In The Shadows: DWIGHT FRYE
By Michael Arruda
Welcome to another edition of In The Shadows, that column where we honor character actors from the movies, especially horror movies.
Character actors add so much to the movies they’re in, it’s hard to imagine these movies without them. Never receiving the praise heaped upon the major actors and stars of the genre, these folks nonetheless are often every bit as effective as the big name leads.
Last time out we paid homage to one of my favorite character actors from Hammer Films, Michael Ripper. Today we look at one of my favorite character actors from the Universal Monster movies, the great Dwight Frye.
After a successful theatrical career in the 1920s, Frye hit it big immediately on the big screen with his groundbreaking performance as Renfield, the fly-eating madman in the Bela Lugosi version of DRACULA (1931). Other than Lugosi as Dracula, Frye steals the show, making Renfield the most memorable character in the entire movie.
Nearly every scene Frye has as Renfield is impressive. Who can forget his speech to Van Helsing about Dracula and the rats:
RENFIELD: A red mist spread over the lawn, coming on like a flame of fire. And then he parted it. And I could see that there were thousands of rats with eyes blazing red, like his, only smaller. And then he held up his hand, and then they all stopped, and I thought he seemed to be saying: Rats. Rats. Rats! Thousands! Millions of them! All red blood! All these will I give to you if you will obey me!
Frye immediately followed up his phenomenal performance as Renfield with another memorable performance, this time as Fritz, Henry Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant in the Boris Karloff version of FRANKENSTEIN (1931).
While Fritz is a smaller part than Renfield, Frye nonetheless makes the most of his scenes. Fritz plays an integral role in one of the major plot points in the film, when he mistakenly steals an abnormal brain from a college lecture hall for Henry Frankenstein to put inside the skull of the Monster.
As Fritz, Frye does a lot of little things in FRANKENSTEIN that really add depth to his character. When Henry Frankenstein sends him down the long winding stone staircase to see who is banging at their laboratory door, Fritz chatters all the way down, going on about how he doesn’t have time for this sort of thing, that he has too much to do, and at one point he stops on a step to pull up his socks.
In one of the movie’s more dramatic scenes, Fritz takes both a whip and a torch to the Monster (Boris Karloff) as he torments Frankenstein’s creation. Of course, this doesn’t end too well for Fritz, as he gets a little too close to the Monster, and in one of the film’s more chilling images, we see the shadow of Fritz’s dead body hanging from the ceiling, murdered by the Monster.
Unfortunately, for whatever reason, Frye’s genius and talent weren’t really recognized back in 1931, and what should have been a very successful film career never materialized. Sadly, after these two superb performances, Dwight Frye was forever typecast in small thankless roles as weirdoes and lunatics.
He also had the misfortune of having his roles in future Universal horror films cut. For example, his role as Karl in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) was cut significantly before the film’s release. Originally, Karl was to have been a much more important character to the plot, as he was supposed to have murdered his parents and then blamed the murder on the Monster, which is why at the end of the film, the Monster goes out of his way to kill Karl. In the final print, this subplot is gone, and Karl is little more than a grave robber who works for Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger), although we do get to see a flash of Karl’s menacing personality when he murders a young woman in order to supply Pretorius and Henry Frankenstein with a fresh heart.
His role in the third Karloff Frankenstein film, SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) was cut entirely, and he doesn’t appear in the movie.
Tragically, Frye died of a heart attack on November 7, 1943 at the age of 44. While in life his career never materialized the way it should have, today, we can look back, appreciate, and enjoy his remarkable talent. Through the magic of the movies, Dwight Frye lives on.
Here’s a partial list of Dwight Frye’s 62 film appearances, concentrating solely on his appearance in horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s:
DRACULA (1931) – Renfield
FRANKENSTEIN (1931) – Fritz
THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) – Herman Gleib
THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933) – Reporter (uncredited)
THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) – Karl
THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942) – Villager (uncredited)
DEAD MEN WALK (1943) – Zolarr
FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) – Rudi
These are the films in which I became familiar with Dwight Frye. Of course, he made many more movies than just these, appearing in 62 of them.
Dwight Frye made his mark early, in two powerhouse performances as Renfield in DRACULA, and as Fritz in FRANKENSTEIN. You can make the argument that other than the two leads in these movies, Lugosi as Dracula, and Karloff as the Frankenstein Monster, it’s Frye who steals the show, although in FRANKENSTEIN he does get some competition from Colin Clive as Henry Frankenstein, and Edward Van Sloan is also in both movies doing his professor shtick, but it’s Frye who creates two of the livelier characters in both films.
I also really enjoyed Dwight Frye as Herman in THE VAMPIRE BAT, in which he plays a simple-minded fellow who loves bats, and who unfortunately is blamed by the villagers for the vampire-like murders plaguing the community, and he’s hunted down and murdered. Of course, his death is all for not, as the true culprit in this one is the evil Dr. Otto von Niemann, played by Lionel Atwill.
It’s a shame Dwight Frye didn’t get to do more. He could have added so much to so many more movies. Don’t believe me? Check out his work in DRACULA and FRANKENSTEIN and you’ll be convinced.
Dwight Frye: February 22, 1899 – November 7, 1943
Thanks for reading everybody!