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Whatever Happened to Pierre Gendron?

The Monster Maker has all the ingredients for a throwaway camp chiller: a Svengali-like mad scientist, experiments with a dread disease, and a murderous ape. The blunt title and garish ad campaign highlighted by a looming grotesque face are a clear invitation to unbridled horror. All it is missing is a Karloff, Lugosi, or even John Carradine. It surely attracted thrill-seekers upon its release, but I like to think that it lodged itself a little deeper into the brains of those viewers than the standard horror fare. This blood-and-thunder picture churned out by Producers Releasing Corporation in 1944 delivers something a bit more cerebral than most of its beastly brethren from the lowly Poverty Row studios and elsewhere. This era witnessed a sea change in on-screen terror. Universal’s monsters were in the middle stages of rigor mortis, which was evident right from the uninspired titles: The Invisible Man’s Revenge, The Mummy’s Ghost, et al. Around this time Val Lewton was in ascendancy, ushering in a new kind of atmospheric horror at RKO. The Monster Maker tentatively follows the Lewton quiet and shadowy style but keeps a firm foot in that old-fashioned diabolical scenery-chewing of the best Universals. In other words, while there is a man in an ape suit, there is not one attempt at comic relief—no wisecracking reporter, no aspiring Abbotts or Costellos. It’s not a forgotten masterpiece, in fact it’s a deeply flawed film. But it leaves an impression. At the risk of alienating all those seeking cheap thrills, I’ll put it this way: the movie has artistic merit.


Who at PRC was the maker of this monster, the one responsible for the creative spark? Though there are three writers credited, my eyes zero in on the most interesting sounding name: Pierre Gendron.


“He’s wonderful! I’m crazy about him! […] He’s awfully good looking, and has the most beautiful mouth I ever saw on a boy. It curls up even when he talks, let alone when he laughs. The girls will go crazy over him soon, I predict. I’m fairly bursting with pride for him. Adorable!”

-from the 1924 diary of Betty Pearson as relayed to Picture Play Magazine

 

Pierre Gendron claimed to have coasted into a film acting career, but his luck was probably bolstered by a strong work ethic. Originally from Toledo, Ohio (his parents were French Canadian, hence le nom), Gendron was 21 when the U.S. entered The Great War. He graduated from Ohio State University’s School of Military Aeronautics before being called to active duty in the Army Air Service. After being honorably discharged, he made a go at factory work, but the acting bug acquired earlier in life got the best of him, and he made his way to New York. It was here that he ran into director Robert Vignola, who cast Gendron in his Cosmopolitan production The World and His Wife. Although he appeared in less than twenty silent pictures, from the 1920 Vignola movie to a 1927 Tiffany production entitled The Enchanted Island, Pierre Gendron seemed to have left an impression as evinced from the gushing fan letter above. His role in Lubitsch’s Three Women shows him to be just as boyishly charming as advertised.

Pierre Gendron Lubitsch Three Women
Pierre Gendron in Lubitsch's Three Women (1924).

Not just a pretty face, Gendron wrote plays, starting with Cold Feet in 1923 which Variety described as, “A boisterous farce of many crudities.” Undaunted, he followed that up with Kept in 1926, produced by Chamberlain Brown. Also in 1926, Gendron, along with his wife Mary Alice Scully, wrote his first screenplay, the Lionel Barrymore-starring Brooding Eyes. (Incidentally, ignore IMDb’s 1920 date of death for Mary Alice Scully, she lived until 1978.)

Brooding Eyes Pierre Gendron
Ad for Brooding Eyes, screenplay by Gendron and his wife, Mary Alice Scully.

“…once upon a time, I noticed and liked a talented and charming young man named Pierre Gendron. What has happened to him?”

-Ada B. Oates, 1928 letter to Picture Play Magazine

 

Gendron quietly left screen acting in 1927, but evidently, he kept a foot in the door of the movie industry. The 1930 census lists his occupation as a writer in the motion picture industry. His draft registration card in 1942 lists Republic Pictures as his employer. A 1943 notice in Film Daily notes that he was writing something called “Dime a Dance” for Monogram. Further research would need to be done to determine Gendron’s contributions during these years.


The next stage in Pierre Gendron’s career is far more clearly documented. Leon Fromkess, vice-president in charge of production for Producers Releasing Corporation, brought Gendron into the writing staff and immediately involved him in a flurry of films over the next two years. Besides the movies that were successfully brought to the screen—The Monster Maker, Minstrel Man, Bluebeard, and Fog Island—Gendron reportedly worked on screenplays for a musical entitled “Rhapsody of Youth” and a biopic of Frances Xavier Cabrini, the soon-to-be canonized Catholic saint better known as Mother Cabrini. This latter project competed with a Bing Crosby Production’s treatment “The Life of Mother Cabrini,” in development at the same time. Ultimately, both plans disappeared into the ether.


Pierre Gendron’s career as a film writer fared similarly to the Cabrini project. He died of cancer in Hollywood eleven years after his last credit, leaving behind a wife and two children and, far less importantly, a mysteriously lacking public legacy. In their obituary, the Los Angeles Citizen News, described Gendron as a “playwright and screen writer,” with no mention of his acting career. Without too much biographical detail to pull from, I’m left thinking of him as a man of contradictions: a distinctly French name but from a humble Ohio background…handsome but inclined to work behind the scenes…cultured and sensitive but relegated mostly to horror pictures for a Poverty Row studio.

“Oh, where has that charming boy, Pierre Gendron, vanished? Not a word—not a picture—not even a mere mention of his evaporation to his many fans. It is as though he were swallowed up by some hard-hearted critics. For breakfast they probably had his soulful eyes; for lunch they feasted on his head, and by the time dinner came around they had gobbled him up—legs, shoes, and all.”

-Annabelle Urban, 1928 letter to Picture Play Magazine

 

The scene at the PRC executive room may have gone something like this:


PRC executive: “Gendron, I know we promised you’d work on biopics but first we need surefire commercial hits. I’m thinking horror pics. Three of ‘em. First, an old dark house picture—that’s a given. Did you see Fox brought back Jack the Ripper with The Lodger? Maybe we could do something similar…Landru, perhaps.”


Gendron: “Old dark house and Bluebeard. Got it, I can do something with those.”


PRC executive: “We need one more old chestnut. Trilby? Rue Morgue? Jekyll and Hyde? I don’t care, just pick one.”


Gendron: “How about…all of them?”


Without PRC’s dictations and correspondences to pour through, I’m left to invent these little scenarios. If the credits are to be believed—and writing credits in films of this era can be notoriously unreliable—The Monster Maker was based on a story by Lawrence Williams, with Gendron and Martin Mooney credited with the screenplay. Williams was a bit actor who later had quite a few TV scripts to his name, including eight episodes of The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis. Mooney is best known for his crime stories, going back to the basis for the 1936 Edward G. Robinson vehicle Bullets or Ballots. For PRC, he wrote the screenplays for the crime-comedy Shake Hands with Murder and the prison drama Men of San Quentin, among others. It seems to me that the portentous dialogue and weird goings-on of The Monster Maker are outside of Mooney and Williams’ area of expertise. If Fog Island and, especially, Bluebeard are any indication, Gendron had a knack for moodiness.


For example, there’s a wicked little exchange early in The Monster Maker when the wonderfully named Dr. Igor Markoff (J. Carrol Naish) sees the spitting image of his deceased wife at a concert. He says to his mysterious companion Maxine (Tala Birell):


Markoff: “Why, it’s like seeing the dead return to life—I must know who she is.”


Maxine: “That can do no good. The dead have no place among the living.”


Markoff: “I shall be the judge of that.”


With both Naish’s fake general-purpose European accent and Birell’s real one, the hushed dialogue sets just the right dreadful tone.


When Markoff meets Patricia (Wanda McKay) backstage, he apologizes to the doppelganger of his dead love for staring, explaining, “…seeing you tonight was quite a shock, because—well, because you’re the living image of my wife, Lenore, as she looked at the time we were married—she was taken away from me under very…tragic circumstances.” This is followed by a medium close-up of Patricia reacting in fear and an awkward cut to an extreme close-up of the dark eyes of Markoff.


“This shall always remain an unforgettable moment in my life,” intones Markoff.


The evil under the gentlemanly exterior, the suggestion of hypnotism, and the reference to Poe in the name of Markoff’s wife are a carefully controlled icy chill—it’s contrived but effective.


That is not the last reference to Poe. Markoff, determined to control Patricia, begins sending her flowers. One of them contains a note with a snippet of the opening stanza of Poe’s lamentation “To One in Paradise.”

Thou wast all that to me, love,

For which my soul did pine—

A green isle in the sea, love,

A fountain and a shrine,

All wreathed with fairy fruits and

flowers,

And all the flowers were mine.


These advances are, naturally, considered creepy to the cheerful, blonde, all-American Patricia. Her instincts are, of course, completely correct. To no one’s surprise, Markoff is not only a latent necrophiliac, but he is also a murderer, a charlatan, and a mad scientist with home-brewed bottles of acromegaly. By injecting the hormonal disease into his victims, he can ramp up their pituitary glands, turning them into monsters.


Acromegaly being very real (it afflicted actor Rondo Hatton, star of the infamous House of Horrors and The Brute Man, made a couple years after this film), makes this plot element even more disturbing. This queasiness is heightened by the effective makeup by Maurice Seiderman, best known for the aging effects in Citizen Kane.

Acromegaly Maurice Seiderman The Monster Maker PRC
Maurice Seiderman's acromegaly make-up on Ralph Morgan.

The best, and most Lewton-esque, scene of The Monster Maker comes when Patricia’s concert pianist father (Ralph Morgan) has holed himself in his room after being injected with the dread disease. Suddenly, beautiful piano music drifts from his room—perhaps he is back to playing his instrument. Not having heard from him in weeks, Patricia and her fiancée go upstairs and open the door to his room ever so slightly. It’s pitch black. In the darkness, a deformed hand removes the needle from the turntable. It was recorded music. They open the door further, letting in just enough light to see the lumpy, engorged outline of Patricia’s father. She screams and faints.


It’s a well-written scene that works even with Sam Newfield’s leaden direction. I would go even further and suggest that the movie is better because of the PRC-imposed limitations—indifferent direction, imperfect editing, limited sets, and a creeping sense of claustrophobia due to a complete lack of exterior shots. These Poverty Row pictures have so few extras, and such a narrow point of view that they often play out like weird chamber dramas in some off-off-Broadway theater.


“Dreamlike” is an easy term to toss around to any work that’s not naturalistic, but it truly does apply to The Monster Maker. I’ve watched the film three or four times, but thinking back on it I could not remember how the scene where the ape attacks Maxine plays out. So, I watched the scene again, and there is a good reason I couldn’t recall—it just fades out like a dream where you suddenly shift from one place to another without a transition.


Likewise, I remembered Glenn Strange as Markoff’s butler—particularly the brief but startling image of him binding Maxine’s legs in rope—but I couldn’t recall if his character was properly introduced or, ultimately, killed-off. Upon reviewing the film, I have my non-answer.


Tala Birell commands all the viewer’s attention as Maxine; it’s clear why she was compared to Garbo when she arrived in Hollywood. Birell manages to squeeze out the most of a small role, one which it’s only suggested that’s she supposed to be under a hypnotic spell. Reviewing the scene between her and Markoff when he repeats, “You are going no place, you are going no place…,” it becomes abundantly clear that she has lost her agency.

Tala Birell J. Carrol Naish The Monster Maker PRC
"You are going no place..." Markoff maintains his control over Maxine.

Oddly enough, Patricia is the strangest character of all. She is wooden and inscrutable—it’s hard to tell if she too is supposed to be under Markoff’s spell (from her early encounter with him backstage at the concert) or if it’s a combination of an underwritten character and a bad performance. Nevertheless, she leaves the haziest impression, like a memory of someone from a distant dream.


The Monster Maker Pierre Gendron PRC Markoff
Excerpt from the script. "The Devil's Apprentice" was the working title for the film.

My affection for this movie is admittedly off-kilter. There is something to it though, some hard to pin down sorcery that emerges despite the studio’s attempt to make it run-of-the-mill. Maybe I’m giving Pierre Gendron too much credit, but it’s so tempting to think of him as a frustrated artist never comfortable with his station in life putting his soul into The Monster Maker. In a way, I guess I’m like those fans writing letters into Picture Play, and I’m fairly bursting with pride for him.


I too wonder: whatever happened to Pierre Gendron?


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