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The Ballad of Dwight Frye

March 25, 2015

When it comes to classic monster movies of the early 20th Century a few names come to mind. Bela Lugosi, Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney, Jr., Elsa Lanchester, and Claude Rains are at the top of the list. But these classic films often featured more than one frightening figure or manipulated character. One of the most popular in that group was Dwight Frye.

Frye was a stage and screen actor known for supporting roles in Universal monster movies. He was born in 1899 in Salina, Kansas and became a popular stage actor in the 1920s, known for his versatile style. He had a few small roles in silent films and became popular for playing bizarre characters, earning him the nicknames “the man with the thousand-watt stare” and “the man of a thousand deaths.”

Frye often played mentally unstable men, particularly in his most well-known role as Renfield, the madman under Dracula’s thrall in the 1931 Tod Browning directed Dracula. Later that year he played another peculiar character, the hunchback assistant Fritz in Frankenstein. Despite the instability of each character the nuances were quite different. He played Renfield as a refined gentleman driven feverishly mad by Dracula while his portrayal of Fritz was much less composed, skittish as a pet.

He made it clear that he wanted larger roles on film but was continually typecast from his successful portrayals of sinister individuals. The same year he starred in Dracula and Frankenstein he played Wilmer Cook in Dashiell Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. In 1933 he played Herman a dimwit suspected of being a killer in The Vampire Bat then played a reporter in The Invisible Man the same year, and appeared as a doctor in The Crime of Dr. Crespi in 1935.

He played Karl, one of Dr. Pretorius’ henchmen, in Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 in a shortened capacity. The role was initially longer with more scenes but the subplot was edited out of the final version to shorten the length of the movie and make censors happy. In one of those scenes Karl killed the Burgomaster, played by E.E. Clive. Unfortunately prints of the deleted scenes have not survived but photographs of the scenes were included in Universal Studios DVD release.

In the 1940s he worked both on stage and on film, covering a variety of genres from comedies to musicals, even appearing on stage in Dracula. He also helped with the US war effort by working nights as a tool designer for Lockheed Aircraft. Frye won the role of Secretary of War Newton D. Baker for the biopic Wilson in 1944 but tragically he died of heart attack on a bus in Hollywood just days before filming was supposed to start.

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