A retrospective interview concerning monster make-up master, Harry Thomas
When the subject of horror and special effects comes up, aging Baby Boomers think invariably of Universal Studio’s venerable monster make-up man Jack Pierce and Generation Xers just beginning to gray batten on gore-greasepaint specialist Tom Savini. Few, if any, of the two groups of horror film fans conjure up the name of Harry Thomas. Thus, it can truly be said that Harry Thomas (1909-1996) truly labored in the shadows of Tinseltown’s better-known (and better self-promoting) makeup magicians.
This is a shame, since Harry Thomas contributed his make-up mastery to a slew of at least interesting and fun (if not notable) horror and sci-fi films—such as Frankenstein’s Daughter (1958), in which the mannish-looking monster was reportedly due to Harry’s understanding that it was a he-monster, not a she-monster; Ed Wood’s seminal sci-fi schlocker Plan 9 From Outer Space (1956) and probably his best film (not saying a whole lot), Bride Of The Monster, with Bela Lugosi’s last speaking role in a motion picture; Roger Corman’s first feature film Monster From The Ocean Floor (1954) as well as his cultish black comedy Little Shop Of Horrors (1960); and the real cult kitsch-classic Killers From Space, featuring aliens with pop-eyes that Harry later revealed weren’t Ping-Pong balls, as widely assumed, but the bottoms of egg trays; ad infinitum.
In fact, it’s hard to think of a campy, cult, or classic Hollywood horror of the Fifties and early Sixties that didn’t feature Harry Thomas’ handiwork. (Television too; Harry Thomas handled makeup for such cult shows at The Munsters.) In addition, early in his career Harry was involved in some truly great horror classics—Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde (1932), The Mummy (1932), and assisting Jack Pierce in making up The Bride Of Frankenstein (1935). He even applied pancake to Presidents Ford and Reagan! In other words, Harry Thomas really paid his dues with the best in the business and then went on to leave his own indelible make-up mark on horror and sci-fi cinema. Yet, his name rarely comes up in horror fan circles.
Fortunately, this is all beginning to change. Filmfax magazine ran a profile on Harry Thomas that really opened some horror fans’ pop-eyes. More significantly, Harry Thomas’ good friend and horror memorabilia collector, Dennis has stepped forward to illuminate Harry Thomas’ fascinating career. Dennis has assembled stills, photos, artwork, movie posters, original anecdotes and other goodies from the colorful life and career of Harry Thomas and currently presents them at an absolutely socko Webpage The Harry Thomas Webpage (all of the graphics on this page are from his website). If you haven’t visited Dennis’ cyber-shrine to Harry Thomas, you should do so with all due dispatch. In addition to highlighting Harry Thomas, Dennis also profiles his own interest in collecting movie memorabilia (see article on Dennis’ movie memorabilia activities in next month's issue). Recently, HORROR-WOOD was fortunate enough to interview Dennis about how he and Harry Thomas’ lives came together and intertwined. The results are below.
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HORROR-WOOD: How did you and Harry Thomas meet?
DENNIS: I first met Harry Thomas through a friend of mine.....Eric. Eric is owner of a movie Theater in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He has a very impressive movie prop display in the theater lobby. While interviewing Harry Thomas for Filmfax magazine, Eric bought several props from Harry, including an authentic pair of eyes used in Killers From Space. I was very impressed with Eric's prop display (especially the KFS eyes) and offered to buy them. Instead of selling them, Eric wrote Harry Thomas and asked him to send a fan another pair. About a week later, the eyes arrived in the mail. I wrote Harry a thank-you note and asked if we could meet and talk about his old films and if he would be willing to autograph posters, photos, and lobby cards from my collection. Harry wrote back and told me to call him the next time I made the three-hour drive to Los Angles and he would be happy to autograph anything from my collection. He was very impressed with my collection of movie memorabilia from around the world and he was amazed to see that films like Killers From Space and Frankenstein's Daughter was released in countries other than the US. Harry was always very generous with his autographs and always had a wonderful story to tell during our many visits together. He always had a kind thing to say about all the actors, actresses, and directors he worked with. It was rare for Harry to have something bad to say about anyone.
HW: You were good friends until the end. Did you ever go with him on an assignment? Was he active at all the business the last few years of his life?
DENNIS: After three years in Southern California, the army decided to send me to Germany. Harry and I stayed in touch through letters and photos. Every time I bought a new poster or monster mask that Harry created, I'd send him a picture. My in-laws are from California also, so I'd always stop by Harry's house for a visit during my vacations. I'm not sure what year Harry retired from working on pictures, but it was before I met him. He stayed active teaching make-up at Joe Blasco's make-up school for some years later.
HW: Which project do you believe was Harry proudest of? Conversely, which project would he have rather most forgotten?
DENNIS: Harry toll me he was most proud of his work on The Neanderthal Man (1952). He compared Robert Shayne's transformation scene (in that film) to Lon Chaney Jr. transformation into the Wolf Man. It was only recently that I was able to find The Neanderthal Man on video. The transformation scene is very impressive and is among Harry's best work. He was also very proud of the final scene in Frankenstein's Daughter (1958) where Donald Murphy gets a face full of acid. The director kept telling Harry to "Hurry up, just put some blood on his face and it will look fine." Harry told him to give him a few minutes and the make-up will look great. He was very proud of his work on that scene because he did it so fast....in just a couple of minutes. Harry always took pride in his work and he knew that these movies would not make money from the bad acting, poor directing, or the quickly written script.... it would be the make-up that people would pay money to see. Harry got frustrated on a couple of pictures when the director either would not give him the time to do the make-up effectively or, worse yet, (when) all of Harry's work ended up on the cutting room floor. The Unearthly (1957) was a classic example where Harry spent hours and hours of work to create some imaginative monsters for the final scene. The police break into the basement and are confronted with a house of monsters, but the scene lasts less than a minute in the finished film and was not filmed properly to show off Harry's work.
HW: It was the best scene in the film anyway. Did Harry inspire you to begin your extensive collection of movie posters, props, and memorabilia? What did he think of your collection?
DENNIS: Before I met Harry Thomas, I only collected movie posters, lobby cards, and stills. The Killers from Space eyes that I got from Harry were the first of many props, masks, wardrobe, and make-up pieces. He did inspire me to collect other things. Harry was very proud of the way I displayed his work. One visit I bought some hairpieces and fingernails that he created for Cat Women Of The Moon (1953). The next visit, I'd bring them back in a frame. He'd admire how I took pride in his work and once he sent me over to his neighbor's house to show off the Killers From Space eyes and Cat Women hairpieces. He was very proud of the quality work he did for these low budget movies. And he was very happy to see his work on display (like in a museum, he said).
HW: It is a museum! Was he aware of the recent great fan interest in the B-monster-movies he handled makeup for? If so, how did he react to it? Did he have a regard for horror/monster flicks?
DENNIS: Harry received fan mail from all over the world. Many times he would receive requests for autographs. Sometimes he would sign photos and mail them back at his own expense. He once told me he was amused when people would write him and tell him how much they loved the low budget pictures he worked on. Once he was driving by a movie theater on Hollywood Blvd., and he saw that Cat Women Of The Moon was playing and the line stretched around the block! He stopped his car and asked the ticket-seller if someone made a new movie with the same title? She told him no that they were showing an old science fiction classic. When he told her that he was the make-up man, the manager invited him in for free, and bought him lunch. Harry was asked to get up on the stage and talk about the movie. Harry got up and jokingly asked the audience why they wanted to see this low budget picture? His fans just loved him. He was very articulate and entertaining to listen to. He worked on many non- horror and science fiction movies, but loved the attention that all his movies brought him from fans. When his legs were getting worse, I drove him to The "Son of Famous Monsters World Convention" in California. I walked him up to Forry Ackerman, who smiled and touched Harry with his finger. Forry then announced to everyone standing close by that he had just touched a living legend. Later that day I set Harry up at a table where he could sign autographs for his fans.
HW: That was a meeting of two living legends! Tell us more about yourself. What's your background? What do you work at now? What's you greatest satisfaction in knowing Harry Thomas and preserving so much Hollywood history?
DENNIS: I was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and I've been a tank mechanic in the Army for 13 years. I enjoyed the times Harry and I spent talking about movies. The idea of having a movie museum with a special section dedicated to Harry Thomas would be great, but I move around too much now.
HW: You certainly have a "on-line" museum now. When did you get the idea for the Web site? How is it turning out?
DENNIS: I asked Harry Thomas about writing a book about his life experiences, but he never wanted to get started. After he passed away and I attended his memorial service, I was amazed by the number of his fans at the service. His nephew requested that everyone talk about their favorite Harry Thomas story, and the idea of a web page came to me. I had just bought a computer and had barely surfed the web, so it's been a long and difficult project. I have so much more to add. Harry told me so many of his memories and I'm going to do my best to preserve them on the web.
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Renfield would like to thank Dennis for his candid comments and in-depth answers about Harry Thomas’ career and his own interesting background. He is truly an unselfish fan whose has done more than any other person to give Harry Thomas the spotlight he deserves. He does all this without pay, without compensation of any kind, aside from the satisfaction of preserving Hollywood horror history and burnishing the reputation of a truly talented make-up artist and one of the nicest men in show business. Again, please visit his wonderful Web site, The Harry Thomas Web Page, and tell him Renfield sent you!
All images on this page from The Harry Thomas Web Page. Used with permission. Interview (c) Joe "Renfield" Meadows.
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