Makeup tests for the alien in 1951's The Thing.
In December 1949, Howard Hawks began negotiating a three-picture deal with RKO. Hawks and Edward Lasker formed a new company, Winchester Pictures Corporation, to produce the films on February 7, 1950, and the deal was inked on March 2. On May 9, Hawks purchased the rights to "Who Goes There?", a short story by John Campbell (using the pen name "Don Stuart").
Despite claims that Hawks engaged in 14 months of pre-production on the the film, pre-production began in May 1950. Film editor Christian Nyby was hired to be the picture's director on September 26, and principal photography began on October 25. The principal photography ended on March 3, 1951, and the film saw its premiere on April 27 in Los Angeles.
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Lee Greenway was hired as the picture's makeup designer. He immediately went to work trying to create a look for the monster. The short story featured a shape-shifting alien, but this was ruled out almost immediately in Greenway's first discussions with Hawks as far too expensive. A "man in a rubber suit" was all they could afford, and Hawks initially wanted the alien to be see in close-ups and in strong light so that audiences could see how alient it really was. Greenway's first design for the makeup featured an almost featureless, elongated head. But test footage revealed that the makeup looked fake and silly.
Hawks and Greenway now shifted to a more human-looking alien design. Hawks may well have begun to realize that not showing the alien clearly and in full light might benefit the picture. After all, producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur had pioneered the "never show the monster" technique in 1942's Cat People, which had saved RKO's financial bacon. (It had grossed $4 million, just $1 million less than Mrs. Miniver, the second-highest grosser of the year. It was just $650,000 less than Random Harvest, and $250,000 more than Holiday Inn.)
Greenway probably tried two more "alien" looking masks in June and July.
In August, 6'5" tall James Arness was hired to play the alien. His hiring woulnd't be announced until October 18, but Arness himself as well as other sources make it clear that Arness reported for makeup design the first week of August 1950.
Greenway made a cast of Arness' head and neck. He now began sculpting as fast as he could. Over the next six weeks, he would make 15 sculptures of the alien's head in mortician's wax. Once satisfied, he'd have a mold of the head made, and the prosthetic applied to Arness. They'd head off to Hawks' home.... and Hawks would hate it. The early makeup designs in August focused on a large, round, bald head -- typical of many aliens in the 1940s and 1950s. Eventually, a heavy-browed shape with V-shaped, heavy eyebrows was proposed. When this didn't work out, Greenway went for a more vampiric look that would show up well in shadow.
Finally, at the end of September, a frustrated Hawks told Greenway to "make him look like Frankenstein". Greenway crafted a prosthetic that had somewhat heavy orbital sockets; a broad, flat, and high forehead; no hair; and veins running under the skin. The prosthetic was colored a ghastly green, with reddish-blue liquid running through the veins. The veins bulged and flexed because the fluid was contained in a bag worn around Arness' chest. As he breathed in and out, the bag pumped the fluid in and out of the veins. (The water also kept the actor's head cool.)
The makeup design process had cost a whopping $40,000.
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Arness' final makeup design took two hours to apply. The prosthetic was made of foam rubber, and fit snugly over the actor's cheeks and nose. It covered his entire head, down to the ears, and went down the back of his neck. Spirit gum was used to fasten the edges to the skin. Then Greenway used rubber cement to build up the nose and cover the edges.
Since the alien would be seen almost exclusive in shadow, Arness wore a simple cavalry-front union suit. Greenway cast rubber gloves to fit over Arness' hands, and fitted them with plastic claws (over the first tarsal) and plastic fingernails.
Arness was so embarrassed by his makeup, that he never ate his lunch in the studio commissary or with the other cast members.
But the makeup proved very, very successful. As Greenway and Arness were driving to Hawks' home to show the producer a near-final design, Greenway asked Arness -- in union suit and prosthetic -- to jump out at a stop light and get a newspaper. Not thinking, Arness did so. The man running the newspaper stand fled, and several people nearby screamed and ran as well. Later, to test the hand prosthetics, Arness and Greenway went to an outdoor movie theater. When Arness reached for his soda with the alien gloves on, the woman behind the counter fainted.