Thursday, 21 April 2016

LIONEL ATWILL: The Rise and Fall of Hollywood's 'Mad Doctor'

As horror fans, when we consider the great British gentlemen of horror cinema over the decades, the names that usually leap to mind are the classic triumvirate of Boris Karloff, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee. All three had long careers, sparked by association with classic characters, which certainly helped to seal them as firm favourites in audience’s memories, and all could trade on an elegant classy persona when required.

Karloff was the first actor to play the signature icons of Frankenstein’s creature and the Mummy, the combination of which made him a star for life. Lee played the same two roles but actually shot to stardom in between when he became immortalised on screen as Dracula. Both had ongoing success sparked by being cinema’s most famous monsters, their fortunes initially rising in tandem with their respective studios of Universal and Hammer.

Cushing was a contemporary of Lee who achieved fame playing across a narrower but equally thrilling spectrum of what are still perceived as very ‘British’ qualities. He personified a heroic decency as Van Helsing (to Lee’s Dracula), yet could warp that almost clinical backbone of self-discipline into an escalating cold, ruthless villainy. How easy it is for compassionate authority’s power to be corrupted, if not tempered with humility, into an overweening God complex. His Dr Frankenstein increasingly sacrificed humanity across Hammer’s franchise sequels to become his own monster: sadistic ambition without conscience.

This unchecked scientific megalomania was an aspect of Cushing’s horror characterisations that he shared with another British actor who sadly should have been remembered as vividly as these three. Like Cushing, he was famous for essaying mad doctors and other very human figures of chilling authority in the genre. His name was Lionel Atwill and in the 1930s he was as big a star as Boris Karloff. It may be that he is partly forgotten through the disastrous consequences of equally human vulnerabilities.

Lionel Atwill’s career could have ensured him a comfortable lifetime of even greater professional security than Karloff, Cushing and Lee (if such a thing can ever be predicted). His name value and respect, unlike theirs, was already established as a household name from two decades of theatrical fame long before his first horror film.

Born in South Norwood, London in 1885, the eldest of four children Atwill began his working life in architecture, a field which held no real interest for him. Neil Pettigrew, for his impassioned biography Lionel Atwill: The Exquisite Villain, was unable to find details of the firm or much about his early schooling, but noted that Atwill was not above a little aspirational embellishment. (He claimed in a movie magazine in 1919 that he had graduated from Oxford University). Although his roots were humble, his ambition also led him to have elocution lessons in the West End to replace his South London tones with those more befitting to the gentlemanly persona he would become. This would be money well spent as Atwill’s cultured tone and enunciation of voice would become of his finest assets as an actor.

He made his professional debut as a footman in The Walls of Jericho at London’s Garrick Theatre, and from there learned his craft in years of repertory across the provinces, touring in Ibsen, Shakespeare and other classic texts. By the time war broke out in 1914, he was already established, living in a well-appointed Hammersmith apartment with the first of his four wives, Phyllis Relph, and their new-born baby boy John, able to afford a valet and the rare luxury of a motor-car. He was later protected from the horrors of the conflict by his age: at 32, he was seven years too old to enlist.

The Atwill family soon decamped to America at the suggestion of Lily Langtry, the actress who’d once found notoriety as the mistress to the Prince of Wales. Atwill had appeared with her in the play Mrs Thompson, which she felt would be a hit stateside. This proved not to be the case, but aside from switching to a vaudeville tour of the show Ashes, the move would place the young actor where Hollywood studios could eventually see him: in the New York theatre. One of the major successes he had there was as the enigmatic, feared stranger in the creepy thriller The Lodger, (later filmed as we have discussed by Hitchcock with Ivor Novello in 1927). This coupled with a stage adaptation he did back home in 1913 of H.G. Wells’ The Invisible Man showed that he was already flirting with the realms of horror, extending his leading man status beyond bland dramas into areas of subtle thrills and menace.

In 1920, Atwill took Broadway by storm in possibly his greatest theatre hit, Deberau, the tragic tale of a famed pantomime Pierrot actor who is crushed by his wife’s adultery and a failed late attempt to recapture his career glory. This would have been his break-through into the movies had the eventual 1924 film version starred him. Instead, Debarau is notable for the curious way in which its plot, like others he would star in over the years, mirrored the unfolding tumult of his later life. Debarau the actor is tempted by a woman into adultery away from a happy marriage. Not only did this happen to Atwill, his co-star of the play Elsie Mackay was the real-life catalyst of his affair and subsequently became his second wife. Compounding it into freakish coincidence, he himself later found her having an affair behind his back which brought that chapter of his life to a close. Furthermore, Debarau’s dashed hopes of salvaging his former fame became the saddest parallel to Atwill’s fortunes – but that lay in the future.

What propelled Atwill’s big-screen transition for good was the stage-to-screen transfer of his huge Broadway success in The Silent Witness. Like Debarau, it too was a crucial step in his career and a bizarre foreshadowing of his destiny. He plays a noble parent who will stop at nothing to secure the acquittal of his son, charged with a crime of passion. A key dramatic scene takes place in a court-room, a setting that Atwill would never forget in a trial of his own making, caused by his own principles’ conflict with the law.

The Silent Witness became a vital cross-over hit, launching Atwill’s movie work. He wasted no time in filming Doctor X. His timing was perfect to catch the horror wave that had recently broken over America with Universal’s Dracula and Frankenstein. For the rest of the decade and into the early Forties, Atwill parlayed his well-spoken suavity with measured doses of the sinister into a wide range of roles. A string of genre pictures including The Vampire Bat, Mystery of the Wax Museum and Murders in the Zoo made him Hollywood’s resident ‘mad doctor’, yet he managed to sidestep the limitation of that reductive label, appearing in non-horror films as well. His theatre pedigree assured him of some degree of versatility with audiences. Atwill capitalised on this lucrative new area of fame with great energy and, for a man of the theatre, a refreshingly unstuffy enthusiasm for the young medium of cinema. Many stage actors as we have seen were grossly patronising about the artistic merit of the ‘flickers’. Atwill, however, had nothing left to prove to critics or himself. He had mastered the high-falutin’ classical repertoire and was still young enough to enjoy a new lease of life and the lucrative trappings of screen fame.

Tinseltown appealed to the gregarious side of Atwill’s personality. He was not a private man of quiet homely pursuits shunning the social scene like some. He was an avid party-goer as well as a keen charity event organiser. If he was around today, he would no doubt be all over social media forums such as Twitter. This can be a double-edged sword. Some actors such as Lon Chaney preferred a more elusive off-screen life, preserving a mystique about their work, giving them a level of control about how and when they could be judged as well as a separation between their public and private lives. Others seem to have used constant publicity as a means of extending their visibility and thus their professional lives – or even inexplicably as the only reason for their ‘celebrity’ in the first place. Lionel Atwill was a talented, hard-working actor who simply liked to make whoopee in his spare time as he was entitled. Whilst this is no bar to a long career (David Niven’s racy memoir Bring on the Empty Horses is a testament to that), he was around at a time when Hollywood struggled to balance allowing the indulgences of its privileged with the morality of the new Hayes Code designed to temper them. Sometimes the excesses, such as immoral or indecent behaviour or even vehicular manslaughter could be quietly hushed up without ever reaching the public, through studios having the police on their payroll and friendly relations with the predatory gossip columnists. In Atwill’s case, he attempted a chivalrous cover-up of his own of a harmless incident for which he paid a disastrous price that no-one could save him from.

Initially, the new decade of the Forties appeared to be a period of renewal for him. His busy run of high-profile roles and the resurgence of interest in horror after a late Thirties slump had led to Universal requesting his services. The House of Horror had produced Son of Frankenstein in reaction to the unexpected success of the reissue double-bill of Dracula and Frankenstein in 1938 and Atwill’s Inspector Krogh earned him a seat at the table. They invited him to further re-energise his career (as well as Lon Chaney Jr with insane bursts of electricity) in Man Made Monster in 1941, taking his megalomaniac scientist image to new heights. He certainly needed the boost. His third marriage to the hundred-million dollar heiress Louise Cromwell Brooks had foundered. After the film’s release, he received the awful news that his Flight Officer son John had been killed by a German bomber; it had hit his RAF base’s local pub after seeing the men’s head-lights while they were on a night out. John was his only child, which only made his grief even more terrible.

Atwill’s suffering was about to become far worse. He discovered on May 13th that he had become embroiled by association in a court case involving the suspected rape of a 16 year-old girl. Neil Pettigrew’s biography does sterling work in clarifying exactly how Atwill came to be involved. The case centred around teenager Sylvia Hamalaine who’d come to Hollywood to seek her fortune and shared an apartment with dress designer, Virginia Lopez, when the juvenile was allegedly molested, with a man by the name of Adolphe LaRue also present. Atwill had no connection to the incident or the location. Lopez’s defence attorney, however, tried to minimise Lopez’s culpability by besmirching the reputation of Hamalaine as a young woman of easy virtue. The L.A. Times reported Lopez’s testimony that the youth “was mistreated at several ‘wild parties’ in the beach home of Lionel Atwill, actor”. Here was a sudden unwarranted connection to an innocent man, yet in order for the court to pursue the allegations, Atwill found himself taking the stand. He was in the uncomfortable position of needing to defend not only his reputation and private life, but that of his guests – and he was mindful of this as a gentleman. He denied: “…that any improper acts occurred in my home or that any indecencies took place in the presence of the Hamalaine girl”. When asked if pornographic films were shown at his house. Atwill testified that they were not.

Here the matter should have rested. To her credit, Hamalaine withstood cross-examination attempts to implicate Atwill; the foreman of the jury acquitting the defendants on lack of evidence stated it was regrettable that celebrities should be dragged into such a matter without any proven involvement  – and even Judge Ambrose felt the details of his testimony should not have been revealed to the press. Predictably, Atwill underwent a form of trial by media, reporters desperately searching for any more salacious gossip to titillate their readers. This too would eventually have blown over - except that Atwill had not told the truth about his home entertainment. It emerged that he had lied about actually showing blue movies at his house. As harmless as this is, even in the context of the Hamalaine trial, there was no getting around the fact that he had committed the crime of perjury.

On October 15th 1942, Atwill pleaded guilty and was sentenced to five years probation instead of jail time. His attorney later read out his defence in court: “I lied like a gentleman to protect my friends”. In retrospect it has the grim finality of an epitaph – and signalled the death-knell for his illustrious career, knocking him off the pedestal of prestigious leading man into a downward slide of diminishing quality projects. Ironically, it seems there weren’t enough friends left in the profession to protect him in return. Hollywood has a short memory for success and loyalty, and a much longer one for those who fail to get away with it. The catastrophic shut-out he was subjected to by the industry was such that by the following April he appealed in court to have the conviction terminated. Since he was now a pariah in the town, he was suffering enough punishment for his error of judgement. The Production Code could continue to have him ostracized while ever he was legally branded a ‘felon’ that brought the studios into perceived disrepute. A kindly judge allowed him to reverse his plea and he walked out of court exonerated.

Unfortunately, as Roscoe Arbuckle experienced some years earlier, (found innocent of a much more direct rape accusation) legal freedom does not always remove the taint of scandal in a hypocritical system. Hollywood studios like M-G-M and Fox turned theirs back on him by and large. . Life imitated art when he tried, Debarau-style, to re-capture his Broadway halcyon days with productions of The Play’s the Thing, The Outsider and My Dear Children. All failed to bring him back to his former theatrical prominence.  Universal kept him going for a while with their increasingly absurd sequels up to House of Dracula (1946), and Poverty Row companies like PRC and Republic Studios gave him work on films and serials.

On April 22nd 1946 Lionel Atwill died of bronchial cancer, comforted by his fourth wife, 27-year-old Mary Paula Prouter, and leaving behind his happier legacies of a surviving son Tony and a fantastic gallery of preserved film roles. Thankfully, as I will show, these performances create their own memories for horror fans, allowing Atwill to live well on screen as the best revenge…

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