J. Carrol Naish: Batman’s First Onscreen Villain

Before Heath Ledger, Danny DeVito, or Frank Gorshin, character actor J. Carrol Naish played Batman’s first onscreen archvillain.

On the set of his final film, the low-budget (and poorly-lit) hippie-era shocker Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971), J. Carrol Naish came to be known as a very professional and cordial man with absolutely no sense of humor. Well, maybe he had his reasons. Over the course of a career that stretched back to the silent era, he’d worked with esteemed directors like Fritz Lang, John Ford, and Anthony Mann. He’d co-starred with Bogart, Edward G. Robinson, John Wayne and Ingrid Bergman. He was one of the original Corsican Brothers, starred in TV’s The New Adventures of Charlie Chan, and was nationally recognized as the star of radio’s popular Life With Luigi. Around the major studios he was known as The One-Man U.N. thanks to his versatility with accents.

Over the years, in a career in which he’d appeared in almost 225 films and TV shows, the New York-born Irish American convincingly portrayed Asians, Middle Easterners, Hispanics, Frenchmen, Germans, Native Americans (he played Sitting Bull twice), East Indians, Italians, and even the occasional Canadian.  He’d been nominated for two Oscars, and won one Golden Globe.  But at the end there he was working for second-rate exploitation king Al Adamson, hired as part of a package deal with Lon Chaney Jr., who by that time was so far gone with throat cancer he could no longer speak. Yeah, the whole set-up stank of real class.

Still, Dracula vs. Frankenstein, god-awful as it is, was the film that introduced me to Naish when I first saw it in 1973, and he stuck with me ever since. Despite all the gangster pictures, Westerns, jungle, desert and seafaring adventures, boxing films, noirs, melodramas,  comedies and musicals in which he appeared, despite his obvious and chameleon-like talents, thanks to just five or six films out of those 200-plus, I will always consider Naish among the classic horror icons, and an actor with some solid geek cred. Here are just a handful of examples to prove my point.

Dr. Renault’s secret (1942)

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Although he regularly received top bill when making horror cheapies at poverty row’s PRC Pictures, George Zucco wasn’t treated quite so well at the majors, where he normally ended up with small bit parts. Even in this 20th Century Fox number in which he plays the titular Dr. Renault, Zucco found himself second billed behind the more respected Naish in what amounts to a PRC story made with a Fox budget and production values. What was a weird little horror film for both men begins like a melodrama, as a young scientist travels to a tiny remote French village to visit his fiancée, who lives there with her creepy scientist uncle (Zucco) and his even creepier assistant Noel (Naish). We’re told Noel comes from Java, which may or may not explain why he acts that way. Who the hell knows how people act in Java?

Although the young scientist is happy to see his gal, he’s understandably disturbed to find that weird-ass assistant unduly fixated on her, always sniffing around her like a dog in heat. What might be nothing more than an off-balance love triangle becomes a bit more troubling than that when the young man starts getting all snoopy about the real nature of Dr. Renault’s secret research. Oh, these scientists who simply aren’t satisfied to let species be species. Nothing but trouble, I’m telling you. The film really is a showcase for Naish though, who delivers an oddball performance worthy of Dwight Frye.

Batman (1943)

Long before the Dark Knight films, the Tim Burton films, or even the deliberately campy ‘60s TV series, The Batman made his first big-screen appearance in 1943, just as the comic itself was getting its legs. The Saturday matinee serial starred Saturday matinee serial regular Lewis Wilson (remember him?) in the Bruce Wayne/Batman role. In his first (appropriately jingoistic given the year) outing, Batman finds himself going head to head with the sinister and inscrutable Japanese arch villain and superspy Prince Daka (Naish). Like any of those half-decent James Bond villains who would be coming down the pike in another 20 years, Prince Daka has his very own atomic death ray, a handy alligator pit, and is in the annoying habit of kidnapping American scientists and turning them into zombies willing to do his evil bidding and sabotage the American war effort.

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It remains a bit lo-fi compared with later incarnations. Batman’s suit is a little ill-fitting, the fights are what you might call “somewhat tepid,” and while he has a Bat Cave he has no Batmobile, which means he has to take the bus a lot. Naish, though, is as delightfully over the top as the Japanese archvillain (in a performance that would never be allowed today) as Cesar Romero or Jack Nicholson would be later. The same year he made this, Naish was nominated for a best supporting actor Oscar for his role opposite Bogart in Sahara. He was not nominated for this.

House of Frankenstein (1944)

For some reason in my mind I’d always thought Naish was as much a Universal horror standby during the classic era as Lionel Atwill. Brains are funny things that way. Turns out his one and only Universal horror appearance was in this, one of the last of the original franchise releases. Even though he has to share the screen with the likes of Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., John Carradine, Atwill and Zucco, he more than holds his own. In fact he steals the show as Daniel, the lovesick hunchbacked assistant to mad doctor and Frankenstein protégé Karloff. All Daniel wants is to have a normal upright body so maybe that gypsy girl over there will love him as much as he loves her, and not just treat him like some friendly misshapen puppy. As long as Dr. Beaumont (Karloff) keeps promising him that new and perfect body, he’s willing to do anything, and that includes (but is not limited to) killing anyone who stands in the doctor’s way.

In a story that brings together Dracula, the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s monster in a self-consciously deliberate grab for the bottom line (while remaining one of my favorites of the entire franchise), Naish gives a remarkably nuanced and sympathetic performance. It’s a huge step up from that same year’s The Monster Maker, a Sam Newfield picture for PRC in which Naish stars as Dr. Igor Markov, a mad scientist who injects his enemies with a serum (you never hear about serums anymore) that deforms them into hideous creatures. Hoo boy.

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Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971)

And so we end up back here again. And we end up back here almost exclusively on account of that single turn in a Universal Frankenstein picture, with no thought at all to his vast body of non-horror work. Naish had spent most of his time from the mid-’50s to the end of the ‘60s playing supporting roles on TV, so maybe the idea of ending his career with top billing in a real theatrical film was tempting. His health was fading fast after all (he would die of emphysema in ‘73). Here he plays Dr. Frankenstein himself, or the last of the line of Frankensteins, trying as ever to recreate his grandfather’s experiments in a lab hidden away in a shabby boardwalk house of horrors. For some reason Dracula (played by a stock broker) shows up and offers to help him in exchange for the secret of eternal life. I thought Dracula already had that, but we’ll let it slide. Oh, there are hippies and bikers and dumb cops and an awful Vegas nightclub act, but none of that matters. A good thing, too, as the film is so poorly edited (Adamson’s made far better) it doesn’t make a whole helluva lotta sense.

What does make the picture worthwhile though is getting one last chance to see Naish and Lon Chaney Jr. onscreen. Naish’s dentures may get in the way on occasion, and he’s forced to play the entire film in a wheelchair he didn’t exactly know how to use (despite reports, he didn’t need it off-screen), but he still gives a fine and solid performance as the last of the Frankensteins, knowing his time’s about up and desperate for that one victory he’s sought his whole life. And even though the cancer had rendered Chaney mute by this point, he can still fully express all his pathos through his eyes alone. Better still we get the great Angelo Rossitto as an evil carny who works with Frankenstein, a small role for Forry Ackermann (who contributed quite a bit to the film) as a doomed scientist, and a final confrontation that would go on to inspire a bit in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. A miserable picture yes, but one that made a ton of money, in no small part I’d like to think on account of all those rabid J. Carrol Naish fans out there who lined up around the block to see it.

These days Naish has his own star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, but it has nothing at all to do with any of the films listed above. Some of us know better, though.

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