Brute Men

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

The gate to the corral is open, and I’m free! Free, I tell you! I’ve let everyone and everything go to concentrate on the book (to my understanding friends I say, thank you) and now finally it’s gone and I can begin to live my life again.

Last night I was ready for bed and watching House of Horrors on Me-TV’s Svengoolie. I’ve spent my life catching glimpses of Rondo Hatton but never really thinking about Rondo Hatton until last night, thanks to Sven’s thoughtful summation of Rondo’s life and times. You know, I have to applaud Rich Koz, the brilliant one behind the brutish makeup of Svengoolie, because it’s clear Rich is one of us, with a deep passion for classic Hollywood that is bound to go way over the heads of some in his audience, as when he details the life of a Virginia Christine or a Robert Lowery.

OK, so let me back up yet another step. In the 1930s Universal studios made classic monster pictures like Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, and The Wolf Man. These characters became cash cows and were recycled through the years of World War II until they became pretty terrible B-picture derivatives made on limited budgets, with few original ideas coming along. But House of Horrors, released in 1946 at the tail end of the Universal Horror cycle, was pretty good with its story of an impoverished sculptor, played by Martin Kosleck, who is about to drown himself in the river when instead he pulls a brutish man out of the water and nurses him back to health. Rondo Hatton is that rescued brute, who in his gratitude begins to murder art critics who had disparaged the sculptor’s work.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Rondo Hatton in high school.

I connected with Rondo last night like I never had before. In very few words he conveys gentle intelligence that goes against the grain of those looks. Hatton was born in 1894 to educated parents and grew up in Tampa, Florida. He was quite the dashing figure as a teen and joined the U.S. Army, serving in Mexico against Pancho Villa in 1916 and then in the Great War. It was here his health began to suffer due to a pituitary condition called acromegaly that causes an overproduction of hormones, with the result being deformity in soft tissue. Sven postulated that German mustard gas had triggered the condition, which may be borne out by the fact that Hatton was discharged from the Army for illness before his tour of duty was completed. In other words, whatever happened, happened pretty fast.

Hatton became a newspaper reporter for the Tampa Tribune, where his ever-more-unusual looks were noticed by director Henry King during production of Hell Harbor on location in Tampa. King gave Hatton a small part in the picture. By the later 1930s Hatton’s Acromegaly had progressed to grotesque deformity that made him a natural for more motion picture work, so off to Hollywood he went, landing bit parts as a bodyguard or henchman or pirate—wherever a rogue’s gallery was being presented. The more old movies you see, the more you go, “There’s Rondo Hatton.” You see him so often he just blends right in with the fabric of classic Hollywood.

Mission: Jimmy Stewart and the Fight for Europe by Robert Matzen

Well, who doesn’t appear scary with the flashlight-up-the-face look? I like this pic for the Mona Lisa smile and a hint of, “It’s a living.” His acting style in both “House of Horrors” and “The Brute Man” make me want to sit down and have a drink with this Hollywood veteran. If only.

Finally, in 1944 he landed at the most natural place in the world, Universal Pictures, which saw him as a “monster without makeup” and cast him as the featured killer in its Sherlock Holmes picture, The Pearl of Death, starring Basil Rathbone. After that Rondo was on his way, with nice billing in pictures

Svengoolie aka Rich Koz

Svengoolie, aka Rich Koz, an appropriate name since he works so hard, furthering the cause of classic Hollywood.

including Jungle Captive, The Spider Woman Strikes Back, and then House of Horrors, where I rediscovered him last night. Here was Rondo at age 51 and in the last few months of his life. He would die of a heart attack resulting from his condition on February 2, 1946, six weeks prior to the film’s release. Another similar picture and his last, The Brute Man, would be released that October.

I just wanted to pause a moment to appreciate Rondo Hatton for making the most of his life and earning a spot in the Hollywood pantheon. He was given some nasty lemons at an early age, and made some terrific lemonade; we should all do so well. Appreciation also goes to Rich Koz for his ongoing gift to the world: hours of enjoyment while bearing the torch for classic chillers on Svengoolie.

7 comments

  1. Congratulations, Robert, on your emancipation from the Jimmy Stewart book, and enjoy that period before you start getting restless for another project again.

    Living in Canada, I have no access to Svengoolie. I do, however, remember a ’60s Buffalo TV station horror film host, Adam Keefe. Every Friday night he would dress up as Dracula and do his best Lugosi impersonation as he introduced, from what I can recall, primarily Universal horror films. I have to wonder if he was Joe Flaherty’s inspiration for his Count Floyd on SCTV. Flaherty’s Count Floyd still lives on in repeats while Adam Keefe is pretty much forgotten.

    I do recall, as a kid, though, writing a fan letter to Keefe, asking him for his autograph. I never did receive it. Perhaps that’s because of the way I ended my letter to him. “If you want to send me your autograph, fangs a lot. If not, fangs for nothing.”

    I guess any hopes I had of being a career diplomat ended then.

    As for Rondo Hattan, I always gave him a tip of the hat for his unusual Hollywood career. It would appear that the terrible soft tissue deformity of his disease did not, as it would have with so many others, turn him in a shrinking violet. Good for him. And here we are, all these decades later, talking about him.

    I could be wrong (and I’m ready to be corrected of this) but I believe that Rondo was actually a noticeably short man (perhaps not much bigger than 5’3″ or so). I say this because I have memories of seeing him in one of his earliest film appearances (can’t recall the film title, unfortunately) in which he appeared to be quite a bit smaller than anyone around him.

    That is, of course, long before he would be transformed into the seemingly large, hulking presence of the Creeper challenging Sherlock Holmes in Pearl of Death.

    1. That’s interesting about Rondo’s height, Tom. I wouldn’t be surprised if this were true, and with the tricks of the Hollywood trade, we’d never know it today.

      I loved Count Floyd and I’m pretty sure Joe Flaherty was a Pittsburgh guy. I always figured he got Count Floyd from Pittsburgh’s own Chilly Billy but Cardille definitely didn’t do vampire shtick, so maybe Floyd was an amalgamation that included Adam Keefe as Lugosi. You make me long for SCTV. I need to hear Lola Heatherton bellow, “I want to bearrrrr your children!”

      “San Franciscy? How did you go? Did you drove or did you flew?”

  2. We watch Svengoolie depending on the movie being shown. Some of that stuff really was/is schlock, but METV does show classics like Creature From The Black Lagoon, Invisible Man, Them! and my all time favorite, the original The Blob. I think every major city had a version of Svengoolie back in the day. When I was a kid, we watched Sammy Terry out of Indianapolis. My husband grew up with Creature Features and Dr. San Guinary out of Omaha. Really nice that you honored one of these actors and Sven himself.

    1. Yes, we had Chiller Theatre in Pittsburgh, Marina, with your host, Chilly…Billy…Cardilly. He was, for those in the know, the TV reporter seen in the original Night of the Living Dead because at the time he worked for WIIC in Pittsburgh.

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