Lionel Atwill, Universal Horror’s Forgotten Icon

Oh, but Lionel Atwill's troubles went way beyond Frankenstein’s monster.

“All women love the men they fear. All women kiss the hand that rules them… I do not treat women in such soft fashion. Women are cat creatures. Their preference is for a soft fireside cushion, for delicate bowls of cream, for perfumed leisure and for a master – which is where and how they belong.”

Lionel Atwill said that in 1941, and let’s just say his timing could have been a little better.

After an extremely successful (if comparatively brief) career on Broadway in the mid-1910s, the British-born Atwill moved West and quickly established himself as a solid and imposing character actor in silent films. The advent of sound only boosted his career, as his deep and authoritative voice made him the perfect choice to play everything from police inspectors to mad scientists to military officers to…well, okay, it was mostly police inspectors, mad scientists, and military officers (usually with a heavy mustache), but that was enough to keep him working.

Throughout the 1930s, Atwill was inescapable it seemed, with supporting roles in as many as six or seven films a year. Despite appearing opposite Basil Rathbone in two Sherlock Holmes films, opposite the Ritz Brothers in another two, his star-making turn in Captain Blood (1935), and his comic tour de force as a bad actor in To Be or Not to Be, (1942) Atwill’s bread and butter would turn out to be horror films.

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While hardcore genre fans might recall him for his performances as  the lead in The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1932), the titular Doctor X (1933) in Warner Brothers first venture into the genre,  and an interesting role opposite Dwight Frye in The Vampire Bat (1933), he’s best remembered today for appearing in so many of Universal’s Frankenstein pictures. By the end of his life he appeared in five of the Franchise entries, making him the most prolific member of the Frankenstein family never to have played the monster.  It’s probably fair to say, though, that most filmgoers would recall him best through Kenny Mars’ Young Frankenstein parody of his performance as Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein, even if they had no idea Mars was spoofing Atwill in particular.

It’s sad that, even among classic horror fans, Atwill is so rarely remembered today, considering he was as common an onscreen presence (often with larger roles) as Rathbone or Frye. This is all the more puzzling given that during his lifetime, beginning with his years on Broadway, Atwill was such a fixture of the gossip columns.

The gossipmongers loved his lavish homes, especially when one in California burned to the ground and two on the East Coast were washed into the sea. His first marriage ended in scandal in 1930 when he reportedly sent a private detective to follow his wife, and the PI caught her in bed with another man in a Manhattan hotel. On a lighter and more head-scratching note, one newspaper credited Atwill as the man who discovered Joseph Sternberg.  His second marriage, to Douglas MacArthur’s ex Henrietta Louise Cromwell Brook MacArthur, kept him in the papers, mostly because she was a well-known flamboyant socialite who always had a quip of some kind to offer reporters.

But it was shortly after the two separated in 1939 that Atwill’s gossip column notices moved onto the front page.

The stories of what exactly happened during a 1940 Christmas party at Atwill’s home are sometimes exaggerated and sometimes downplayed depending on who’s doing the recounting. Whoever the source may be, the details are inevitably fuzzy.  What’s certain is that Atwill was at least showing stag films to the gathered revelers. Some of them may have thrown their clothes off before writhing about on a tiger skin rug. Some of them may have been underage. And one of those possibly underage partygoers may have been raped. The only certainty is that porn loops were being screened, though precisely which loops has never been detailed.

Well, word of this got out, the papers went wild with lurid tales of the Christmas orgy at Atwill’s palatial home, and in 1941 he was brought before a grand jury on morals charges. Not only did he refuse to name names, he also adamantly denied having any involvement with, or knowledge of, any such sordid goings on at his house, let alone all over his tiger skin rug.

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Later Atwill would confess he’d “lied like a gentleman” in order to protect the identities of his friends, and sure enough, even as the morals charges quietly disappeared, on October 14th, 1942 he was found guilty of felony perjury and sentenced to five years probation. In 1943, seven months into his term and the victim of some kind of shadowy shakedown attempt, Atwill returned to the judge and came clean. Recognizing that Atwill had much bigger troubles than anything the courts could dish out, the judge took pity on him, terminating the sentence and expunging the file, stating that continuing the sentence would constitute unusual punishment that prevented him from earning a living.

But it wasn’t the sentence itself that was preventing him from working, it was the Hay’s Office. Expunged files or not, felony convictions, porn loops, and rumors of orgies didn’t play too well in the offices of the censor board, and Atwill found himself blacklisted. He tried to return to Broadway but, having no luck there, swallowed his pride and began working for the very embodiment of Poverty Row studios, the Producers Releasing Corporation.

Although he was on rare occasion allowed to sneak back onto the Universal lot (so long as they were making another Frankenstein picture) he spent the final three years of his life working only sporadically on no-budget jungle serials and crime pictures like 1945’s Crime, Inc.. In fact he was in the middle of shooting one of those no-budget jungle serials, Lost City of the Jungle, when he died of lung cancer in 1946.

Yet for all he did, all the memorable films on which he left his mark, and for all he went through, few seem to remember him anymore.