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Visionary Cinema presents
"The best make-up man in the world...."
DVD ReviewDuring a commercial break of an NFL game a couple of years back, the latest Radio Shack commercial featuring the company's then resident psuedo sweethearts Howie Long and Teri Hatcher in the guise of another beloved pop culture coupling: Frankenstein and his would-be "Bride."
To many a baby boomer like myself, the first tastes of horror movies came via those classic Universal Pictures monster features of the 1930s that enjoyed a renaissance on the small screen in the late '60s/early '70s, spawning a whole new generation of fans. Being a tad more inquisitive than our moms and dads, we took our appreciation and re-evaluation of these classics a step further. We wanted to know what made these monsters tick.
Naturally, we began with the performers who formed the heart of the Universal monster dynasty: Boris, Bela and Lon, Jr. That in turn led many film geeks to dig deeper in their quest for even more behind-the-scenes details. Fortunately, some of them went on to prominent careers, including modern-day makeup maven Rick Baker, noted author David J. Skal (whose The Monster Show is one of the best books written on the horror movie industry) and historian Rudy Belmer, a mainstay in many a documentary on the AMC and TCM movie channels.
In 1999, these three professionals crossed paths in many of the supplemental materials gathered on Universal Studios indispensable Classic Monsters Collection DVD series. One of the most acclaimed pieces focused on the man many feel was the true star of those creature features: makeup pioneer Jack Pierce.
Tales of the Greek immigrant's perfection and dedication ranging from day-long preparations for transforming an ever-patient Boris Karloff into Frankenstein's monster to a high-strung Lon Chaney, Jr.'s crying "sadist!"were as entertaining as they were enlightening.
Yet, diehard Pierce admirer, Scott Essman, felt it wasn't enough.
In the spring of 1999, the Hollywood-based producer set out to create an unusual, one-time-only stage show that would pay homage to the innovative make-up whiz via live recreations of his most memorable characters and key events in his life. Aided by over 100 craftspeople from Los Angeles and surrounding areas, working closely together for nearly 13 months, Essman's dream became a reality on June 17th, 2000.
Fortunately, video cameras rolled on that historic night and the resulting DVD, Jack Pierce: The Man Behind the Monsters is an equally ambitious labor of love and a "must-have" for even the most casual monster movie fan. If not for space limitations, I could go on for the equivalent of 100 web pages raving about how wonderful, informative and well conceived this jam-packed disc is.
But the stage play is definitely the heart of this offering. Ambitious, well-written and passionately performed by a cast of mainly unknowns (with the exception of Daniel Roebuck, whom some of you might remember from Matlock and his uncanny performance as Jay Leno in The Late Shift), The Man Behind the Monsters is as close to a meticulously researched biography as it would have been rendered by the make-up legend himself. Pierce would have expected no less.
Reflecting on his long career at the end of his life, Pierce (brilliantly portrayed by Perry Shields) takes us back in time to his humble Greek upbringing and eventual immigration to Chicago in the early 1900s, where he began a love affair with the sport of baseball. Working his way to a pro level team in L.A., Pierce's major league dreams ended when told by scouts that rough-edged players along the lines of Ty Cobb were the future of the game.
Determined to stay where the action is, Pierce shifted gears and began working as a theater projectionist, which in turn led to a managerial position. Rapidly approaching his thirties, he grew restless watching the actors on screen. He wanted to be one.
For the next decade, Pierce became a jack-of-all-trades, donning the hats of actor, stuntman and assistant director to name a few. In the mid-1920s, while doing a series of character bits for the fledging Vitagraph Studios (soon to become Warner Bros), he began experimenting with homemade makeup creations. Two such facial concoctions became groundbreakers: the title character of The Monkey Talks, and the haunting, ever smiling protagonist of The Man Who Laughs.
Via the latter creation, Pierce landed the coveted job as head of the makeup department for Universal Pictures, a position he held for nearly two decades, rubbing shoulders (or in his case, faces) with the likes of Chaney, Jr., Karloff and Lugosi, as well as other vintage Hollywood royalty including Jimmy Stuart, Carole Lombard, Burt Lancaster, Claudette Colbert and the studio's beloved comedy duo, Abbott and Costello.
But monsters made the man and longtime students of Hollywood history will thrill to the scaled back, but no less effective, dead-on recreations of key scenes and characters from Pierce's fear factory, including the first appearances of Frankenstein, the monster's bride and the Wolf Man. As I watched, not only did memories of late night creature features in my darkened bedroom come flooding back, but I also began to understand just how influential Pierce continues to be on modern big and small screen projects overseen by the likes of Tim Burton, Steven Spielberg and Joss Whedon. So the next time you see Edward Scissorhands or catch an episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and marvel at the makeup, keep in mind that a little bit of Jack Pierce's spirit lives on in them.
Rating for Style: B+
Rating for Substance: A
Image Transfer Review: Given the minimal budget and the obvious limitations in filming a stage play with no retakes, nitpicking has to be thrown out the window in terms of visual quality. Given the circumstances, the quality is impressively above average with no glaring anomalies worth writing home about.
Image Transfer Grade: B
Audio Transfer Review: With the exception of a couple of blown cues and an undermiked sequence here and there, no major complaints with this crisp monophonic presentation.
Audio Transfer Grade: B
Disc ExtrasAnimated menu with music
Scene Access with 13 cues
1 Original Trailer(s)
Layers Switch: none
Among the many highlights: A touching cameo by Pierce as a surprise guest during a tribute to Boris Karloff on the 1950s television series, This Is Your Life; a cool before/after gallery where publicity photos of the stage actors segue into their on-stage personas; a ten-minute television interview dating back to 1962 (in which only the audio is heard while vintage photographs corresponding to Pierce's recollections are shown); an informative text biography that expands upon the stage play with further trivia nuggets; a much too short but fascinating look at behind-the-scenes preparations for the play; and even a sneak peek at Pierce's forthcoming star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame.
Extras Grade: B+
Final CommentsA "must" for classic horror movie aficionados and any serious student of early movie history. One of the rare documentary discs that works on all levels and serves as a sterling tribute to an early behind-the-scenes pioneer whose influence continues to be felt to this day.
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