), Frye would play Renfield, the first of his immortal horror roles in the smash hit Dracula (1931) starring Bela Lugosi. He next played the part of Wilmer in the 1931 screen version of The Maltese Falcon, a film which is gaining in reputation in recent years aided by it's inclusion on the DVD release of the more famous later version of the film. He played the butler in the Charlie Chan title The Black Camel (1931) and then was cast in what would be another legendary role, Fritz, Dr. Frankenstein's hunchbacked assistant in Frankenstein (1931).

After Frankenstein Frye had billed roles in three Columbia films released in 1932, and had meaty roles in movies such as The Vampire Bat (1933), The Circus Queen Murder (1933) and, of course, Bride of Frankenstein (1935). But after that it was small parts in horror films and bit player hell for an actor who desperately wanted to become a character man. It wasn't asking much, for Dwight Frye was once the toast of Broadway.

Lining up the dates with Frye's 1899 birth makes his stage career all the more astounding. He was on the fast track to success but dropped from the top of the slope with amazing speed once he hit Hollywood! Frye excelled as a pianist and so caught his parents off-guard when he took up acting, playing his first documented stage role in 1918 at age 19. Young Frye played in Stock companies in Denver and Spokane, where in 1922 he'd meet Laura Mae Bullivant (stage name, Laura Lee), with whom he'd co-star with and eventually cross paths with later to marry in 1928. Frye made his Broadway debut later that year when producer Brock Pemberton discovered him at the urging of one of the E.F. Hutton heiresses.

Dwight Frye in Dracula

His second show, Six Characters in Search of an Author, would become a hit and garner him praise from respected theater critic Alexander Woollcott. He'd only leave that show to appear in Rita Coventry and in the words of Last Laugh's authors "The next morning, Dwight Frye was established as a major Broadway actor" (42). But it didn't stop there, Frye continued his rise, playing in four well-reviewed roles over seven months in the 1922-1923 season, a period during which Frye would be named by New York critic Stephen Rathbun, alongside stage legends such as John Barrymore, Rudolph Schildkraut, Jane Cowl and Jeanne Eagels, as one of the top ten performers of the season (45).

Josephine Hutchinson 1936 Tobacco CardFrye was the villain in Puppets, gaining more praise from Woollcott: "Perhaps the fact that so unquenchably dramatic an actor as Dwight Frye embodies the white slaver serves to make his seem the important part of the play" (57). What the authors refer to as "full stardom" would come to Dwight Frye in October 1925 when he played the part of Melville Tuttle in A Man's Man. Author Gregory Mank came to know Frye's A Man's Man co-star Josephine Hutchinson as far back as 1978. In 1995 he interviewed the then 91-year-old Hutchinson, who appeared in films as varied as The Story of Louis Pasteur (1936) and Son of Frankenstein (1939), about Frye she recalled him as being so self-absorbed in his role that cast mates thought he might be crazy. "Now, all these years later, I realize: Dwight was the original "Method" actor," (66) Hutchinson told Mank.

In 1926 Frye would play in The Goat Song with a cast that included Edward G. Robinson and stage legends Alfred Lunt and Lynne Fontanne. Later in 1926 came a comedy, The Devil in the Cheese, a hit which featured Fredric March and Bela Lugosi who'd next play Dracula on Broadway. Finally in 1928-29 Dwight Frye would play the role of Alfons the Spider in Mima with Sidney Blackmer and Lenore Ulric. The play was a critical flop but a sensation with the public running 180 performances! Frye would return to the stage from time to time after he went to Hollywood with hopes of finding another substantial role. His last Broadway appearance came in 1934's Queer People.

Dwight Frye became increasingly dissatisfied with his Hollywood career as the 1930's moved on. The authors of Dwight Frye's Last Laugh conclude that "Roles were becoming smaller and less frequent," and that "For Dwight Frye there were frustrations and temper tantrums. And there was the sad realization that, after ten years in Hollywood, he apparently had achieved no reputation at all" (161).

Dwight Frye in Frankenstein

Dwight Frye's Last Laugh is likely the last word on Dwight Frye. The cooperation of his now deceased son in a collaboration headed by one of classic horror's most respected writers in Mank pretty much guarantees that. I'd imagine that unless Mank gives us more himself, this is it. And it's wonderful.

If there's a weakness it's also the strength of the book. The writers, and I'd imagine this is Mank, drift into many asides about the other horror legends Frye worked with: Karloff, Lugosi, Lionel Atwill, Colin Clive, James Whale, etc., often with no direct relation to Frye other than to set the period for the reader. In other words as Frye moves from one project to the next we might be updated on what Lugosi, Karloff and Atwill were up to at that precise moment. Ordinarily this would probably bother me, but here it seems appropriate.

The coverage of Frye's early career on the stage is staggering. I found it the most enjoyable part of Dwight Frye's Last Laugh. The film coverage, if there's a weakness, tends to gloss over Frye's non-horror roles, again understandable. Though if one of the goals of Last Laugh is to mourn his typecasting, then a more detailed treatment of his non-horror roles may have been in order. Not doing so makes it appear that the authors are sympathetic to Frye's plight, yet agree that it was for the best because if his career had gone another way the legend may not have been born.

The book is packed with an unbelievable selection of photos, most of them crystal clear inside these 320 pages published by Luminary Press out of Baltimore. Of those pages the biography itself ends on page 200 to be supplemented with notes, filmography and appendixes. This is something else which would usually bother me, but the filmography along with the compiling of Dwight Frye's stage credits are so detailed and interesting that they almost warrant a second book. This supporting material actually turns into another highlight of Dwight Frye's Last Laugh.

Dwight Frye in The Maltese Falcon 1931

Beyond the pages I'm left to wonder at Frye's descent, a fall which seemed even more sharp than his rise. I feel like something was missing from the story and wonder if his son's contributions to the authorized project may have caused it to have been held back.

From all I've seen of him on screen, and especially after learning of his varied stage career, he certainly had the talent to become the character actor he wished to be. I understand how the typecasting happened, but how exactly did this lead to the drift into unbilled bit player? The other major horror players brought up throughout Last Laugh were typecast as well, but all of them kept getting decent parts. Lionel Atwill and George Zucco were often billed far from the top, but you never had to make a game out of spotting them. I would have liked Dwight Frye's Last Laugh to nail down that part of his fall better for me.

Newton D Baker 1918

Newton D. Baker, 1918

At the end of his life Dwight Frye suffered maybe the cruelest possible fate. He was cast in Darryl F. Zanuck's Wilson (1944), now regarded as a notorious flop, but at the time one of the most heralded coming releases in Hollywood. Frye was to play the part of Wilson's Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, landing the role, according to the authors, because of a great resemblance to Baker. That was in the Fall of 1943. On November 7, 1943 Frye took his son to the movies. Afterwards he collapsed upon boarding a bus and died in the hospital an hour later.

Dwight Frye's Last Laugh is an enjoyable, breezy read. If you're not already well versed about the various horror icons of 1930's you're going to be well pleased to learn a little bit about each of them as you make your way through Frye's often intersecting career. The additional 130 pages that come at the conclusion of Frye's biography help to make Dwight Frye's Last Laugh a book you can give even further attention--between the biography and the appendixes you can give over as little or as much time as you like to this interesting bedeviled actor's life and career.

The final word on this actor, beloved by horror aficionados and underrated by those who aren't fans of the genre, goes to the authors of Dwight Frye's Last Laugh:

"The black magic of Universal had seemingly thrown a curse on Dwight Frye ... The actor who so desperately wanted to act a variety of roles was suddenly typed as a ghoul; more personally and ironically, a Christian Scientist with a deep sense of religion found himself linked with movies blazing with the occult, blasphemy and the supernatural" (111).

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Comments

  1. Patricia Nolan-Hall says:

    A successful Broadway career is revered by the theatre buffs among us, but it is the movies that live.  Typecasting indeed.  Part of my brain said “Who can that normal looking fellow on the book cover be?”

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