In The Shadows: LIONEL ATWILL
By Michael Arruda
Today In The Shadows, the column where we honor character actors from the movies, especially horror movies, we look at the career of Lionel Atwill, who divided his career between playing scary people and police inspectors in the Universal monster movies from the 1930s and 1940s.
He began his career as a leading man, appearing in the lead role in such films as MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1932), MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933) and THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) before being relegated to smaller roles in the Universal monster movies, usually as a police inspector.
He became typecast as a police inspector because of his terrific performance in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) where he played Inspector Krogh, and it’s one of his all-time best performances. Interestingly enough it wasn’t the first time he played a police inspector in a horror movie, as he played Inspector Neumann in MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935).
His performance as Inspector Krogh in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN is my favorite Lionel Atwill performance. Krogh suspects Baron Wolf Frankenstein (Basil Rathbone) has secretly brought his father’s creation, the Monster (Boris Karloff) back to life, putting both his family and the entire village in danger. Krogh spends the entire movie trying to prove this while protecting those under his watch in the process.
And Krogh has extra motivation, since as a young boy, he had his arm torn from his body by the Monster. Yes, he’s the one-armed Inspector, famously spoofed by Kenneth Mars in Mel Brooks’ YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974). But there are no laughs here, as Atwill is as serious and focused as a Police Inspector can be. It’s a solid powerful performance, most likely Atwill’s best.
Atwill’s career was derailed by a sex scandal in which he was accused of hosting an orgy at his home, and there was a rape charge as well. His career never recovered, and he was shunned by the major film studios afterwards. He died in 1946 at the age of 61.
Here is a partial list of Lionel Atwill’s 75 movie credits, concentrating mostly on his appearances in horror movies from the 1930s and 1940s:
DOCTOR X (1932) – The lead baddie, the demented Doctor Jerry Xavier.
THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) – Dr. Otto von Niemann – again an evil doctor, this time experimenting with vampire bats.
MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933) – Ivan Igor – terrorizes Fay Wray in a role made famous twenty years later when Vincent Price starred in the 3D remake HOUSE OF WAX (1953).
MURDERS IN THE ZOO (1933) – Eric Gorman – another evil scientist, this time mixed up with deadly zoo animals.
MARK OF THE VAMPIRE (1935) – Inspector Neumann – plays a police inspector opposite Bela Lugosi’s vampire, Count Mora, in this atmospheric remake of Lon Chaney’s silent classic LONDON AFTER MIDNIGHT (1927), both versions, incidentally, directed by DRACULA director Tod Browning.
SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939) – Inspector Krogh- Atwill’s signature role, the relentless incorruptible Inspector Krogh, who matches wits with Baron Wolf Frankenstein and eventually tangles with the Monster (Boris Karloff).
THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1939) – Dr. James Mortimer – Doctor who hires Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes to take on the Baskerville case.
MAN MADE MONSTER (1941) – Dr. Paul Rigas. Back in the mad scientist seat, this time zapping Lon Chaney Jr. with electricity and turning him into a monster.
TO BE OR NOT TO BE (1942) – Rawitch – Part of the ensemble cast in this classic Ernst Lubitsch comedy starring Jack Benny and Carole Lombard.
THE GHOST OF FRANKENSTEIN (1942) – Doctor Theodore Bohmer – Atwill’s second of five appearances in the Universal Frankenstein series. Here he plays Dr. Bohmer, a mad scientist who transplants Ygor’s (Bela Lugosi) brain into the body of the Monster (Lon Chaney, Jr.)
PARDON MY SARONG (1942) – Dr. Varnoff – messing around with Abbott and Costello.
NIGHT MONSTER (1942) – Dr. King – another disreputable doctor, in this murder mystery/horror movie co-starring Bela Lugosi.
SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE SECRET WEAPON (1942) – Professor Moriarty – matching wits with Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes.
FRANKENSTEIN MEETS THE WOLF MAN (1943) – Mayor – received a promotion in this one, as rather than playing a police inspector, Atwill is Mayor of Vasaria.
HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) – Inspector Arnz – back to being a police inspector again.
HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945) – Inspector Holtz – yet another police inspector in a Universal monster movie. Atwill would die before the next film in the series, ABBOTT AND COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN (1948).
And there you have it. A brief look at some of Lionel Atwill’s memorable film performances.
Lionel Atwill: March 1, 1885 – April 22, 1946
Thanks for reading everybody!