Saturday, April 22, 2006

The Hoxton Creeper

"Facing the people you know, seeing the shock and pity and horror in their eyes -- that's tougher than anything that ever happened at the front. To any casualty, the hardest part of war is coming home." -- Rondo Hatton.

The hideously ugly Rondo Hatton is known principally for his indifferent but atmospheric portrayals of "The Hoxton Creeper," a back-breaking behemoth, in The Pearl of Death (1944, with Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson; based on Arthur Conan Doyle's story "The Six Napoleons") and in two B-movie star turns, House of Horrors (1946) and The Brute Man (1946; with Jane Adams).

He was not always ugly. Born on this day (some sources say April 29) in 1894 in Hagerstown, Maryland, Rondo came by his ugliness from the progressive effects of acromegaly, a rare endocrine disease caused by excess secretion of pituitary growth hormones. As a youth, Hatton was handsome and talented: twice voted best-looking boy in his home town of Hillsborough, Florida, Hatton went on to the University of Florida and allegedly, according to a 1946 profile in Pageant magazine, became captain of the football team and a member of the All-Star Southern Eleven. (I've never been able to confirm the part about the Southern Eleven.)

He left Florida for World War I service, where he was felled by nerve gas on the Western front -- dubiously claimed to be the cause of his acromegaly. As acromegaly began to take hold in him and his facial features grew into a Neanderthal bluntness, Hatton tried to become a football coach, but the physical strain was too much for him, and he spent the better part of 10 out of the next 28 years in hospitals, fighting migraine-like pain and bouts of blindness. In between treatments, he got a job as a reporter for a newspaper in Tampa, and married a beautiful dressmaker named May.

In 1929, his editor sent him to cover Hollywood director Henry King on location in Tampa; upon meeting Hatton, King cast him as a "Barbary Coast" extra in Hell's Harbor. Afterward, King tried to persuade Hatton to move to Hollywood for a career in pictures, but Hatton declined. Nine years later, however, Hatton wrote to King to take him up on the invitation, thinking that a move to the dry climate of Southern California might improve his health.

In his first three years in Hollywood, Hatton appeared in 23 films, but made his living as a reporter for the Inglewood Daily News. After appearing in The Pearl of Death, however, Hatton became a minor star, bringing in an avalanche of fan mail. Universal Studios moved quickly and signed Hatton to a 7-year contract; but after only two mediocre films, Hatton died of a heart attack on February 2, 1946 in Beverly Hills.

Although he lacked the skill of a Karloff or Lon Chaney, Sr. to breathe life into his monsters, Hatton has managed to leave his mark as an arresting figure in the history of horror movies. His name remains synonymous with male ugliness to this day within pop culture circles -- the way poor, hirsute Julia Pastrana has begun to emerge as a symbol of female ugliness within women's literature. Frank Zappa, for one, paid homage to him during the 1970s by occasionally introducing himself in concert as "Rondo Hatton."

Some writers have faulted Universal for exploiting Hatton's medical condition; a 1980 letter to the editor of the Revolutionary Worker even made Hatton's case into a sarcastic retort to the American defense build-up ("The fact that Hatton gained his marketable skill through the armed forces also reveals a hitherto little considered benefit of combat duty"). However the country or the film industry are judged in the Hatton Affair, it appears that he struggled through his last painful years bravely.

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Anonymous Dad said...

Ron; No need for a sketch or a bust for a discription of what he must have gone through in life. Not every one could take it

11:06 PM  
Blogger Gawain said...

Hello Ron,

i have found your post by way of the literature carnival, and am very pleased to find someone who occupies his mind with the sort of things that I do. it is unfortunate that we live too far apart to meet for ale every Tuesday, but I can always drop in on your blog instead.

and i'll give you a link -- not because i want one, but because you deserve it!

2:41 AM  
Blogger Jan the Man said...

Your blog is great! It's hard to find blogs with good content and people talking about Sherlock Holmes, these days! I have a new blog and a new website if you want to come leave me a comment or two! May I put a link to this blog of yours on mine? My name is Jan Manzer and I'm new to blogging. Would appreciate you checking out my site at Jan Manzer dot com. I tried a light-hearted spoof on this new site about my favourite detective, Mr. S. Holmes. I took some of the stories and did a search-and-replace on my own name. Kinda weird but kinda cool at the same time. Let me know what you think. You could try A Scandal in Bohemia first. it's located at Jan Manzer & the Scandal in Bohemia dot com.

12:01 AM  

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