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Dr. Acula 10/31/97 (Fri) 09:23:21 #9732


An example of Palmer's work: the Wolf Man in The Face at the Window (1939)

From the late 1930s to the 1950s, a demon ran rampant across the film industry, terrorizing its victims with venom-laced words, clenched fists, and tedious, painful sessions in the makeup chairs of countless studio backlots. Its name was Harold Palmer, its title? The most hated man in Hollywood.

You won’t find his name plastered alongside accolades and fond anecdotes. In fact, to everyone except those who had the misfortune of working with him, Harold Palmer is an unknown. The man became a fascination of mine when my love of classic genre films led to writing for Famous Monsters of Filmland (and later Fangoria), where I first learned about Palmer after asking Masie Shearer, a lead in Mountaineers (1937), what her worst experience on set was.

Sometimes the aging stars I interviewed could barely remember the details of the films they had been a part of decades ago, but if I mentioned Harold Palmer, an unforgettable mixture of annoyance and frustration returned to their faces. If they didn’t want to end our conversation there, I would get a story. Sometimes I debated immortalizing them, printing them in the magazines I wrote for, but I decided against it. Instead, I wove a tapestry of Palmer’s life, story by story. The resulting picture disturbed me.

Palmer was an understudy of Jack Pierce, the horror makeup legend responsible for crafting the now-iconic looks of Universal Studios’ Dracula and Frankenstein, among others. But while Pierce stayed steadily employed with Universal for years, Palmer took his craft wherever it was needed most. Working on low-budget horrors distributed by ‘Poverty Row’ studios like Monogram or PRC, Palmer made a name for himself as someone who could provide acceptable work at a reasonable rate. But this bargain came with a condition– you and your crew had to work with Harold Palmer.

Loud, imposing, and spiteful; Palmer was notoriously ill-tempered, and seemed to take pleasure in it. He drank constantly, abused a cocktail of whatever drugs he could find, and unleashed torrents of abuse at anyone unfortunate enough to cross his path.

His constant romantic advances often turned violent when denied. According to Margaret Bennount, star of The Highwayman (1943), the only reason why she was cast was because Palmer had hospitalized the previous lead, throwing her down a flight of stairs after she rejected his demands for sex. He would pick at male stars, presumably in hopes that they would snap and take a swing. In all of my digging, I’ve never heard of a fight that he lost.

Palmer’s work, especially in the horror genre, was nothing to scoff at. However for the stars, those tedious hours of sitting in a chair were made incomparably worse if (as was often the case) Palmer didn’t like you.

Stories of intentional branding with hot irons, assault, and the use of dangerous chemicals around the eyes and mouth were common. Dick Purcell, on the set of King of the Zombies (1941), suffered an intense allergic reaction from the presence of egg-yolk in the spirit gum used to cover his face. His crime? Taking the spot where Palmer had parked the previous day on set. And 13 year old Marcia Mae Jones, who had an intense fear of dogs, was “somehow” locked in a room with Palmer’s untrained Cane Corso for over an hour on the set of Heidi (1937). Palmer feigned ignorance, and instead blamed the girl for riling the animal up.

I’ve heard multitudes of tales about Palmer’s unchecked behavior, from brutal assaults to torturous makeup procedures. Makes you wonder how he continued to find work, right? For one, Palmer strong-armed producers, going so far as to destroy property and threaten their loved ones if he didn’t get his way. But more important were Palmer’s connections. He didn’t have friends, exactly, but the people he fraternized with outside of work had deep pockets, tight families, and iron-clad promises. They guaranteed that the consequences of Palmer’s actions were overlooked, no matter how blatant or hateful they were.

The rabbit hole goes immeasurably deep with Harold Palmer. Some rumors, I’ve never been able to verify beyond more than one account, but I believe them wholeheartedly. A Klan membership, dozens of bastard children, occult ties, tales of blackmail and extortion for higher pay rates. Palmer was undeniably wicked and seemingly unaffected by this horrible reputation, but in the early 1950s, that began to change.

Dr. Acula 10/31/97 (Fri) 09:24:21 #9737


Another Palmer creation, sourced from Nightmare! (1940)

After nearly two decades of consistent work, Palmer suddenly stopped. His last film was Dealers of Death (1952), an unfinished Northstar Productions picture that was intended to gauge the success of the traditional monster movie model in technicolor, with an emphasis on special effects. The film burned its budget, and producers were reluctant to continue financing the project after box office returns for cost friendly Sci-Fi proved more profitable than a ‘headliner’ horror film. But it didn’t matter, Palmer had stopped showing up on set weeks before production folded.

Eventually, a production manager decided to check in on Palmer, given that he was on the payroll and the studio was still somewhat responsible for him. Inside his home, they found a shaken, fearful man, afraid to go outside, practically immobilized in his bed. He spoke softly, startled easily, and had seemingly aged as if he served a term in office.

Something happened to Palmer, but no one could say for sure what it was. A fatal diagnosis, a bad trip, a messy falling out with his mob friends. Whatever the case, Palmer refused to work again, and faded from show business entirely.

Enter Martin Rocco, another individual in the entertainment industry with alleged ties to organized crime. Rocco was a leading man in numerous genre films throughout the 40s and 50s, but more importantly served as a level-headed liaison between producers, actors, and the mob. Unlike Palmer, Rocco was respected, well-renowned, and an otherwise pleasant character to be around. He knew how to keep calm when handling business, and for that reason, he was chosen to keep an eye on Palmer.

If one of their men suffers a mental break, the mob has a policy: keep them very, very close. The last thing you'd want is for someone to have a sudden change of heart, and end up turning themselves in to law enforcement. And in that line of work, if one falls, they all do. So as you could imagine, someone with as many skeletons in his closet as Palmer was being kept in the cross-hairs at all times.

Rocco’s reports on Palmer’s behavior during this period described him as growing increasingly reclusive. He left home infrequently, and suddenly became disinterested in women and drugs. Sometimes, he’d drunkenly phone those he worked with in the past, choking on his tears as he tried to apologize for the way he treated them. Most of these calls were met with silence, then a disconnect.

On the odd occasions when Rocco managed to coerce him outside of the house, usually for a quick meal, Palmer was paranoid. He constantly looked over his shoulder, pointed out individuals he thought were watching him, and frequently asked about the logistics of leaving the country and starting a new life under a new name. During one of his late night calls to Rocco, Palmer revealed he had fled his home, and was driving aimlessly for hours, claiming to constantly be followed by “something with wings'', which never seemed to be far behind. Palmer never spoke another word about it, no matter how hard Rocco pressed him.

Soon, Palmer refused to leave the house entirely. Instead, electing to stay in his “trophy room”, a section of his home that housed his makeup supplies and various costumes and memorabilia from the films he had worked on over the years. It was here that Palmer spent countless hours applying and experimenting on himself with makeup, sometimes wearing a new face for weeks on end. It was as if he were trying to change who he was entirely, in hopes that he could become someone else. Rocco continued to buy him groceries and take care of the house, and though the two rarely spoke or crossed paths, Rocco often heard Palmer sobbing to himself from his trophy room.

On a legendary night in 1955, Palmer, who no one had heard from in years, sent out invitations to numerous stars and former acquaintances for a Halloween party, held at his lavish home. The event was costume themed, and would feature a contest, which encouraged guests to “wear their true face” through the use of makeup, promising a luxurious prize for the winner.

Perhaps memories of Palmer had softened over time, or the shock of receiving any word from him, much less an invitation to his home, piqued the interest of his former co-workers, but Palmer’s party was apparently well-attended, with well over a hundred guests.

They wore horrifying, elaborate costumes. Some rented out other makeup artists, eager at the prospects of winning whatever Palmer had set aside for the contest. But while the guests dressed as traditional Halloween fixtures, Palmer himself decided on a much more confusing costume.

Party-goers couldn’t tell if he wore makeup, or if the natural effects of aging had somehow reversed. Palmer appeared beautiful. A youthful man with an unlined face, a full head of hair, and a charming smile. When asked about his costume, Palmer simply stated that he was sticking to the theme.

At the party, Palmer spent most of his time conversing with guests one by one for extended periods. They quickly realized that his radiant appearance was just that. He acted as if he were close friends with everyone he spoke to, but his tone was erratic instead of warm. Like he was going down an itinerary of beats to meet in each conversation. He frequently apologized, except he mixed up what he was apologizing for, and to whom. To quote the ever-witty James Mitchum (known for Vampire Undressed, 1940), “You would have thought the Sword of Damocles was replaced with a firing squad from the way he talked.”

By the end of the night, Palmer was frantically running across the room, trying to greet those he hadn’t gotten around to earlier, and failing to glean anything resembling the goodwill he was desperately trying to farm.

When it came time to announce the winner of the costume contest, Palmer took the opportunity to give an extended speech. He thanked the crowd for coming, but expressed disappointment that he was the only one there who paid attention to the contest’s theme. He was a compassionate, kind soul, and his appearance reflected that. Palmer talked about his past regrets, and continued to assert that he had made peace with those he hurt, and that this party was proof of it.

Palmer’s ranting became more unsteady, his body shaking as he recollected a story involving the assault of a prostitute. Tears and sweat started to stream down his face, causing his makeup to slowly drip and peel as his demands for reassurance that he was in the crowd’s good graces grew louder. His white shirt became stained an off-color clay. He wiped his face, smudging the cosmetics further. No one said a word, even as he repeatedly asked the crowd if he “redeemed himself”.

His sadness turned to anger at their silence. He berated the crowd, asking them what more they could want from him, and shaming them for taking advantage of his generosity by coming to his party. The makeup continued to break down, this time revealing what was underneath. The constant alteration and experimentation on his own skin had taken a ghoulish effect on Palmer. Underneath that youthful facade was a scarred and gaunt visage, broken out in hives and blotches. The consequences of his constant attempts to change who he was. Realizing what was happening, Palmer began to cover himself, crying.

Palmer’s cries for forgiveness turned to blatant insults towards the crowd as he continued to make increasingly erratic efforts to hide his face. His crazed eyes darted across the room, before settling on something in the back corner, which caused him to go silent. Palmer slowly slipped from the stage, refusing to turn his back to the crowd as all color drained from his face. As he retreated into the hallway behind him, he lamented that the party “wasn’t enough”, and that “it” still came for him in the end.

Harold Palmer disappeared that night. Though the details of what happened after that speech are hazy from the witnesses, those who ran after him said that he locked himself in his trophy room, surrounded by the fruits of his labor. He was heard pleading to himself, claiming that he tried. By the time Martin Rocco got the door open, Palmer was gone, with nothing left but the clothes he was wearing in a pile on the floor, clumps of cosmetics staining every surface, and a trail of makeup-caked hand prints clawing the ground, begging to stay on this earth for just a bit longer.

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