One of the staple images that cross over between horror and science fiction is the ‘mad scientist.’ That character could manifest as part of mainstream cinema; for example, the sinister pharmaceutical company in THE FUGITIVE. The medical industry as a whole is the evil ogre in countless novels, stories, and television series. And even the news. Every film goer has their favourite. My favourite for his portrayal amongst mad scientists is Lionel Atwill.
Today, Lionel Atwill completely overlooked except by those who watch these sorts of pictures for the love alone. We delight at Dwight Frye in DRACULA, although I prefer him in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN in a rather ruthlessly edited part. Lionel Atwill is always in a brilliant supporting role.
My first contact with Atwill came out of the long playing record called AN EVENING WITH BORIS KARLOFF AND HIS FRIENDS. I purchased it from a bin in an Ottawa department store because it had a hole punched out of the record cover. This brought its price to a grand total of $2.00. I still have that record. I listened to it many times including the monologue that Atwill spoke regarding his unfortunate childhood encounter with the Frankenstein Monster in SON OF FRANKENSTEIN (1939). I used it as an audition piece along with Colin Clive’s creation speech from FRANKENSTEIN (1931) It was many years before I saw the SON OF FRANKENSTEIN on television that I saw the full impact of the speech.
Lionel Atwill was a classically trained staged actor born in Croyden, England. His booming voice and modulated delivery of lines made him able to play bullying, brusque authoritative characters and aristocrats. Atwill played opposite Errol Flynn in CAPTAIN BLOOD (1935), and went to being opposite Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable in BOONTOWN (1940). He made total of nine films.
The role of Dr. Otto Von Nieman in THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) is the most significant provider of lunatic logic. No one delivers this style in quite the same way. Colin Clive in FRANKENSTEIN (1931) utilized a style of controlled frenzy, punctuated by bouts of arrogance and resolution, captured in the famous cut line,” I want to know what it’s like to be a god. This is delivered in a laughing way to the heavens that is mocking and at the same time triumphant over rational thought. (Video note. The overt Christian view point in this presentation is not of my choosing. I am not a creationist.)
Atwill’s read on the character is different; as is his quality of madness. In the film, he shows no remorse. There is only a finality that he had done the deed, as he spouts off his claims to a shocked Fay Wray. Interesting that Clive’s performance was two years previous to Atwill in THE VAMPIRE BAT (1933) and two years before a more sedate, manipulated Henry Frankenstein makes his appearance in BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935).
Lionel Atwill went on to do variations of this role in MAD DOCTOR OF MARKET STREET (1942) to another favourite of mine; the role of the wax sculptor Ivan Igor MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933). It changes the face of madness to obsession to re-create and preserve Art. This picture features a particularly grotesque scene as one watches wax figures slowly dissolve in the heat of a fire. Tame today, yet symbolic as the figures melt their faces elongate and distort we see the destruction of the human form. Here is the raw material for the re-creation.
Lionel Atwill’s personal life had its share of tragedy and drama. His career was cut short by a famous sex scandal involving a wild party, naked party guests, under age girls, and pornographic films. This was an all too common occurrence as many young women – usually with their family in tow – pursued the Hollywood dream of stardom by frequenting parties usually kept secret. Atwill had the nickname of ‘Pinky’. To be invited to one of his parties was a secret social event of apparent renown. Legend has it the party was found out as one of the underage girls testified to being assaulted. Atwill perjured himself on the stand to protect the guests and was sentenced to five years probation . His film career was effectively finished in the age of morals clauses in contracts. Thereafter, he could only find work in so called ‘poverty row’ studios and serials, dying in 1946 of lung cancer.
Hollywood says it doesn’t judge yet it does often harshly to the point of career extinction or alteration as in the case of Errol Flynn. Flynn was acquitted on similar charge yet the stigma remained with him to his dying day hence the phrase from the time ‘in like Flynn.’ Many more of these incidents went unreported or were paid off by the studios that had great power. Such is the price of of madness.