Susan M. Kelly
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.
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 Frankenstein 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!
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
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.
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).
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.
Susan M. Kelly is a freelance writer who
lives and works in Dunellen, New Jersey. Susan's a longtime regular
Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.
Other Boris Karloff Pages:
Low Budget Horror Stories by Stephen
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