Rondo Hatton, Hollywood’s Real Quasimodo
The St. Louis Globe-Democrat is a monthly newspaper run by Steve DeBellis, a well know St. Louis historian, and it’s the largest one-man newspaper in the world. The concept of The Globe is that there is an old historic headline, then all the articles in that issue are written as though it’s the year that the headline is from. It’s an unusual concept but the paper is now in its 25th successful year! Steve and I collaborated recently on an all-Vincent Price issue of The Globe and he has asked me to write a regular monthly movie-related column. Since there is no on-line version of The Globe, I will be posting all of my articles here at We Are Movie Geeks. This month’s St. Louis Globe-Democrat is written as if it’s 1946.
Motion picture audiences may be curious who this odd-looking new horror star by the name of Rondo Hatton is. He’s appeared in three shockers from Universal Studios this year: THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK, HOUSE OF HORRORS, and THE BRUTE MAN. He doesn’t speak much in these films but makes quite a memorable impression with his bulbous, misshapen face and brutish appearance. Movie fans will be disappointed to learn that these are the last of Hatton’s screen appearances for the unfortunate actor died of a heart attack this past February, before any of these films were even released. It’s appropriate that one of Hatton’s early roles was a small one as a contestant in an ugly man contest seven years ago in the ‘Festival of Fools’ segment of RKO’s THE HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME. Hatton’s character lost the costume to Charles Laughton’s Quasimodo but Laughton had the benefit of a talented makeup artist while Hatton monstrous looks didn’t require one.
Rondo Hatton may have been the first physically deformed person to be elevated to the status of movie star, but he was born a normal, healthy baby on April 29th 1894 in Hagerstown, Maryland. His parents moved near Tampa, Florida when Rondo was ten, where he was a well-adjusted child. He attended Hillsborough High School where he excelled at sports, especially football, and was a popular student, twice voted ‘Most Handsome’ in his class. Rondo developed an interest in journalism and following high school he was hired by the Tampa Tribune newspaper as a sportswriter. When World War One broke out, Rondo joined the National Guard and while fighting in Europe, he inhaled a dangerous amount of ‘Mustard Gas’, a poisonous German warfare chemical. He was hospitalized with damaged lungs and recovered. but the exposure triggered a disease known as Acromegaly, a pituitary disorder where an abnormal increase in hormones results in extra growth of the hands, feet, nose, chin and lips. The changes were subtle at first and Rondo was rehired by the Tampa Tribune when he returned home. He married Elizabeth Immell Jame in 1926 but as his disease took its toll on Rondo’s once-handsome looks, she filed for divorce. In 1930 the movie HELL HARBOR, featuring exotic Mexican starlet Lupe Velez, was being filmed in the nearby island of Rocky Point and Rondo was sent to cover the film for the paper. That film’s director, Henry King, spotted Rondo and hired him for the small role as a dock-side saloon bouncer. Rondo continued to work at the Tribune as his conditioned worsened, but the acting bug had bitten so in 1935 he, along with his new wife Mabel Housh, moved to Hollywood in the hopes of finding work as a character actor. With his unusual looks, he scored (mostly non-speaking) roles as sailors, bodyguards and convicts in several films including two highly acclaimed ones, the aforementioned THE HUNCHBACK and THE OX-BOW INCIDENT (1943) where he played part of a lynch mob. Two years ago audiences really took notice of him in the Basil Rathbone Sherlock Holmes mystery PEARL OF DEATH where he played ‘The Creeper’, a man-beast who literally breaks backs. This lead to the role as ‘Moloch the Brute’, mad doctor Otto Kruger’s henchman in last year’s JUNGLE CAPTIVE, the third film so far in Universal’s “Paula, the Ape Woman” series.
Things were looking good for Rondo’s career and he’d finished filming three major roles when tragedy struck earlier this year. On the evening of Feb 2, Rondo was taking a shower at his home on Maple Drive in Beverly Hills. His friend Tom Kaney was in another room reading, when he heard a thud. He entered the bathroom and found the actor sitting on the edge of the tub with his head down saying he was having trouble breathing. An ambulance was called but before they could get him to get him to a hospital, Rondo had died. The official cause of death was cited as Coronary Thrombosis brought on by Rondo’s Acromegaly condition. Rondo Hatton was gone at the age of 51 but movie audiences have three films to remember him by this year.
THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK is the in-name -only sequel to the popular Sherlock Holmes movie THE SPIDER WOMAN. Since Hatton had played ‘The Creeper’ on the previous Sherlock Homes film PEARL OF DEATH and Gale Sondergaard had played the title villainess in THE SPIDER WOMAN two years ago, audiences can’t be blamed if they assumed THE SPIDER WOMAN STRIKES BACK, which featuring both Sondergaard and Hatton, was another Holmes film but the Deerstalker hat-wearing detective is nowhere to be found in the film. The plot here finds a young woman who takes a job as a house keeper/companion to a blind woman named Zenobia (played by Gale Sondergaard, not quite reprising her role from the Holmes film) in a small town. What she doesn’t know is that that every night, the woman drains some blood from her to feed her strange plant. At 57, minutes the film moves briskly and Hatton who plays Zenobia’s mute assistant Mario, appears to communicate using some sort of sign language. It’s not a bad film, but Hatton’s final two movies are much better.
HOUSE OF HORRORS, the best of the three final Rondo Hatton films, stars Martin Kosleck, an actor best-known for portraying Joseph Goebbels in the wartime anti-Nazi film CONFESSIONS OF A NAZI SPY a few years ago, as an avant-garde sculptor named Marcel who goes insane after years of ridicule by art critics. He rescues a would-be suicide who turns out to be ‘The Creeper’ a serial killer (played by Hatton), who preys on prostitutes and is the object of a police manhunt. Marcel not only finds inspiration in The Creeper’s hideous features ( “The perfect Neanderthal Man!” he claims) but also begins using him as a way to get deadly revenge on art critics, reporters and anyone else perceived as his enemy. Filmed on Universal’s backlot, which included a New York street and a waterfront, HOUSE OF HORRORS is a fast-paced, unpretentious thriller which makes perfect use of Rondo Hatton’s unique persona.
Rondo Hatton’s final film was THE BRUTE MAN, a quasi-prequel to HOUSE OF HORRORS. Hatton again plays ‘The Creeper’ a disfigured psychopath who takes to the streets at night killing. Trapped in an alley, The Creeper enters an open window and finds himself in apartment belonging to a blind piano teacher who is surprised but not alarmed to discover the fugitive in her home. The Creeper is pleased to meet someone who is not afraid of his misshapen face, but will this stop his killing spree? THE BRUTE MAN was produced by Universal Studios, but they sold it on to B-movie specialists P.R.C. when they became ashamed of it because their star had died and they did not want to be accused of exploiting his disease. It’s the only film where Hatton finds a human who is not repulsed by his appearance and it has some actual tender moments. It’s a shame that Universal’s newest horror star is gone just as he was making an impression on moviegoers. He certainly had charisma and a unique presence and it would have been interesting to see where his career would have taken him.
Today Rondo Hatton’s cult following is legion and still ascending. His unique visage lives on in all manner of movie, comic book and pop culture tributes, most notably the main henchman in Disney’s THE ROCKETEER, which was visually based on Rondo as are characters in both Judge Dredd and The Goon comic books. Furthermore, The Rondo Hatton Classic Horror Awards represent Hatton in both name as well as in likeness. Historians now mostly agree that Hatton’s acromegaly was most likely not caused by poisonous chemicals during the war. The disease is caused by a benign brain tumor in the anterior pituitary gland, and is often accompanied by diabetes. Rondo may very well have been exposed to chemical warfare agents, but this would in all likelihood not have given him the special type of brain tumor that causes acromegaly. Wrestler Andre the Giant, who died of heart disease in 1993 at age 47, also suffered from the disease as did actors Paul Benedict (best known as the next door neighbor Mr. Bentley on the TV show THE JEFFERSONS) and Carel Struycken, who played Lurch in the ADDAMS FAMILY movies (it’s been debated that Abraham Lincoln may have had a form of the disease as well). Michael Berryman is another actor who has parlayed a rare medical condition into a career as a horror star. Berryman, who was born with “Hypohidrotic Ectodermal Dysplasia”, which prevents the formation of hair, fingernails, teeth, and sweat glands, is best known as the lead villain in THE HILLS HAVE EYES (1974). Like Hatton, his disease distorted his features giving him a brutish look just right for horror movies but he’s still otherwise healthy at age 63 and is a staple on the horror movie convention circuit.