Sunday, August 25, 2013

RONDO HATTON, MY MAN





How to explain my fascination with Rondo Hatton? It started many years ago when channel 5 in Boston purchased a syndicated package of films called "Classic Horror." Every Saturday at 11:30 PM, after the nightly news, the station unfurled the entire Universal catalog, starting with Dracula and Frankenstein and working in a somewhat chronological order, all the way to the Universal horrors of the 1940s. After several weeks, the TV Guide listed a 1946 film called House of Horrors. I'd already seen House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula; so I assumed this was another one of those, featuring various monsters in a battle royal situation. Instead, it was a rather quiet suspense film that started with a destitute artist rescuing a man from drowning. The man, who turned out to be a famous killer known as the Creeper, was played by Hatton. With the exception of Boris Karloff,  I'd never been so instantly infatuated with an actor.

He looked peculiar. To a kid, I didn't find him particularly hideous, just odd. He had an elongated face and rubbery features, a sloping forehead, and ears that appeared large enough to flap.  He seemed enormous - only later did I realize he was wearing a padded suit - and his hands seemed to be set permanently into claws, perfect for wringing necks and snapping spines.  He didn't have much personality - he grunted a lot, and his few lines were delivered in a gruff voice - but there was something about him that was magnetic.  I liked him immediately, the way I have liked certain professional wrestlers and large dogs upon first sight. The Creeper, I imagined, might even snap somebody's neck for me, if I asked nicely.





The sculptor (Martin Kosleck) brings the hulking brute home and nurses him back to health. Grateful, the Creeper starts killing the critics who have panned the sculptor's work. The sculptor knows what's going on, but he's mum. He decides this Creeper fellow has an intriguing look ("Magnifique," the artist says, cradling the Creeper's head on his lap after pulling him out of the water, "The perfect Neanderthal Man...") and uses him as a model. The Creeper, rather submissively, sits for the artist. He collects no modeling fee, but he's got room and board, and as much stale bread as a man could want. It's not a bad deal. Unfortunately, the Creeper eventually realizes the artist is a nutter. Then things get touchy.

House of Horrors wasn't great, and it certainly wasn't up to the standards of Universal's best, but it was a good little film.   The horror genre was coming to the end of a cycle. The giant bug movies were coming up, as well as films about teen werewolves,  blobs from outer space, and atomic powered monsters from Japan. In other words, the old Gothic horrors of Universal were about to be put to sleep for a while. The company made one more film with Hatton as the Creeper, another nifty little thriller called The Brute Man, but didn't even release it under their own banner, selling it off to  Producers Releasing Corporation.  That was also the end of Hatton. He died at age 51, just as his career was gaining traction.




I read whatever I could find on Hatton, but there wasn't much. I learned that he had acromegaly, a disease that distorted his face. I read that he had acted in quite a few pictures before he became the Creeper. I learned Hatton had been a popular football player at a Florida high school, and then served in the military during World War 1, where he was hit with poison gas during a battle in France. It was this encounter with mustard gas that allegedly affected his features. His marriage ended, but he married a second time, to a woman named Mae who stood by him, even as his condition worsened.

His entrance into acting was a bit of a fluke, although some would call it fate. He'd worked as a reporter for a Tampa newspaper during the 1920s, and it was while reporting on Hell Harbor (1931), a  Lupe Velez film being made in Florida, that Hatton caught the eye of  director Henry King.  Noting Hatton's peculiar face, King asked if he might be interested in a small part in the film. Hatton agreed, perhaps to make a little money, or perhaps for a lark.  After serving in the war, appearing in a movie couldn't have been too daunting. He must have enjoyed it, too, for he took a small part in another film in 1931. By 1936 he was in Hollywood, trying to make a go of this acting thing.

According to Hatton legend, it was his second wife who suggested he try to make a living in the movies. If his odd appearance could help him earn a few bucks, so be it. Starting in the late 1930s he worked fairly often, playing pirates, lepers, and occasional heavies in westerns. He even had a cameo in the 1939 Hunchback of Notre Dame, as part of the 'ugly man' contest that was eventually won by Quasimodo (Charles Laughton). That same year, Hatton was featured in a Ripley's Believe it or Not cartoon. "Rondo Hatton, actor who played horror parts without makeup, won a prize as the 'handsomest youth'  during his school days, gassed during the great war - now suffering from 'acromegaly' "





By the mid-1940s Hatton was appearing in meatier roles. Two Sherlock Holmes movies,The Pearl of Death (1944) and  The Spider Woman Strikes Back (1946), plus a turn as Moloch, the mute assistant in Jungle Captive (1945), cemented him as one of Universal's  rising B-movie heels. Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper wrote in Sept. 1945, "Universal is very proud of its latest zombie, Rondo Hatton, who plays a character called the Creeper and who'll creep through a whole series, B-gosh!"  

It was in The Pearl of Death that Hatton first played the Creeper character, described by one reviewer of the day as "a grisly, half-witted creature."  Kept in the shadows for most of the film, he murders several people before being shot by Holmes (Basil Rathbone). Hatton's presence was startling, and it is no wonder Universal considered him a potential breakout star.

House of Horror is generally regarded as the pinnacle of Hatton's career.  Director, Jean Yarboough, who would go on to helm such diverse projects as The She-Wolf of London and The Abbott and Costello Show,  directs House of Horror with a quick hand.  There are wisecracking cops and snooty art critics and a lot of verbal jousting that one doesn't ordinarily see in horror films. It also takes place in a city, probably meant to be Manhatton, which was another rarity, since most horror films of the era took place in castles or laboratories. The movie also showed Universal that Hatton was a capable character actor, limited perhaps, but compelling enough to be more than a bit player.

The immediate sequel to House of Horrors was The Brute Man. Screenwriters  George Bricker and M. Coates Webster borrowed a bit from Hatton's own life and attempted to give the Creeper an origin. In The Brute Man we learn that the Creeper  was Hal Moffet, a former college football star whose face was damaged in a chemistry experiment. Known for his temper, Moffet's ugliness drives him underground, where he acts on his murderous rages. On the run from the police, he finds himself hiding in the apartment of a blind piano teacher named Helen (Jane Adams). He befriends her, a bit like Frankenstein's monster befriending the blind old hermit in Bride of Frankenstein (or like Charlie Chaplin befriending the blind girl in City Lights?) and starts another killing rampage, this time robbing his victims, hoping to raise money to pay for an operation to restore Helen's sight. She eventually learns the identity of her new friend, and is used by the police to set a trap. The Creeper is caught, but not killed. Instead, he's hauled away to jail and perhaps, another sequel.

There are lapses in logic within the script. For one, the cops see any dead body and immediately say "It's the work of the Creeper!" Also, the actor playing the young Hal Moffet is several inches taller than Hatton. Still, much of The Brute Man is enjoyable, and the credit must go to Yarborough.

With Maury Gertsman as his cinematographer, Yarbrough uses even more film noir touches than in House of Horror, filming the Creeper from impossible angles. We see him lurking about in his dockside lair; scurrying up fire escapes; hiding in alleys. Yarbourough also makes great use of the Creeper's name. In The Brute Man, we actually see Hatton creeping about the city, always escaping detection, walking breezily in the dark, sometimes standing perfectly still as his pursuers walk by him unawares. True, the movie is flawed and at times silly, but taken as a sort of crude step-child of film noir, The Brute Man has many pleasures. One Kingsport, Tennessee critic described The Brute Man as "a taut melodrama," adding "the film utilizes the standard suspense rousing devices, but in its category it stands favorably."


Unfortunately, the many myths around Hatton seem to spring from The Brute Man. One of the worst is that Universal Studios was somehow ashamed of exploiting his facial deformities, so the company gave the film away to Poverty Row's Producers Releasing Corporation. The truth is that Universal was merging with International Pictures, which changed the entire focus of the studio and resulted in the shutting down of its B-movie units. (All of Universal's B movies were leased to a company called Realart Pictures, which rereleased them as double features during the 1950s. Was Hatton in the others? Of course not. To say Universal was ashamed of The Brute Man is just myth-making, especially considering they unloaded all of their B-pictures that year.)

Another part of the Hatton myth that has annoyed me over the years is that he was some sort of borderline idiot who was shamelessly exploited by Universal Studios. First of all, he'd been a journalist, as well as a soldier, so he couldn't have been the simpleton that mythologers make him out to be. Yet, the rumors have persisted for years. Director Fred Olen Ray, who wrote one of the first comprehensive pieces on Hatton for Filmfax in 1991,  disagrees strongly with the hearsay.

"I can't imagine that Hatton was a simple minded person," Ray told me recently. "I think he may have even been the valedictorian of his class.... he was a professional writer as well, so that alone speaks volumes about his level of intelligence. It's a shame that when faced with little to go on, people feel comfortable making up their own reality."
 
Another myth about Hatton is that he didn't enjoy acting.  Maybe he didn't love it like a classically trained thespian, but no one was forcing him into it.  "He was a pleasure to work with," said Martin Kosleck years after House of Horrors, "intelligent, sensitive, and kind."

Had he not wanted to play these roles, he could've gone back to journalism. Besides, he had finally moved beyond bit parts and the paychecks were increasing. It's not like he was letting people throw apples at him in a freak show. As his medical condition worsened, he needed these paydays to pay for his treatments. The enlargement of his lower jaw meant constant dental work, just so he could eat. "It was a tragic affliction," wrote Michael Mallory in his 2009  book 'Universal Studio Monsters,' "yet the fashion in which Hatton faced it was little short of heroic." Mallory added a bon mot where Hatton's place in the movie pantheon is concerned: "While never a threat to Spencer Tracy, Rondo Hatton did prove to be irreplaceable. In the history of Hollywood, there has never been anyone like him."

Still, Hatton has been an easy target for those smug types who like to mock low budget films. True, his movements are stiff, and his dialog was limited to monosyllabic threats ("Stop screaming."), but in comparison to some of the other actors of the day, he was positively subtle. Watch Hatton when the artist in House of Horrors announces that another critic has been murdered. Gnawing on a cold potato, he merely grunts, "Yep."  It's chilly stuff. Watch Hatton peer out of a window, watching a young woman walk by. He zeroes in on her with the cold eyes of a cat watching a mouse. But my favorite scene in any Hatton movie is when the artist  unveils his sculpture, allowing the Creeper to see it. Hatton takes it in, unemotionally. "It's pretty," he says, sounding just slightly surprised. I like his acting. I like his cement-mixer voice and his deadpan eyes. What more do I need from a creeper?

 

Carlos Clarens, one of the first writers to explore the American horror film as something more than junk fare, put Hatton into a specific category, one that feels right to me. He gently placed Hatton ("the real life acromegalic who proved that actual deformity could never take the place of Jack Pierce's makeup jobs") with the other B-movie actors of the era, folks like John Carradine and George Zucco and Turhan Bey, the eccentric character actors who spent careers walking slightly behind the mummies and vampires.
 
"In retrospect," Clarens wrote in 1967, "the sole charm of these films resides in the very proficient contract players that populated them...They appear now as the real stars of these films, a most valiant troupe temporarily mired in the lower half of the double bill."
 

Sadly, the man Sherlock Holmes described as having "the chest of a buffalo and the arms of a gorilla," wasn't well. His acromegaly was affecting his heart and his breathing. In early 1946, just as Universal was preparing to launch him into a sort of fame, Hatton suffered a series of heart attacks.  He died in Feb., before his two Creeper films were released. In fact, the year he died saw a veritable flood of Hatton movies in theaters, as the Sherlock Holmes films were often billed together, as were House of Horrors and The Brute Man.
 
I only wonder what could have happened for Hatton had he lived. Perhaps we would  have had The Curse of the Creeper, or even more tantalizingly, Abbott and Costello Meet the Creeper. Maybe he would have found work on television, appearing on shows like Gunsmoke or Thriller. He might have been a good horror movie host, too.
 
His image has lived on, occasionally popping up in comic books and album covers. In The Rocketeer (1991) a villain was given a full blown Hatton likeness. More than one screenwriter has attempted a Hatton biography, none coming to fruition. In 2001 a group of horror fans established The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Award, a small likeness of the sculpture from House of Horrors. The awards are given to various category winners (Best Film, Best Book, etc) after an on-line vote. Still, most stories about Hatton describe  him as some some sad, pathetic freak. It's an angle I still refuse to accept.
 
 In 2009, a Georgia columnist from the Dalton Daily Citizen recalled receiving a few letters from Hatton back in the 1930s. The columnist had referred to Hatton as the ugliest man he'd ever seen, and Hatton, displaying an ironic sense of humor, sent a letter thanking him. The two established a correspondence. In one of the letters Hatton wrote, "still plugging along trying to get established in this movie business, so keep your fingers crossed for me." This doesn't sound like a man being exploited. In the other letter snippets, Hatton seemed like a friendly, humble man who enjoyed talking about his days on the Tampa news beat.  He also sent an autographed 8 X 10 from his latest film, In Old Chicago, autographed by himself and the film's star, Tyrone Power. Again, this doesn't sound like a sad person being exploited. It sounds like a man trying to make a living, and someone who was proud enough to brag a little, a man proud of being in a movie with Tyrone Power.
 
 

So how did this intelligent, friendly man appear so dumb and menacing as the Creeper? The answer, dear readers, is that Rondo Hatton was a good actor.

There, I said it.

And if you disagree, there is a dark alley where we can meet to discuss the matter. You'll recognize me. I'll be the one in the padded suit, with hands like claws...


 

1 comment:

  1. Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffed The Brute Man, and that brought me here. Great article, thank you!

    ReplyDelete