Today is the birthday of Lionel Atwill (1885-1946), one of the great stalwarts of Universal horror and early 30s cinema in general.
Originally trained to be an architect, he made his theatrical debut at London’s Garrick Theatre in 1904, and was a star of the Broadway stage by 1918. The Sobel’s Pictorial History of Vaudeville tells us he also appeared in one-acts on vaudeville bills.
He made his first films around the same time, but it wasn’t until the talking era that he truly made his mark. In Hollywood, his precise British diction was put to quite different uses than the Ibsen and Shaw of his stage career. “Foreign” equals “evil” in American pictures, hence we find Atwill in five out of eight Frankenstein pictures, not to mention Dr. X (1932), The Vampire Bat, Mystery of the Wax Museum, Murders in the Zoo (all 1933), Mark of the Vampire (1935), The Gorilla (1939), The Mad Doctor of Market Street, Night Monster (both 1942) and Fog Island (1945). Atwill also played Moriarity to Basil Rathbone’s Sherlock Holmes (he had actually directed Rathbone on Broadway in 1930). When he appeared in other non-horror vehicles such as The Three Musketeers (1939) and Captain Blood (1935) it was usually as a villain.
His best remembered role is as the inspector in Son of Frankenstein (1939), who was not a villain, in fact he is rather a nice guy, although he does have a scary Teutonic uniform and a wooden arm (it’s the character that Kenneth Mars parodies in Young Frankenstein).
A number of sordid sexual scandals in the early 40s kept him out of prestige roles for the rest of his career; after that he was strictly in schlocky horror films. It’s a pity he died so young — there would have been plenty of work for him in the coming decade!
At any rate, the Duchess (she’s been upgraded from Countess) is the big Atwill fan in our house. I find him a notch too bland and humorless to score a 100% bull’s eye for me. But he’s only a ring or two from the center!
To learn more about vaudeville, including legit stage actors who performed there such as Lionel Atwill, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous