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  George Zucco
(1886–1960). British actor.

Acted in: The Man Who Could Work Miracles (Lothar Mendes 1937); Arrest Bulldog Drummond (James Hogan 1939); The Cat and the Canary (Elliot Nugent 1939); The Hunchback of Notre Dame (William Dieterle 1939); The Mummy's Hand (Christy Cabanne 1940); Topper Returns (Roy del Ruth 1941); The Monster and the Girl (Stuart Heisler 1941); The Mad Monster (Sam Newfield 1942); Dr. Renault's Secret (Harry Lachman 1942); The Mummy's Tomb (Harold Young 1942); The Mad Ghoul (Hogan 1943); The Black Raven (Sam Newfield 1943); Dead Men Walk (Newfield 1943); The Mummy's Ghost (Reginald LE BORG 1944); Shadows in the Night (Eugene Forde 1944); Voodoo Man (William BEAUDINE 1944); House of Frankenstein (Erle C. KENTON 1945); Fog Island (Terry Morse 1945); The Flying Serpent (Newfield 1946); Scared to Death (Cabanne 1946); Who Killed "Doc" Robbin? ( Bernard Carr 1948); Tarzan and the Mermaids (Robert Florey 1948); Joan of Arc (Victor Fleming 1948); The Secret Garden (Fred M. WILCOX 1949); David and Bathsheba (uncredited) (Henry King 1951).
Despite promises to the contrary, I may someday succumb to the temptation to write an entry on Bud Abbott and Lou Costello—who made several films of genre interest, one of them worth watching. And in defiance of less public plans, I may someday decide to write an entry on Albert Zugsmith, who produced several films of genre interest, one of them worth watching. Still, it remains likely at this point that this encyclopedia will begin with Forrest J. ACKERMAN, and will end with George Zucco; and, as a pattern-seeking animal, I am compelled to discern some deeper meaning in this accident of alphabetization.

Consider, then, Ackerman and Zucco as representatives of two opposing factions constantly at war within the genre of science fiction film. Forrest J. Ackerman epitomizes the warm, friendly face of science fiction, the reassuring sense that no matter how bizarre or superficially horrifying the events in a science fiction film might be, it is all a matter of play-acting, a thin veneer failing to conceal the true, familiar nature of its story and characters. He conveys to us that the ugly monster is really a kindly English gentleman who likes to tend his garden, and the diabolic mad scientist is really a charming connoisseur and art collector. He explains why people love the films of Steven SPIELBERG which I find so risible.

George Zucco, however, vehemently rejects all of this as comforting nonsense. With every one of his words and actions on the screen, he insists that he really is an evil man, that he really is dabbling with forbidden and alien business representing a genuine threat to all that we cherish in our everyday existence. Perhaps he, too, was actually a nice guy in real life, but as was not the case with Boris KARLOFF or Vincent PRICE, you will never get a hint of that while watching him perform. For even when he is instructed to be virtuous, Zucco cannot help coming across as cold, discomfiting, and frightening. He explains why people love Stanley KUBRICK's 2001: A Space Odyssey and the films of David CRONENBERG.

If this rhetoric seems to overstate Zucco's importance, it may also explain why he became a cult favorite in some circles despite a relatively brief career in the field during the 1940s. Earlier, while Karloff and Bela LUGOSI were establishing themselves as horror film icons, Zucco was keeping busy as a minor player in more conventional fare, including a role as a butler in The Man Who Could Work Miracles. But a rare starring role as criminal mastermind Professor Moriarty opposite Basil RATHBONE in The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (1939) demonstrated his flair for villainy, and when the makers of low-budget horror films began to approach Zucco about starring roles, he essentially decided that he would rather reign in Hell than serve in Heaven and threw himself into several prominent, though far from prestigious, portrayals of demented evil, usually as a mad scientist. Still, he was most renowned for playing the high priest who revives an ancient Egyptian mummy in The Mummy's Hand, which remains the greatest of all mummy films not simply because, for all of his deficiencies, Tom Tyler played the mummy far better than his successor Lon CHANEY, Jr. but also because Zucco was superbly sinister as his sinister manipulator, outshining the lesser talents that he passed the torch to in later films. His other films of the 1940s tend to blur together in one's memories, but I do have a special fondness for Dr. Renault's Secret, wherein Zucco's crazed experimenter brilliantly sets out to prove Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by surgically transforming an ape into a man, with predictably disastrous results.

Unfortunately, after the end of World War II, the subgenre of grade-Z horror films was dying out, and after one more classic performance in The Flying Serpent—this time as an insane archaeologist who unearths a monster—Zucco again had to earn a paycheck from smaller roles in mainstream films until a stroke in 1951 brought an end to his acting career. But whenever science fiction films resist the allure of smiling Forrest J. Ackerman and the feel-good family spirit of Steven Spielberg to reaffirm that its true subject matter is the terrifying unknown, the spirit of George Zucco remains alive.

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