Requiem for Dwight Frye

Born: Feb. 22, 1899 Died Nov. 7, 1943

By Mike Ray

“If God is good, I will be able to play comedy, in which I was featured on Broadway for eight seasons and in which no producer of motion pictures will give me a chance! And please God, may it be before I go screwy playing idiots, half-wits and lunatics on the talking screen!” Dwight Frye 1938.

My wife and I (in the middle of a rare quiet night) stumbled unto an old movie (a murder mystery) from 1933 called the Circus Queen Murder.  The villain (Flandrin) was played by Dwight Frye. Immediately I sat straight up on the couch. I was surprised and delighted to see this amazing actor again. It has been at least 40 years since I’ve even thought of him.

I must confess that in my hot youth I was a fan (but am no longer) of the “Horror Film” genre. Especially those from the 1930’s. Dracula, Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, etc. You know the kind; harmless by today’s standards but when I was a child this kind of cinematic adventure was enough to hold me spellbound.

The first 100 years of Cinema have brought to us film fans more character actors than one can count. There was one such actor who mesmerized me from my earliest movie memory. Dwight Frye was (and is to this day) the only actor who could scare you without makeup. And few actors leave as many goose bumps in ones memory as he did. It was his face that stayed in my minds eye long after the movie ended. His legendary performance as Renfield in the 1931 production of Dracula remains today the creepiest character the silver screen has ever given us. In a way it’s too bad that he did so well in that movie, as he fought type casting for the rest of his life.

As it turned out, Frye, among character actors was an “Everyman.” He was extremely versatile. On film, he was a Gangster, Detective, medical assistant, Jury Forman, Cowboy, Band Leader, Radio Operator, Newspaper Reporter, Hospital Patient, Daredevil, Hunchback, Military Officer, Secretary, Saboteur, a Hostage, a Nazi, and lest we forget the creepiest character of all time.

Orson Welles once said that Hollywood was a terrible trap for an actor. For Frye this sad reality was so true. On Broadway Frye was one of the most gifted actors in New York. He was in great demand as he gave one bravura performance after another. In Hollywood, he was just one of many talented performers who were used as pawns and not for their many capabilities. But like most talented artists Frye stayed as busy as possible burning both ends of his candle. He did an amazing 60 films in just 15 years 1928-1943.

In 1943 Frye gave himself to the war effort by working (late at night) as a draftsman for Lockheed Aircraft Company.  It seems that after years and years of 16 hour work days, Frye would pay a terrible price. He suffered from coronary problems, but refused any medical attention as he was a member of the Christian Scientist Church. Even his family and friends had no idea just how bad his situation was.

In the fall of 1943 Frye was given the role of his life. He was to play Secretary of War Newton D. Baker in the movie about President Woodrow Wilson.

Tragically, Frye succumbed to a fatal heart attack on a crowded bus in Los Angeles while returning from the cinema. He died on November 7th 1943 just days before the Wilson production would begin.

Although Frye felt the frustration of type casting, very few actors could match his versatility, and even fewer had a more devoted following.

For film fans, and for those whose calling it is be an actor, taking the time to study this man’s work would benefit you greatly.

Copyright 2008 by Mike Ray


1. Dangerous Blondes (1943) (uncredited) …. Hoodlum

2. Submarine Alert (1943) (uncredited) …. Haldine, fifth columnist

3. Hangmen Also Die! (1943) (uncredited) …. Hostage

… aka Hangmen Also Die! (UK)

… aka Lest We Forget

4. Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) …. Rudi

5. Dead Men Walk (1943) …. Zolarr

6. Danger in the Pacific (1942) (uncredited) …. Desk Clerk

7. The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) (uncredited) …. Villager

8. Sleepytime Gal (1942) …. Second Mug

9. ‘Don’t Talk’ (1942) (uncredited) …. Ziggy, Saboteur

… aka A Crime Does Not Pay Subject: ‘Don’t Talk’ (USA: series title)

10. The Devil Pays Off (1941) (uncredited) …. Radio Operator

11. The Blonde from Singapore (1941) (uncredited) …. Barber

… aka Hot Pearls (UK)

12. Flying Blind (1941) …. Leo Qualen

13. Mystery Ship (1941) …. Rader

14. The People vs. Dr. Kildare (1941) (uncredited) …. Jury Foreman

… aka My Life Is Yours (UK)

15. The Son of Monte Cristo (1940) (uncredited) …. Pavlov’s secretary

16. Sky Bandits (1940) …. Speavy

17. Phantom Raiders (1940) …. Eddie Anders

18. Gangs of Chicago (1940) …. Pinky

19. Drums of Fu Manchu (1940) …. Prof. Anderson [Ch.5]

… aka Drums of Fu Manchu: The Serial (USA: informal alternative title)

20. I Take This Woman (1940) (scenes deleted) …. Gus

21. Conspiracy (1939) (uncredited) …. Lt. Keller

22. Mickey the Kid (1939) (uncredited) …. Henchman Bruno

… aka Mickey

23. The Man in the Iron Mask (1939) (uncredited) …. Fouquet’s Valet

24. Son of Frankenstein (1939) (uncredited) …. Villager

25. Adventure in Sahara (1938) …. Gravet, ‘the Jackal’

… aka Son of the Sahara (USA: review title)

26. The Night Hawk (1938) …. John Colley

27. Think It Over (1938) …. Arsonist

… aka Crime Does Not Pay No. 19: Think It Over (USA: series title)

28. Fast Company (1938) …. Sidney Z. Wheeler

… aka The Rare-Book Murder (USA: TV title)

29. Sinners in Paradise (1938) (uncredited) …. Marshall

30. Invisible Enemy (1938) …. Alex

31. Who Killed Gail Preston? (1938) …. Mr. Owen

32. The Shadow (1937) …. Vindecco

… aka The Circus Shadow (UK)

33. Something to Sing About (1937) …. Mr. Easton (makeup supervisor)

… aka Battling Hoofer (USA: recut version)

34. Renfrew of the Royal Mounted (1937) (uncredited) …. Desk clerk

35. The Road Back (1937) (uncredited) …. Small man at rally

36. The Man Who Found Himself (1937) …. Hysterical patient

37. Sea Devils (1937) (uncredited) …. SS Paradise radio operator

38. Beware of Ladies (1937) …. Swanson

39. Great Guy (1936) (uncredited) …. Man

… aka Pluck of the Irish (UK)

40. Alibi for Murder (1936) …. McBride

41. Florida Special (1936) …. Jenkins

42. Tough Guy (1936) (uncredited) …. Mack, Gangster

43. The Great Impersonation (1935) (uncredited) …. Roger Unthank

44. The Crime of Dr. Crespi (1935) …. Dr. Thomas

45. Atlantic Adventure (1935) …. Spike Jones

46. Bride of Frankenstein (1935) …. Karl

… aka The Bride of Frankenstein (USA: poster title)

47. The Invisible Man (1933) (uncredited) …. Reporter

48. The Circus Queen Murder (1933) …. Flandrin

49. The Vampire Bat (1933) …. Herman Gleib

… aka Blood Sucker (USA: reissue title)

… aka Forced to Sin (USA: reissue title)

50. A Strange Adventure (1932) …. Robert Wayne

… aka The Wayne Murder Case (USA: reissue title)

51. The Western Code (1932) …. Dick Lewis

52. By Whose Hand? (1932) …. Chick Lewis

53. Attorney for the Defense (1932) …. James Wallace

54. Frankenstein (1931) …. Fritz

55. The Black Camel (1931) (uncredited) …. Jessop

56. The Maltese Falcon (1931) …. Wilmer Cook

… aka Dangerous Female (USA: TV title)

57. Dracula (1931) …. Renfield

58. Man to Man (1930) …. Vint Glade

… aka Barber John’s Boy

59. The Doorway to Hell (1930) …. Monk – a Gangster

… aka A Handful of Clouds (UK)

60. The Night Bird (1928) (uncredited) …. Party guest


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