Some stills link to hidden video clips/soundbites
Dwight Iliff Fry, an only child, was born
in Salina, Kansas on February 22nd. 1899 after which his parents relocated to Denver,
Colorado. As a youngster Dwight was given voice training and piano lessons, showing
perhaps a promising career as an accomplished pianist. Despite this, his attentions were
drawn more towards the stage, attending numerous performances of travelling stock
companies passing through town.
While in New York Dwight made his first unbilled film appearance as an extra in a wedding scene for Universal's THE NIGHT BIRD (1928). That same year he married Laurette Bullivant on August 1st, a dancer who he met during a stage performance together. To bolster his financial status, the newlyweds opened a tearoom at 44 West 69th Street which was frequented by many of the stage personalities of the day. After his latest role in Mima, the stock market crash of 1929 put a huge strain on Broadway and the couple lost their lucrative tearoom, forcing them to relocate to the sunnier climes of California where Dwight found work in the play Rope's End.
A scout for Warner Bros. noticed him on stage and offered him a contract. Dwight then
appeared as a gun-toting mobster in DOORWAY TO HELL (1930), a
crime-does-not-pay tale directed by Archie Mayo and starring James Cagney in his second
film appearance. His next screen role was as Vint Glade in MAN TO MAN, a bank clerk
who attempts to frame a robbery on a romantic rival.
venture was for the "poverty row" studios at Monogram in Strange Adventure (1932) as murder suspect Robert Wayne. The film
inherited much of the old-dark-house trappings of The
Cat and the Canary complete with a hooded killer and frightened black servant (played
by Fred "Snowflake" Toomes). Later in the year Frye appeared in three pictures
for Columbia, a courtroom drama titled ATTORNEY FOR THE DEFENSE, a second-rate
thriller involving a murder on a train titled BY WHOSE HAND? and his only western appearance THE WESTERN CODE.
For the next eighteen months Dwight became
more involved with the theatre where he found that some producers had no qualms about
casting him as
something other than a demented dwarf. Some of the productions included The Criminal at
Large and a Charlie Chan murder mystery in New York titled Keeper of the Keys.
His last appearance on Broadway was in Queer People.
As early as 1933 Universal had planned a
sequel to Frankenstein titled "The Return
of Frankenstein" to be directed by Kurt Neumann, however, the project was derailed
when the studio suffered the loss of a million dollars over the year. In 1934 James Whale
was chosen to direct the sequel now titled The
Bride of Frankenstein and he was allowed to hand pick the cast including Dwight who
worked closely with the director for his role of Karl Glutz the graverobber. Of the original script Dwight was considered for two roles, that of
Karl and as Fritz, the village idiot. Whale decided to combine the characters into one
attempting to showcase Dwight's talent to portray a likeable lunatic. When the film was
completed Carl Laemmle Jnr. and Whale both agreed that the 92 minute film would benefit
from a cut of 17 minutes. Included was a scene of Frye looking into Dr. Pretorius'
laboratory (played with perfection by Ernest
Thesiger), and when Karl's aunt and uncle, (Tempe Pigott & Gunnis Davis), are
fleeing from the monster after he has escaped from prison, while Karl watches on as the
monster attacks the burgomaster, (E.E. Clive).
Later on at his aunt and uncle's cottage, Karl sneaks in and murders his uncle for a sack
of money. The murder is blamed on the
monster and Karl's grinning face fills the screen as he chuckles to himself,
Following ATLANTIC ADVENTURE (1935),
a tale about a reporter who captures a murderer on board an ocean liner, Dwight received
the highest billing of his career in Republic's The
Crime of Doctor Crespi (1935) supporting Erich von Stroheim. Cast against the norm,
and one of the few roles in which he does not have a death scene, Dwight appears as Dr. Thomas, one of Dr.
Crespi's, (Stroheim), assistants who becomes suspicious when Crespi adminsters a drug to
the man who stole the woman he loved. The drug keeps the man in suspended animation long
enough for Crespi to declare him dead and have him buried. Even here Dwight has to perform
a scene in which he and another assistant have to exhume the man's body from the
graveyard. His last line is in complete contrast with his usual roles when, with a twinkle
in his eye, he asks a nurse "Doing anything tonight?".
Back at Universal
Dwight played a minor role in The Great
Impersonation (1935), a pre-World War I spy drama, however, audiences expected full
blooded horror from the studio and were disappointed to find that the ghost of the Black
Bog played by Frye is indeed human, even though the man is mad. Frye is virtually
unrecognisable under the mass of tousled hair.
1938 saw Dwight in THE INVISIBLE ENEMY,
a short titled THINK IT OVER, WHO KILLED GAIL PRESTON?, and as Marshall in
James Whale's SINNERS IN PARADISE. Next he appeared in THE NIGHT HAWK, FAST
COMPANY for MGM and as the "Jackal" in Columbia's ADVENTURE IN THE SAHARA.
He then made his sixth and last appearance in a James Whale film with THE MAN IN THE
IRON MASK (1939) as a foppish valet.
Dwight's roles continued to become limited
in scope and not helped by an appearance in CONSPIRACY, a part in the thin
comedy-drama I TAKE THIS WOMAN, GANGS OF CHICAGO, PHANTOM RAIDERS and
a role as Professor Anderson, the curator of a historical museum in Republic's Drums of Fu Manchu. Directed by serial specialist
William Whitney and John English, Dwight only appears in Chapter 5 "The House of
Terror", but is mysteriously billed in twelfth place for all 15 chapters.
Again Dwight found himself as a demented hunchback, this time in PRC's Dead Men Walk (1943), playing opposite not one, but two George Zuccos as twin brothers. Looking old and tired as Zolarr the hunchback, Dwight is given little more to do than scuttle around and utter "Master!". In his best scene, Zolarr sneaks up on Dr. Clayton to beat him to death with a large stick. The close-up of Dwight building up a lather of hatred is the most intense and unnerving scene of the entire film.
During the summer of 1943, Dwight decided
to work during the night as a draughtsman for the Lockheed Aircraft Company in aid of the
war effort. The bruising schedule he set himself was due partly to the guilt he may
have felt for being too young to sign up during the First World War and now he was too old
for the Second.
Dwight had managed to conceal a series of
coronary problems from his family and had refused any medical help as he was a devout
Christian Scientist. This was about the time he was offered his first mainstream cinema
role as the 1st Secreatary of War, Newton D. Baker in a colour production to be filmed by
director Henry King. Tragically Dwight succumbed to a fatal heart attack on a crowded bus
in Los Angeles while returning from the cinema with his son. He died on November 7th 1943
as the ambulance was taking him to hospital.
Although Dwight Frye felt the frustration of type casting, those who swell the ranks of his fans remember him as the quintessential lunatic, a part that was pivotal to the films he was in and one that he played very, very well. Few actors can claim either.
is indebted to Dwight Frye Jnr. for corrections and information pertaining to this article.
Poster and lobby card stills courtesy of Ronald V. Borst