November 23, 1887 – Boris Karloff:
”The Frankenstein monster was the best friend I ever had. He was the thing that made me, that lifted me from wherever I was to wherever I’ve gotten.”
There was this trio of great horror film stars of the Golden Age of Hollywood: Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff who was best known as ”The Monster” in Frankenstein (1931).
Born William Henry Pratt, Karloff thrilled and terrified millions of film fans for four generations, yet Karloff was a gentle man and a thoughtful actor, a monster of discernment who disapproved of modern movie monsters as ”dehumanized creatures presented without sympathy’‘. Karloff:
”The original monster and my later roles as his creator are tales of mystery and adventure. Our stories were nearer to Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Edgar Allen Poe.”
With more than 130 film roles, including revived Egyptian mummies, zombies, and mad scientists from the test tube days to the computer era, the private Karloff was a soft-spoken, quiet man with a slight lisp who loved puttering in his garden.
Born in England, the youngest of nine children. His grandfather was a British diplomat and his grandmother was. His mother was Anglo-Indian, and Karloff had a relatively dark complexion that stood out in British society at the time. Besides the lisp, he was bow-legged and stuttered as a boy. He conquered his stutter, but not his lisp, which was noticeable throughout his film career.
His parents pushed him to become a diplomat, but in 1909, at 21 years old, he left his university without graduating and emigrated to Canada, where he worked as a farmhand and truck driver in Ontario. Then he moved to Vancouver, BC, and worked as laborer and logger until he joined a theatre company in remote Prince Albert.
With the start of World War I, he tried to join the British Army but was rejected because of a heart condition. Instead he went to Hollywood in 1919 and found work doing bit parts in movies. He took his mother’s maiden name, Karloff, and then took Boris as a first name, to give it a Slavic twist. Because his brothers were well known diplomats, he changed his name so as to not be recognized and tarnish the family name. He never officially changed his name, so he still signed documents by that name followed by ”aka Boris Karloff”.
In 1931 he was asked to portray a monster, and he wrote:
”A monster, indeed! But I didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth. I needed to eat and I took it.”
His monster was based on a character in the novel Frankenstein (1818) by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, wife of the 19th century English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. In the book, Dr. Frankenstein creates a man out of parts of dead bodies and jolts the monster to life with electric shocks.
Frankenstein is a pre-Code film from Universal Pictures directed by the great James Whale. Colin Clive got top billing; the opening credits don’t list Karloff’s name, just a question mark, a promotion gimmick, but one the studio probably would not have used with a more famous actor. He wasn’t even invited to the premiere.
Once he had the role, Karloff worked for weeks with makeup director, Jack Pierce, who used techniques no one had used before.
People were drawn to the monster, first in film theatres and later on in television, because of Karloff’s sympathetic creation of a monster that was more to be pitied than feared.
I loved the Frankenstein films as a kid, and so did my friends. Karloff:
”I’ve been working for years on horror films and I know that children love them. It really isn’t horror to them, you know. It’s exciting adventure … Too many similar pictures today simply rely on shock. That’s bad.”
Frankenstein was a huge hit for Universal, who ordered production of more Frankenstein films. The first was even better thanBride of Frankenstein.
The next sequel, Son Of Frankenstein (1939), was made, like all those that followed, without Whale. It was Karloff’s last full film performance as the Monster.
The Ghost Of Frankenstein (1942) features Lon Chaney Jr. as the Monster and Lugosi in his second appearance as the demented hunchback Ygor. Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man (1943) stars Lugosi as Frankenstein’s monster and Chaney Jr. as the Wolf Man.
With House Of Frankenstein (1944), Karloff returned to the series, not as the Monster, but as the Mad Doctor, Chaney Jr. returned as the Wolf Man, and Dracula is also in the film, played by John Carradine.
Not part of the Universal series, Frankenstein 1970 has Dr. Frankenstein, played by Karloff, animate the Monster using a nuclear reactor. After that, Karloff promised:
”I’ll never play the monster again because I have sentimental affection for the character. I owe him so much that I owe him a little respect, a little rest.”
Karloff’s softly sinister manner was put to good use in thrillers such The Mummy (1932), The Old Dark House (1932) The Ghoul (1933), The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), The Black Room (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936) and The Walking Dead (1936).
He returned to the stage in the original production of Arsenic And Old Lace (1941), where played a homicidal gangster enraged at frequently being mistaken for Boris Karloff. He won a Tony Award for his performance.Frank Capra cast Raymond Massey in the 1944 film, which was shot in 1941, while Karloff was still appearing in the role on Broadway.
Karloff scored a hit on Broadway in 1950 as Captain Hook in Peter Pan in a musical adaptation with music by Leonard Bernstein and with Jean Arthur in the title role. He received raves for his work in Jean Anouilh‘s The Lark, a play about Joan of Arc, starring Julie Harris. Lillian Hellman did English adaptation and Bernstein composed incidental music. The two stars reprised their roles in a 1957 television production of the play. Karloff called this role ”…the high point of my career”.
Karloff was not afraid of doing television and loved the challenge and variety of live acting roles such as an adaptation of Joseph Conrad‘s The Heart Of Darkness opposite Roddy McDowall, and hosting Thriller (1960-62) television anthology series.
Karloff won a Grammy Award for his narration of the animated television special Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966), still a holiday favorite.
Although he lived in the USA for more 50 years, Karloff retained his British citizenship and in 1959, he returned to England permanently.
Karloff stars in Targets (1968),directed by Peter Bogdanovich, where he plays a retired horror film actor a thinly disguised version of himself.
He ended his career by appearing in four low-budget Mexican horror films. While shooting these films, he suffered from emphysema and he required oxygen between takes.
”Certainly, I was typed. But what is typing? It is a trademark, a means by which the public recognizes you. Actors work all their lives to achieve that. I got mine with just one picture. It was a blessing.”
Karloff was one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild. The role that made his career, required hours of makeup that were brutal and made him realize how important safe working conditions were to actors. Karloff was SAG’s ninth member, that was his member number on his card.