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BORIS KARLOFF

By
Susan M. Kelly

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1937 United Services Boris Karloff Trading Card1934 Boris Karloff Real Photo CardSpeaking only in mysterious grunts and buried under one of Hollywood’s classic makeup jobs, Boris Karloff made his name as the ultimate master of horror.  Yet under the chilling monster lay a gentle, soft spoken man who found more pleasure in reading stories to children than in scaring the grown-ups out of their seats. 

William Henry Pratt was born into a family of British diplomats, but from an early age he eschewed the Foreign Service for a life on the stage.  He followed his dream across the Atlantic, where he found work touring with small companies all over North America.  In 1916, he made his screen debut as an extra in “The Dumb Girl of Portici”.  Three years later, he began his film career in earnest with an appearance in the Douglas Fairbanks film “His Majesty, the American”, where he was billed as Boris Karloff.

He found steady work throughout the 20’s including turns in “The Hope Diamond Mystery” (1921), “Lady Robin Hood” (1925), and “Eagle of the Sea” (1926).  In the early 30’s he appeared in his first talkies, hiding his cultured English accent beneath a harsh, guttural growl in movies such as “The Sea Bat” (1930). 

In 1931, Karloff was approached by director James Whale, who was preparing to make a new horror film.  Whale had offered a key role to Dracula star Bela Lugosi, but Lugosi rejected the part, fearing that he would be unrecognizable in full makeup.  Karloff had no such qualms and he happily took on the role of Frankenstein’s monster, complete with massive lifts and padding which made the slim, 5’11” actor seem larger than life. 

On its surface, the role of the monster didn’t seem like a star maker.  Karloff had only his own remarkable facial expressions and a vocabulary of grunts with which to give Dr. Frankenstein’s creation life, but it proved to be all that he needed.  In one of the more remarkable performances on film, Karloff was able to infuse real humanity and pathos into the horrible creature, actually daring to make audiences care for the terribly tortured soul within.  He stole the picture from top billed Colin Clive and, at the relatively advance age of 44, found himself an instant star.  It was a heady moment for him, but it wasn’t without its cost.  The heavy brace that he was forced to wear as part of his costume took a terrible toll on his back and he would spend the rest of his life in severe pain, a price that he paid without complaint. 

He spent the remainder of the 30’s working steadily, alternating between horror films such as “The Mummy” (1932), “The Ghoul” (1933), and “Bride of Frankenstein” (1935), for which he reprised his most famous role, and supporting roles in more prestigious major-studio productions.  In 1934 he raised eyebrows as a villainous, anti-Semitic Prussian nobleman in “The House of Rothschild”.  The same year he appeared in “The Black Cat”, the first of three films which would team him with fellow horror master Bela Lugosi. 

As the 30’s drew to a close, Karloff was forced to keep himself afloat with performances in a string of B movies.  In 1939 he played the LIFE Magazine featuring Boris Karloff on the cover March 15, 1968Frankenstein monster for a third and final time in “Son of Frankenstein”.  During filming he celebrated his 52nd birthday with the birth of his only child, Sara Jane, rushing excitedly from the set to the hospital in full makeup and costume!

He successfully spoofed his film image in the 1941 stage production of “Arsenic and Old Lace”, enjoying a lengthy run in a role written specifically for him.  He also appeared in a few low budget chillers for RKO which managed to stand out from the run of the mill B fare, including yet another teaming with Bela Lugosi in 1945’s “The Body Snatcher”.

He managed to get a few solid supporting roles in more standard films as well, including a turn as a phony psychiatrist, Dr. Hollingshead, in “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty” (1947) opposite the incomparable Danny Kaye.  But with the dawn of the 50’s, Karloff again found himself mired in a string of dreary, low-budget horror films which traded on the success of his earlier work. 

His stage performances brought much more success.  He had a memorable turn as Captain Hook opposite Jean Arthur in “Peter Pan” and received a Tony nomination for his role opposite Julie Harris in “The Lark”.  He also branched into television, participating in several TV plays, starring in the series “Colonel March of Scotland Yard” (1957-58), and hosting “Thriller” (1960-62).

Producer Roger Corman tapped the aging star for several of his all-star horror films and spoofs in the early 60’s, including “The Raven” and “The Terror”.  But by this time age and the lingering pain in his back were taking their toll.  Toward the end of his life, walking and even standing had become too much to bear.

He continued to have a tremendous fondness for children and took great delight in recording several successful albums of children’s stories.  In 1966, he was thrilled to be offered the opportunity to narrate the TV version of the Dr. Seuss classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”.   Despite Seuss’s misgivings about hiring a horror movie actor, Karloff’s performance has become one of his most enduring and memorable, a fact which he would no doubt find extremely pleasing.

His final role came in 1968, as an elderly horror-film actor in Peter Bogdanovich’s “Targets”.   Though he frequently retired to a wheelchair and an oxygen mask between scenes, the old master relished his offbeat role and many critics say he delivered his finest performance in years.

He died the following year, leaving his indelible mark as one of Hollywood’s classic masters of horror.  Yet the gentle, lovely man behind the monster remains something of an enigma to this day.
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Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey.  Susan's a longtime regular contributor to The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.

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