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Remembering Hatton’s Hollywood horrors

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Rondo Hatton

Throughout history, those with marked physiological differences from the norm have suffered discrimination by the majority. I suppose we should regard it as progress of a kind that persecution has given way to exploitation.

Undoubtedly, the best known example of this is the disfigured Joseph Merrick, who enjoyed fame (if either “enjoyed” or “fame” could be said to apply) as the Elephant Man in an East End freak show in the 1880s, before being introduced to an altogether better class of punter by the physician Sir Frederick Treves.

There was another sufferer of physical deformity, however, whose audiences were far more numerous than Merrick’s. Indeed, they may well have surpassed those of all his predecessors put together. His name was Rondo Hatton and he was Hollywood’s first — and,  as far as I know, only — acromegalic star.

Acromegaly arises from hypersecretion of growth hormone from the anterior pituitary — a condition that is usually, although not exclusively, caused by the presence of a tumour. If it occurs in infancy, the result is not acromegaly but gigantism. The child develops normally but reaches up to eight feet in height.

In adulthood, however, the epiphyseal discs of the skeleton are sealed and growth is only possible in certain areas —  principally the hands, feet and face, and particularly the lower jaw.

The condition can take decades to develop fully. The first signs are as innocuous as coarse skin and greasy hair. This is why it is often misdiagnosed or is overlooked during the stages at which it is still treatable with somatostatin.

Hatton’s case was unusual in two ways. First, the development of the condition was almost certainly a consequence of being gassed in the trenches as an American volunteer in the 1914–18 war. Secondly, it developed rapidly, and was already pronounced by the time he left hospital after treatment for the gassing.

Hatton returned home to his native Florida, his boyhood dream of becoming a football coach in ruins. Instead, he became a journalist. More than a decade later, in 1929, he was sent to write a report on a Hollywood film, ‘Hell Harbor’, which was being shot on location in Florida.

He caught the eye of the director, Henry King, who offered him a small part, thinking it would help his story. Hatton accepted and, when the filming was over, King asked if he would consider moving to Hollywood.

Hatton turned King down flat, but seven years later he suffered a severe attack of arthritis, which had two far-reaching results. The first was that it put paid to his journalistic career. The second was that his doctors recommended he relocate to a drier climate. So he decided to see if King’s offer still stood.

Seven years playing thuggish bit parts followed before Hatton landed his first major role — as the “Hoxton Creeper” in the 1944 film, ‘The pearl of death’, in which he starred opposite Basil Rathbone in the sixth in a long series of melodramas loosely based on the works of Arthur Conan Doyle.

He was to reprise the role twice (dropping the “Hoxton”) in ‘House of horrors’ and ‘The brute man’. The titles of these films may tell you all you need to know about them.

Hatton’s death preceded the release of both these latter movies. Shortly after completing ‘The brute man’ he fell ill with myocarditis, another complication of his condition. He was confined to his home for the last few months of his life, succumbing to a heart attack on 2 February 1946, aged 51.

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