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Documentary explores the beauty of Rondo Hatton, Tampa’s disfigured horror icon

Titled “Rondo and Bob,” it screens Saturday at Cinema 6 in Port Richey, part of the Saints and Sinners Film Festival.

TAMPA — A facial deformity turned once-handsome Hillsborough High School student Rondo Hatton into a horror film staple of the 1930s and 1940s, but did not prevent him from finding true love.

Creative genius is what turned Robert Burns into a sought-after art director within the horror industry in the 1970s. Yet, despite having “normal looks,” the man who helped bring The Texas Chain Saw Massacre to the big screen could not find true love.

Though Burns was 2 when Hatton died, the art director lived vicariously through the actor, whose marriage he considered to be one of Hollywood’s great romantic tales.

That infatuation is the subject of a new documentary.

Titled Rondo and Bob, it premieres at 10 a.m. Saturday at Cinema 6 in Port Richey as part of the Saints and Sinners Film Festival.

Through interviews, reenactments and footage of Burns, Rondo and Bob tells each man’s story and how they intertwine.

“Rondo was a really normal guy who was weird looking,” said Joe O’Connell, the documentary’s Texas-based director and producer who, as a columnist covering the film industry for the Austin American-Statesman, befriended Burns. "Bob was a very normal looking guy who felt he was incapable of finding love because he felt he had inner ugliness.”

A Tampa Times article from 1946 detailing Rando Hatton's rise to Hollywood fame.
A Tampa Times article from 1946 detailing Rando Hatton's rise to Hollywood fame. [ Times (1946) ]

Voted Most Handsome Boy in his Hillsborough High School senior class of 1913 and a star on the football field there, Hatton’s looks changed when he returned from World War I. His nose, brow and chin grew too large for his face.

The disfigurement was initially blamed on exposure to German mustard gas during the war, but he was later diagnosed with acromegaly disease — a hormonal disorder that develops when the pituitary gland produces too much growth hormone.

Related: https://www.tampabay.com/news/Hillsborough-High-honors-courage-of-horror-star-alumnus-The-Creeper_161957996/

“He went from a man who could always get a date to a man who women avoided,” Rex Gordon, a Hillsborough High historian and member of the class of 1984, said.

The once outgoing Hatton became a recluse, the Tampa Times reported upon his death, so he turned to journalism “in an effort to overcome his tendency to avoid people.”

A high school photograph of Rando Hatton before the acromegaly disease changed his looks.
A high school photograph of Rando Hatton before the acromegaly disease changed his looks. [ Courtesy of Joe O'Connell ]

In 1930, the Tampa Tribune assigned Hatton to cover the local filming of the movie Hell Harbor. The director was taken with Hatton’s unique appearance and cast him in the small role of a dance hall bouncer.

More small roles followed, each centered around Hatton’s disfigurement. According to IMDB.com, he portrayed a convict in The Big Guy a leper in The Moon and Sixpence and is credited as “The Ugly Man” in The Hunchback of Notre Dame.

He met his wife, Mae Hatton, in 1934, O’Connell said, while covering a Gasparilla party for the Tampa Tribune.

“Mae was a seamstress who had made the gown for the hostess,” O’Connnell said. “They started talking and she looked below the surface to see that Rondo was an incredible guy.”

It was his wife who convinced Hatton to relocate to Hollywood to pursue film full time.

So what if they are exploiting your looks, she told Hatton, according to Burns in a 1999 interview with the Tampa Bay Times. They’re doing it to beautiful actress Veronica Lake, too, she said.

Mae Hatton (on the right) with an unidentified woman.
Mae Hatton (on the right) with an unidentified woman. [ Courtesy of Joe O'Connell ]

Hatton’s big break came in 1944 when cast as The Creeper, one of the main baddies in the Sherlock Holmes flick The Pearl of Death.

“Who was The Creeper?” Gordon said. “A quiet and scary man who strangled good-looking women. But Rondo was actually a beautiful man in real life. He used his fame to help fundraise for war veterans and would write letters to Hillsborough High School students who asked him what Hollywood was like.”

His marriage was profiled by Pageant magazine, according to Times archives.

The article, titled Hollywood’s Strangest Love Story, described Mae Hatton as “one of the most beautiful women even the city of films has ever seen ... Her blondness is so pure and natural that her beauty is always a kind of shock to Hollywood, the capital of bleached albinism.”

He was again cast as The Creeper in two non-Sherlock Holmes-movies — Brute Man and House of Horrors, both released in 1946 after Hatton died that year from a heart attack. He was 51.

Burns' obsession with Hatton began when he was a student at the University of Texas who binged horror movies.

That infatuation did not diminish as he rose to prominence when, as art director, he helped the low budget slasher The Texas Chain Saw Massacre become a cult classic and went on to work on the sets of The Hills Have Eyes, The Howling, Re-Animator and Poltergeist.

Robert Burns (left) and Joe O'Connell in 2000. O'Connell was a reporter interviewing Burns. They then became friends.
Robert Burns (left) and Joe O'Connell in 2000. O'Connell was a reporter interviewing Burns. They then became friends. [ Courtesy of Joe O'Connell ]

“Creative genius,” is how O’Connell said Burns can be best described. But Burns felt empty. “He wanted what Rando had — love. The Creeper becomes a metaphor for Burns' lifelong belief in his inner ugliness, a lack that left him unable to feel true love.”

Burns befriended Hatton’s widow to learn more about their relationship. He then wrote a never-produced screenplay about that romance. The research brought him to Tampa in 1999.

It is “an honest-to-God love story,” he told the Times during his visit. “The story is them. All the other stuff is subplot.”

Burns was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2004. He died by suicide that year.

“I question whether it was partly because he was lonely or whether it was just about the cancer,” O’Connell said. “He had packed up all his stuff and put it in boxes. One of them was a Rondo box with lots of photos and lots of articles and the letters from Mae.”

That box became the backbone of Rondo and Bob.

“They are connected,” O’Connell said of the two men. “Rondo was Bob’s spirit animal.”

Robert Burns visits the grave site of Rondo Hatton at the American Legion Cemetery on Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa in 1999.
Robert Burns visits the grave site of Rondo Hatton at the American Legion Cemetery on Kennedy Blvd. in Tampa in 1999. [ Times (1999) ]

If you go

Rondo and Bob

When: 10 a.m. Saturday, part of the Saints and Sinners Film Festival

Where: Cinema 6, 9510 US-19 in Port Richey

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