Friday, November 23, 2007

Boris Karloff's 120th Birthday

Today is the busiest shopping day of the year here in the United States, called "Black Friday." Perhaps fittingly, it is also the 120th birthday of the late, great, horror star Boris Karloff, who starred in a 1940 movie called, well, Black Friday. Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt on this date in 1887 in Camberwell, London, England.

William Henry Pratt was born into a family of some distinction. His father was Edward John Pratt Jr, the Deputy Commissioner of Customs, Salt and Opium, Northern Division, Indian Salt Revenue Service, His grandmother was Eliza Julia Pratt, whose sister was Anna Leonowens--best known for Anna and the King of Siam. Sadly, William Henry Pratt was orphaned while very young. He was raised by his older siblings and attended Enfield Grammar School, Uppingham School, and Merchant Taylors' School, Northwood. He attended the University of London, determined to follow his brother, Sir John Henry Pratt, into foreign service. Instead, William Henry Pratt found himself drawn to drama. In 1909 he moved to Canada. It was not long before William Henry Pratt would take the stage name of Boris Karloff. There is some mystery as to how he developed the name. Karloff claimed that he chose the name "Boris" because it sounded exotic and foreign, and the name "Karloff" because it was a last name on his mother's side of the family. That having been said, while Karloff could boast some Indian ancestry, none of his ancestors on either side of his family appear to have been Slavic. While the means by which Karloff developed his nom de guerre remain a mystery, the reason he did so may be easier to find. The Pratt family was a distinguished one, particularly in the foreign service, and acting was not a particularly well respected profession at the time. In fact, after Karloff had gained fame as the Creature in Frankenstein he was concerned how his family would react to him upon his return to England in 1933. As it turned out he need not be, as his family welcomed him with open arms and even posed with him for publicity photos. While the Pratt family was not concerned with William Henry Pratt besmirching the family name, he may well have been himself, hence the need for an unusual stage name.

Karloff's first several months in Canada were spent working on a farm and later on construction on a racetrack. Eventually he became part of the Jeanne Russell Theatre Company out of Kamloops, British Columbia. By 1917 he was playing the role of Trampas in the dramatic adaptation of the classic novel The Virgininan. It was in December of that year that the play arrived in Los Angeles. It was at that point that the influenza epidemic of 1917 would change Karloff's career forever. The epidemic particularly hurt the theatre business in California, forcing many stage actors to go into the movies. Karloff was among them. He made his first appearance on the big screen in 1919 in The Lightning Raider. Over the next several years Karloff appeared in a number of silent films, usually as a heavy. He appeared in such films as The Last of the Mohicans, The Infidel, The Golden Web, and The Phantom of the North. His income from his acting was at the time so meagre that he had to work as a truck driver.

Karloff's fortunes changed dramatically in 1931. That year he appeared in two roles that would change his life forever. One was an important part in Howard Hawks' movie The Criminal Code, as the killer Ned Galloway. Karloff's days of playing bit parts was over. Afterwards he appeared in much more visible roles than he had before, in such films as The Public Defender and Graft. The other important role in which Karloff appeared in 1931 was the one for which he is best known. Having had a great deal of success with their adaptation of Dracula, Universal Pictures decided to adapt that other horror classic, Frankenstein. They soon found themselves without someone to play the Monster when Bela Lugosi turned down the role because his face would not be visible under the makeup the role required. It was while Karloff was working on Graft (also made at Universal Pictures) that director James Whale noticed the actor. Whale thought that Karloff's head and face would be perfect for Frankenstein's creation, and so Karloff got the part of his lifetime. Frankenstein proved to be even more successful than Dracula. In fact, it became the Star Wars of its day, raking in a tidy profit for Universal Pictures. There can be no doubt that much of the success of Frankenstein rested with Karloff's considerable talent. Rather than portraying the Creature as a mindless beast, Karloff endowed him with an innocence and naivete that made him a very sympathetic character. To this day, Karloff's portrayal of the Monster remains the definitive one, even after 76 years. Sadly, the costume Karloff had to wear as the Creature, compounded by years of physical labour, would leave him with severe back pain for the rest of his life.

Its success and that of Dracula inaugurated the First Golden Age of Horror Movies. It was during this period that Universal made many of its greatest horror films and that Karloff appeared in some of the best known movies of his career. Following the success of Frankenstein, Karloff appeared in James Whale's adaptation of The Old Dark House. He would follow this film with The Mummy, The Black Cat, and what may have been the greatest film of Karloff's career (and possibly the greatest horror movie of all time) The Bride of Frankenstein. Now endowed with speech, Karloff not only made the Creature even more sympathetic in this movie, but raised him to the ranks of the great tragic heroes of cinema. Of course, it would be a mistake to think that Karloff only appeared in horror movies during this time. Despite being best known for playing the Creature in the Frankenstein movies, he appeared in other genres of film than simply horror. He played Gafney in Scarface, Sanders in The Lost Patrol, Count Ledrantz in The House of Rothschild, and the title role in The Mask of Fu Manchu.

The mid to late Thirties were a particularly active time for Karloff. As might be expected he appeared in many horror movies. Nineteen thirty four's The Black Cat was particularly historic in that it marked the first time that Boris Karloff appeared with Bela Lugosi in a film. Filled with bizarre art deco sets, some rather gruesome imagery, and devil worship, The Black Cat is an odd film that still holds up well today. Karloff would work with Lugosi in many more movies. And while the two never became friends, Karloff never regarded or resented Lugosi as a rival as many have believed. Karloff's other horror movies of the time included The Raven, The Invisible Ray, and The Walking Dead. The First Golden Age of Horror Movies ended in 1936, but Karloff had no shortage of roles. He appeared in Charlie Chan at the Opera, Night Key, and West of Shanghai. He also played Mr. Wong in the movie series that began with Mr. Wong, Detective.

Karloff would not stay away from the horror genre for long. In 1939 he played the Creature for one last time in Universal's second sequel to Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein. This inaugurated the Second Golden Age of Horror. Over the next several years Karloff would appear in several horror movies, including the aforementioned Black Friday, Before I Hang, The Ape, and The House of Frankenstein.

A high point in Karloff's career would be the movies he made with Val Lewton. RKO signed Karloff with the intention of having him star in the low budget horror movies that Lewton made for the studio. Initially, Lewton did not look forward to working with Karloff, identifying the actor with Universal's monster movies. What Lewton did not know is that Karloff had long tired of Universal's monster movies and on the whole preferred Lewton's more subdued approach of horror by suggestion. The two actually enjoyed working with each other and made three of the best horror movies ever made together. In The Body Snatcher Karloff played the murderous, but unfortunate, Cabman Gray. In Isle of the Dead he played Greek General Nikolas Pherides on an isle quarantined because of a plague. His final movie for Lewton may have been the best. Bedlam is strong stuff even today and it provided Karloff with one of his best roles ever--Master George Sims, the sadistic head of a fictionalised version of Bethlem Royal Hospital.

It was in 1941 that Karloff also returned to the stage. He played the murderous brother Jonathan Brewster in the comedy Arsenic and Old Lace. The play provided one of the funniest in jokes in the history of drama. Brewster, having repeatedly had plastic surgery performed on himself, is constantly hearing, "He looks like Boris Karloff!" Sadly, Karloff could not appear in the film version of the play. Karloff played Brewster in the play from 1941 to 1944. He would appear in two more plays on Broadway in the Forties, The Linden Tree and The Shop at Shy Corner.

The late Forties saw the Second Golden Age of Horror come to an end with the classic Abbot and Costello Meet Frankenstein. Karloff did not appear in that film, although he would appear with the comedy duo in the movie Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff. It was in the late Forties that Karloff also appeared in the films The Secret Life of Walter Mitty and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome. It was in 1949 that Karloff made the first of his many appearances on television, in two episodes of The Chevrolet Tele-Theatre.

During much of the Fifties Gothic horror movies were out of fashion. And sadly, by this point in his career, Karloff was so identified with the genre that he was typecast. Much of Karloff's work in the Fifties was then done in television. In 1949 he hosted the horror anthology Starring Boris Karloff, starred in the series Colonel March of Scotland Yard, and hosted the horror anthology The Veil. He appeared in episodes of Lights Out, Schlitz Playhouse of Stars, Robert Montgomery Presents, Studio One, and Playhouse 90. This is not to say Karloff did not appear in any movies during this period. He appeared in the adaptation of Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Door, The Black Castle, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (in the title role), Voodoo Island, Grip of the Strangler Frankenstein 1970, and Corridors of Blood. He also appeared on Broadway in Peter Pan as Mr. Darling/Captain Hook in 1950 and The Lark in 1955.

The Sixties saw Karloff appear in more films than he had in the Fifties, In 1963 he made two films with Roger Corman. The Raven (sharing the name, but not the plot, of his earlier film by that name) teamed Karloff with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in one of Corman's best films, an adaptation of the Edgar Allan Poe poem of that name. Sadly, The Terror, featuring a young Jack Nicholson, was a bit of a disappointment. Karloff would be reunited with Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in Jacques Tourneur's The Comedy of Terrors. Karloff also starred in The Sorcerers, directed by Michael Reeves, one of the best horror movies of the Sixties. His last truly good film was Peter Bogdanovich's Targets, in which he played an aging horror star who faces off against a psychotic sniper. He appeared in two of the beach movies of the era, including Bikini Beach and Ghost in the Invisible Bikini. His other films are hardly worth mentioning: Die, Monster, Die, Curse of the Crimson Altar, The Fear Chamber, and other low budget films.

As in the Fifties, some of Karloff's most significant work was done in television. He was the host of the classic horror anthology series Thriller, a show which served as an introduction to the great actor for many. In 1962 he appeared as himself in an episode of Route 66 which also featured Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney Jr. He narrated the classic Yuletide animated special How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1966 and provided the voice for Dr. Frankenstein in the classic Halloween special Mad Monster Party in 1969. He made notable guest appearances on such shows as The Wild Wild West, The Girl From U.N.C.L.E., I Spy, and The Name of the Game.

Although Boris Karloff made his name playing monsters and villains, in real life he was much more the hero. By all accounts he was one of the gentlest, most caring actors in the profession. In 1912, while working on a play in Regina, Saskatchewan, he volunteered as a rescue worker following a devastating tornado. He was a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild and often spoke on behalf of his fellow actors and other crew members with regards to hazardous conditions on sets. He helped various charities, particularly those devoted to children. From 1940 onwards he would dress up as Santa Claus and hand out Christmas gifts to children at a hospital in Baltimore. Perhaps there is perhaps no greater demonstration of Karloff's true character than a story I read several years ago in one of the many books on horror films I have read. A little girl and her mother were visiting the set of one of the many TV shows on which Karloff guested in the Sixties. The little girl had seen Frankenstein and was drawn to Karloff's sympathetic portrayal of the Monster. Naturally, when she found out the man who had played the Creature was on the set, she had to meet him. Karloff graciously talked with the little girl. And, even though by this point in his career he was in constant pain because of his back, he even picked the little girl up and rose to his full five foot eleven height. Karloff was such a man of character that he would even place a child's enjoyment over his own pain.

Sadly, Karloff's health failed him in his later years. By the late Sixties he not only suffered from the back pain that had plagued him for much of his life, but arthritis and emphysema as well. It was in 1969 that he contracted pneumonia and never recovered. He died February 2, 1969 at the age of 81.

Boris Karloff was one of the most talented actors of the Twentieth Century. He endowed the Frankenstein Monster with a sensitivity and innocence that no actor has ever since. Indeed, Karloff always insisted on calling Frankenstein's creation as "the Creature" and never "the Monster," feeling him to be an altogether sympathetic, but misunderstood figure. Karloff displayed this talent in other roles as well, even when he was playing villains. And he was as capable of playing comedy as he was drama. His sense of humour and gift for comedy were in fine display in such films as The Comedy of Terrors and on television in the series Thriller. That he was also a man with a gentle heart and a genuine love for his fans made him a most remarkable man. Short of Vincent Price, there was perhaps no finer actor to ever star in horror movies.

1 comment:

Bobby D. said...

Karloff always seemed like he'd be a nice person "in real life"