Saturday, December 12, 2009

Rondo Hatton's Lemonade

Rondo Hatton is an underground Hollywood trivia king. He was voted the handsomest boy in his high school class- quite ironic, considering the unpleasant surprise Life had in store for him. Some time after his service in World War I, Hatton contracted acromegaly, a malfunction in the pituitary gland that caused him not only to grow well past six-foot-seven but gave him supersized hands and feet and an expanded jaw, lending him a monstrous appearance. Hatton was married twice, the first left him after he contracted his condition, and the second, thankfully, realized that one can’t just a book by its cover. Legend has it that the neighborhood children taunted him, calling him “monster man.” Acromegaly had several dreadful side effects, leading to diabetes and chronic pain. Somehow, Hatton failed to succumb to self-pity, earning himself a job with the Tampa Tribune that forced him to get out and talk to people. Ironically, one day, he was sent to cover a movie being filmed in the Tampa area and the director told him that a man with such a distinctive appearance might make a living in Hollywood.

Later, Hatton found out that he could make a whole lot more money playing bit parts in Hollywood than he could as a reporter, and he moved to Hollywood. Hatton achieved a measure of success in films, though he had to take a philosophical stance about playing monsters in film. He was in The Princess and the Pirate with Bob Hope; he played the gorilla man. He was in The Ox-Bow Incident, playing a member of an unruly lynch mob. In The Hunchback of Notre Dame, he played the runner up in an “ugliest man” competition with Charles Laughlin’s Quasimodo.

Hatton’s most famous role, however, was in the Sherlock Holmes classic, The Pearl of Death. By all accounts, Hatton was a kind, sweet-natured gentleman. However, due to his grotesque appearance, he was cast as the “Hoxton Creeper,” a mute, serial killing fiend who murders six different people by breaking their backs. In the climax, the Creeper is confronted by Basil Rathbone’s Holmes, who happens to have a pistol handy. Since the Creeper does not possess super powers, the outcome is predictable.

I remember seeing that film as a kid and finding it scary. Now, in middle age, I am surprised audiences didn’t find it silly. Are the London police so incompetent that they can’t find such an ernormous monster? Ironically, the Creeper was such a hit with fans that Hatton found he was going to be featured in four different films, playing the same grisly character. Sadly, he died at the age of 52, before any of those films were released. I think it’s admirable that Rondo Hatton managed to make a life for himself in spite of having suffered such terrible misfortune. Life gave him a huge pile of lemons and he managed to make a pretty good batch of lemonade.

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