The collective consciousness is a funny animal. Take James Whale’s 1931 film version of Frankenstein, for instance. Most people know the story of Frankenstein through the film, not Mary Shelley’s novel. Over eight decades after its release the film has become one of the most universally recognized cultural and cinematic icons in history. Boris Karloff’s monster has even appeared on a U.S. postage stamp, for godsakes, and kids can identify him before they can identify their own cousins. Yet in spite of its stature, it seems people don’t know very much about the movie.
Ask someone, any random person on the street, to name the actor who played Frankenstein. After they say “Karloff” and you rephrase the question as “No, I mean who played Dr. Frankenstein?” more often than not they’ll just stare at you glassy-eyed. Only a precious few shut-ins will be able to come up with poor, doomed Colin Clive.
Ask someone else what Dr. Frankenstein’s full name is in the film, and you’re likely to get a collection of wrong answers. (It was Henry, not Victor. Just plain Henry Frankenstein. No “Baron,” no “von.”) And ask a third person to name Dr. Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant, and my guess is a huge percentage would offer up “Igor,” and they’d be wrong too. That dull-witted, easily spooked, brain-dropping, nasty little hunchbacked bastard was named Fritz.
In the grand scheme of things, none of these questions really matter. We all know what we’re talking about when we’re talking about Frankenstein. It is worth remembering with thankful hearts, however, that Fritz (a character who did not appear in the novel) was played with monster-tormenting relish by character actor Dwight Frye. Fritz could have easily been a throwaway background character, but Frye imbued him with an energy, a physicality, and a dark humor that made him perhaps the second most memorable character in the film.
Frye had only appeared in a small handful of films when Whale cast him for Frankenstein. He’d had an illustrious stage career in the ‘20s before moving to Hollywood, so it’s entirely possible that Whale—who also had a background in the theater—knew him through that world. There’s a much better chance, however, that Whale had been impressed by Frye’s wild-eyed, scene stealing performance as the bug-eating Renfield in Tod Browning’s Dracula, released about a year earlier. His Renfield created a model that would be copied for generations to come. He did the same with Fritz, who would become the archetype for the thousands of cinematic “mad scientist assistants” who followed.
It was Frye’s Renfield more than anything else that would lead to his being typecast throughout the ‘30s as (in his own words) “idiots, half-wits, and lunatics.”
Word got around Hollywood that if you were a producer or director looking to cast someone to play a nutjob, you wanted Dwight Frye. He did not disappoint. Playing deeply disturbed characters in small, often uncredited roles in horror movies, war dramas, gangster pictures and comedies, it was impossible to ignore him. Whether he was playing “Villager,” “Second Mug,” or even “Desk Clerk,” he had a knack for tossing in a little something extra. He didn’t just play crazy people—he played crazy people who were at the same time a little creepy, and almost always funny.
In Whale’s 1935 sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, for instance, he only appears in a few brief scenes, only has a few lines, but they are integral to the plot. He doesn’t simply play Karl the body snatcher as a sleazy, money-grubbing ghoul like Burke and Hare, His Karl is a little…off. Moreover, Frye is clearly doing a Boris Karloff impression, lisp and all, in a move I always found hilarious.
Likewise, his sixth-billed turn as Herman, the dull-witted houseboy falsely accused of being a vampire in 1933’s The Vampire Bat utterly eclipses the likes of Lionel Atwill, Fay Wray, and Melvyn Douglas. After Herman leaves the picture (following an unfortunate run-in with some torch-bearing townsfolk), the whole enterprise becomes much less interesting.
Even in a brief, uncredited, and non-crazy role in Whale’s The Invisible Man, he’s impossible to miss. As a persistent reporter at a police press conference, Frye is just full of ideas regarding how to capture said invisible man, each more ridiculous than the next.
Not surprisingly, although he appeared in films of nearly every genre (including musicals), he found his real niche in horror. He appeared in numerous Universal horror films, including Edgar G. Ulmer’s The Black Cat and all but one of the Frankenstein sequels. To this day, when people think of “Igor,” a mad scientist’s hunchbacked assistant, they’re thinking of an image and a character created by Dwight Frye. And when Frye died in 1943 shortly after completing his last film, Dangerous Blondes, he could rest easy, knowing that throughout his very busy fifteen-year career, he never once played a character named Igor.