George Zucco, Horror Icon (Sort Of)

So George Zucco was the poor man’s Lionel Atwill, what of it?

George Zucco may not have been a great actor, or even a terribly memorable one for that matter, but he was busy. No denying he was a busy man.

Manchester-born Zucco was a leading stage actor in England and Canada in the early years of the 20th century, he and his wife toured the States in the mid-1910s with a successful vaudeville comedy routine, and when WWI broke out he returned to England to fight in the war, where he was wounded. As a result of all of that running about, he began his movie acting career later than most, making his first screen appearance at age 45. Nevertheless he managed a solid 20 years in the business, from 1931 until he suffered a stroke on the set of The Desert Fox in 1951.

In that time he appeared in both lead and supporting roles in nearly 100 films. Thanks to his sharp features, piercing eyes, arching eyebrows, and of course that British accent, he would portray countless aristocrats, assorted authority figures, scientists and doctors (lots and lots of doctors) in musicals and mysteries, comedies and costume melodramas. He co-starred in the 1939 Charles Laughton version of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, 1949’s Madame Bovary, and Maxwell Anderson’s 1948 Joan of Arc. He was versatile an actor enough to play priests, Nazis, and ancient Egyptians, and worked with some of the most respected actors of the day, from Spencer Tracy to Ingrid Bergman.

But no one much remembers that anymore.

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Thanks to those same sharp features, that hawk like nose, and that voice, producers began nudging him early on into more villainous roles, especially in mysteries. Zucco gave sinister turns as criminal masterminds in Charlie Chan and Ellery Queen films, and starred as the nefarious Professor Moriarty in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) opposite Basil Rathbone.

Well, after playing dozens of villains in grade-B mystery thrillers, it was only a short step down to playing villains in grade-B horror films. In 1940 Universal signed him to play a high priest in a flashback sequence in The Mummy’s Hand, the first sequel to 1932’s The Mummy (he would reprise the role two more times as the franchise rolled on). And given that he was so comfortable playing doctors and scientists, it was even a smaller step to, with some minor tweaking, transform them into EVIL doctors and MAD scientists. With that, Zucco’s destiny was assured. Here’s a short sampling of what followed over the next seven years:

Monster and the Girl (1941)

The unremarkable Stuart Heisler’s Paramount film begins as a baffling jumble of genres as it cuts back and forth between a courtroom drama in which a falsely accused man is facing a death sentence for murder, and a tawdry melodrama in which a naive young girl is coerced into a life of prostitution by a ruthless gangster. The stories eventually come together, but it doesn’t make things any less confusing. (On the bright side the great Cliff Edwards co-stars as a chatty bellhop.) 

At about the two-thirds mark, just as most audience members have decided with a resigned sigh the “monster” of the title must be referring to that insidious gangster, Dr. Perry (Zucco) shows up out of nowhere and visits the condemned man (Philip Terry) on the eve of his execution to ask if he might, y’know, have his brain after its all over.

“It’s for the betterment of mankind,” he says, without explaining exactly how transplanting a human brain into a gorilla will help mankind. In fact he doesn’t mention gorillas at all. Sure enough though, that’s what happens. Terry wakes up as a gorilla, and not surprisingly in what has quite unexpectedly become a horror film, sets out to seek vengeance against all the gangsters who framed him.

The Mad Monster (1942)

Zucco (in the Boris Karloff role) takes the lead here as Dr. Lorenzo Cameron, a disgraced mad scientist who’s been ousted from the university by colleagues who found his theories concerning species-mixing just plain nutty. These days he’s set up shop in an old house on the outskirts of a small town where he lives with his daughter and his slow-witted but kindly handyman, Petro (Glenn Strange, in the Lon Chaney Jr. role).

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After repeatedly injecting the unwitting Petro with his “catalytic agent,” Cameron can now turn the gentle half-wit into a snarling, bloodthirsty werewolf whenever he pleases. The ultimate plan is to sell the serum to the army so they can create the inevitable “unstoppable army of wolf-men.” When his old colleagues still call him mad (can you imagine?) Cameron vows revenge, using Petro to begin dispatching them, one after another.

The only fly in the ointment here is the daughter’s pesky reporter of a boyfriend (Johnny Downs, in the Lee Tracy role). Offered a chance to shine in this PRC release directed by Sam Newfield, Zucco gives it his all in a wild, paranoid, bravura showcase.

The Black Raven (1943)

Zucco re-teams with Strange and several other PRC regulars in another Sam Newfield picture, this one clearly inspired by the success of The Old Dark House. When the typical howling thunderstorm makes travel impossible, the usual cast of eccentric characters find themselves stranded together in that weird Amos Bradford’s (Zucco) old, dark inn, The Black Raven.

As if the mysterious murders that follow weren’t surprising enough (okay, not really), so is word that $50,000 in stolen loot is hidden somewhere on the premises. Old Dark House was better.

Dr. Renault’s Secret (1943)

Wouldn’t you know it? Zucco returns to a major studio (20th Century Fox) and even though he’s playing the titular Dr. Renault, he ends up second-billed behind Universal horror standby J. Carroll Naish. Once again the first two-thirds of the film scream “melodrama” as a young scientist travels to a remote French village where his fiancée is living with her mysterious scientist uncle (Zucco) and his oddball assistant Noel (Naish), who supposedly came from Java or some such place. Although happy to see his fiancée, the beau is disturbed to note the creepy assistant seems to be a little too fixated on her, too. Only late in the film as he becomes more curious about the nature of Dr. Renault’s work does he come to discover the horrible secret.

Without giving too much away, let’s just say it’s kind of the flipside to Mad Monster. All in all one of Zucco’s strangest and best roles (though admittedly yeah, it’s Naish’s movie) in a film that amounts to a PRC picture made with better resources and four times the budget.

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Dead Men Walk (1943)

Once again back at PRC with Newfield at the helm, Zucco gets top bill in a tour-de-force performance (a la Karloff in The Black Room), playing both kindly old Dr. Lloyd Clayton and his evil twin brother, Elwyn. That rotten Elwyn may be dead and buried, but to his mind there’s still some hash that needs settling. So he climbs out of the grave no worse for wear and returns to town in hopes of trading places with his brother.

See, it turns out that kind, gentle, softhearted Lloyd was the one who murdered Elwyn and got off scot-free. And why would he do such a thing? Murder his own brother that way? Religious intolerance, that’s why!

A highly entertaining picture, and one (well, two) of Zucco’s most popular lead roles.

House of Frankenstein (1944)

In one of the last franchise entries in Universal’s classic horror era, Zucco once again teams (sort of) with Naish and strange, as well as Karloff (as a protégé of Dr. Frankenstein), John Carradine (as Dracula), Lon Chaney Jr. (as wolf man Larry Talbot), and the inescapable Lionel Atwill. Zucco plays Lampini, a showman with a traveling house of horrors. While on the road he meets with escaped convict Karloff and his hunchbacked assistant Naish, explains to the audience once again what a vampire is and how to kill one, then is promptly killed himself so Karloff can assume his identity and track down all those who sent him to prison, intending to kill them one by one (which seems to be standard practice for the early ‘40s).

In the end Zucco’s job is to provide some background information and move the narrative along. He’s onscreen for approximately one minute, and was credited beneath Peter Coe and Anne Gwynne.

Fog Island (1945)

Immediately after the quick stint at Universal Zucco found himself back once again with star billing in a Sam Newfield Karloff knockoff for PRC. In 1939’s The Man They Couldn’t Hang, Karloff played a misunderstood medical researcher who was betrayed and sent to prison, only to return in secret later, transforming his house into a series of booby traps before inviting all his enemies over to, yes, kill them off one by one.

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In Fog Island, Zucco is an inventor named Leo Grainer (called “Granger” throughout the film) who is framed by several business associates and sent to prison. After his release he moves to a remote island with his daughter and installs a series of booby traps around the property and in the house. He then invites all those who betrayed him out for a fun weekend with hints of a treasure hunt. Then he…well, you know, Here, however, the thick fog which covers the island adds a nice atmospheric touch missing from the ‘39 film.

The Flying Serpent (1946)

This time around the team of Newfield and Zucco crafted a film that was both a direct knockoff of PRC’s 1940 Lugosi vehicle The Devil Bat, as well as an inspiration for Larry Cohen’s wonderful 1982 Q: the Winged Serpent. Zucco stars as the mad archaeologist Dr. Andrew Forbes who, while studying Aztec ruins in Mexico, happens across the honest and for true-feathered serpent god himself Quetzlcoatal. It’s the damndest thing.  What’s more, not long after he brings one of Quetzlcoatl’s feathers home to his wife as a gift, she’s found brutally murdered. Not just murdered, but ripped all to pieces by some kind of large bird (or maybe lizard) type thing. No big loss to the archaeologist maybe, considering the shrew once had the gall to say, “I wish the Aztecs never existed.” 

Putting two and two together just as Lugosi did with the perfume and the giant bat in the earlier film, Forbes realizes that whenever someone is in possession of one of these feathers, the serpent god will show up and rip them to shreds. It just so happens Dr. Forbes has a list of enemies in his head as well as easy access to lots of god feathers, so you can probably guess the rest at this point. Still, for what it attempts and Zucco’s over the top performance, this one remains a personal favorite.

Scared to Death, (1947)

Not only was it Zucco’s last horror film, it was also one of the very last films directed by the outlandishly prolific genre auteur Christy Cabanne, and one of only two color films Bela Lugosi ever made. It’s also interesting to note the man who directed Zucco’s last horror film should also have directed his very first, the Mummy’s Hand. Scared to Death is part horror mystery, part comedy, and part plain weirdie, with hints of both Tod Browning and David Lynch.

The film opens at the morgue where, in flashback, the corpse of a young woman explains the strange and convoluted way in which she came to be murdered. See, she married the son of the shady Dr. Joseph Van Ee (Zucco), who thinks she’s pretty shady herself. Before you know it here comes the hypnotist (Lugosi), an ornery housemaid, and a nasty midget named indigo (the inimitable Angelo Rossetto). Then for some reason this floating green (or maybe it’s blue, hard to tell with that three-strip color) mask keeps appearing outside her window. Then things start to get weird.

Depending on how you look at it, it might be a confounding mess, a glorious mess, or a strangely hypnotic experiment three decades ahead of its time. I go with the latter.

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That, apparently, was enough. Zucco, by all accounts a quiet, soft spoken, pleasant man who loved dogs, was not exactly thrilled with the projects he was being handed. Unlike the A pictures at major studios in which he’d mostly been playing small supporting roles, the horror films more often than not offered him top billing, so he took the work. The sole exception was in 1944 when he turned down a role in Return of the Ape Man, saying it was too ridiculous. (Funnily enough, he’s still listed in the film’s credits.)

Following 1947’s Scared to Death opposite Bela Lugosi, he returned to much smaller supporting roles in more respectable films and never made another horror film again. He continued working steadily until that stroke in ‘51. Although he was offered a few more roles after that (mostly in horror cheapies), he turned them all down. As his health deteriorated, he was eventually moved to a nursing home where he died in 1960.

Now let’s look at some statistics here. Again, his career spanned 20 years during which he made 100 films. In the seven-year stretch between 1940 and 1947 he made over 40 of those films. It was the only period during which he made horror films, and of those 40-plus, about 15 could be considered horror films. With the exception of a few pictures for Universal and Paramount, most were for poverty row studios like PRC and Golden Gate), where he was more likely to get top bill.

In other words 85 percent of the films in which he appeared were not horror films (even if a scattered few were genre pictures, like that Tarzan number he was in), but those have been forgotten. Thanks to that small handful of mostly poverty row horror movies (and the singular efforts of Sam Newfield), from now until time immemorial George Zucco will forever be remembered as a third-rate B horror film icon, a few shades below J. Carroll Naish, Lionel Atwill, and Dwight Frye. Which, for what it’s worth, is better than not being remembered at all.