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Boris Karloff - A Biography

by Mike Haberfelner

April 2008

Films starring Boris Karloff on (re)Search my Trash


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If you think about Boris Karloff, the Frankenstein Monster, a character he portrayed in three films, probably comes to your mind first - and who can blame you, as Karloff's performance as this rather one-dimensional creature is flawless, no, more than just flawless it's sublime, and in a sense, he has brought to life a character that was essentially no more than a living dead. And no other actor after him would ever even come close to rival his performance as the monster.

But to reduce Karloff's career to the role of the monster would simply be wrong, he was in fact a talented and extremely versatile actor who could play anything from mad scientists to benign old men, from Oriental villains to Oriental detectives, from drunk brutes to distinguished gentlemen - but that said, he was always at the height of his game when he played villains, something he also always felt drawn to by nature (in his professional life, privately he was said to be a very kind, shy and cultured man), and which granted him a long career on the big and the small screen spanning from the late 1910's through his breakthrough in the 1930's, up until the 1970's, way after his death, when his final films were released.



Early Life, Early Career


Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt in 1887 in London England as the youngest of nine children. Karloff's father was in the Indian consular service and pretty much expected all of his children to follow his choice of career - and several of them did. However, both of Karloff's parents died when he was still young and he was brought up by his 7 brothers and one sister, who too expected him to follow the family tradition - so he eventually enrolled in college, but proved to be a less than successful student, spending more time going to the theatre than going to classes, and furthermore, university bored him.

Eventually - in 1909 -, Karloff decided to get away from it all, also not to be a disgrace to his family, and he decided to emmigrate to either Canada or Australia, both countries with rather lax immigration laws at that time, and according to Karloff's own account, he decided for Canada by the flip of a coin.


In Canada, Karloff tried himself out in several jobs - including menial jobs, farming and real estate salesman -, first in Ontario, then in Vancouver but all of his attempts to hold whatever job were half-hearted. Eventually Karloff decided he wanted to become an actor, but he found stagework to be in short supply in Vancouver ... however he found a theatrical agent in nearby Seattle who would take Karloff on after he told him some big lies about his theatrical career so far (which was virtually non-existent), and eventually Karloff bluffed his way into an acting assignment. Allegedly it was also during that time that Karloff made up his stage name - Boris Karloff - though there are conflicting reports as to how he came up with the name as such.

At the stock company he was working for, it was found out pretty much on the first day that he had no acting experience whatsoever, but quite probably they also saw his natural acting talent and kept him on anyways. Karloff spent the following years touring the USA and Canada with various small theatrical companies, slowly developing his acting style - and his predilection for bad guy roles. When World War I broke out, he tried to enlist in the British army but was rejected due to a heart murmur, so his career could go on pretty much uninterrupted.


By 1917, Boris Karloff had relocated to Los Angeles and soon found work with several stock companies that travelled mainly through California ... but in 1918 the influenza epidemic brouke out, which caused many stock companies to close down for good - and all of a sudden, Karloff found himself out of a job again, and unable to get work in theatres or the vaudeville, Karloff tried his hands on that relatively new medium, film.

In 1919, Karloff worked on his first film, His Majesty, the American (Joseph Henabery), a film co-scripted and starring then immensely popular Douglas Fairbanks ...



Silent Cinema


Karloff's first film roles, including the one in His Majesty, the American, were anything but stellar, mere extra work, but it wasn't as if Karloff had much choice, after all he needed bread on the table. Eventually though, in 1920, Karloff got his first bigger role, that of a villainous French-Canadian trapper in the film The Deadlier Sex (Robert Thornby), a so-called North-Woods film (= basically a Western set in Canada, with cowboys being replaced by trappers). Probably thanks to his Canadian background, Karloff would play villains/trappers in several North Woods features during the silent era.

Apart from trappers, Karloff played pretty much everything during his first years in the movie industry, from Mexicans (The Masked Rider [1919, Aubrey M.Kennedy]) to Indians (Last of the Mohicans [1920, Maurice Tourneur]) to Hindus (The Hope Diamond Mystery [1921, Stuart Payton]) to Arabs (Cheated Hearts [1921, Hobart Henley]) to Maharajahs (The Man from Downing Street [1922, Edward Jose]). Most of his roles (if they were roles at all and not just extra-work) were heavies, and it wasn't until Omar the Tentmaker (James Young) in 1922 that he would play his first sympathetic role.


In 1923, film production in Hollywood experienced a slump, and Karloff decided to return to work with stock companies, but to his dismay he found stock theatre as such rapidly becoming a thing of the past, mainly because of the overpowering competition of cinema, and Karloff, unable to find theatrical work, had to accept day labour like truckdriving to at least be able to look for cinema work on the side.


In the following years, Karloff saw himself forced to acept any role given to him, be it big or small and in any kind of genre from Western (The Hellion [1924, Bruce M.Mitchell], Riders of the Plains [1924, Jacques Jaccard], The Prairie Wife [1925, Hugo Ballin], The Man in the Saddle [1926, Lynn Reynolds, Clifford Smith]) to period pieces (The Prisoner [1923, Jack Conway]) to boxing pictures (Dynamite Dan [1924, Bruce M.Mitchell]) to melodramas (Forbidden Cargo [1925, Tom Buckingham], Lady Robin Hood [1925, Ralph Ince], Parisian Nights [1925, Alfred Santell]) to adventure flicks (Perils of the Wild [1925, Francis Ford]). Once again of course, most of his roles were villain roles, which not only suited him fine but was also quite a natural choice since his dark and brooding looks made him easily recognizable as a baddie in silent films that often had to be quite direct in aspects like this.

Still, eventually Karloff's reputation grew, and for his performance as drug-crazed villain in Her Honor, the Governor (1926, Chester Withey), a tearjerker starring Pauline Frederick, Karloff earned praise from several critics.


Also in 1926, Karloff played a relatively big role in a film that would be a precursor of things to come, that of a villainous hypnotist opposite Lionel Barrymore in the film The Bells (James Young), a movie based on a stageplay by Alexandre Chatrian and Emile Erckmann that would almost qualify as horror - and in which Karloff anticipates many a performance from the time he has become a bona fide horror star.


However, for some reason his horror-performance did not yet catch on with audiences and producers, and for the remainder of his days in silent cinema he continued to play whatever was thrown at him - with his most bizarre role probably being that of a native (and thus black) chieftain in the Tarzan-flick Tarzan and the Golden Lion (1927, J.P.McGowan), with James Pierce playing the lord of the jungle.


Another film from 1927, the army-comedy Two Arabian Knights (Lewis Milestone) starring William Boyd, deserves mention inasmuch as it was the first ever film to receive an Academy Award for its direction. Karloff's role in the film however was not all that big or all that important.



From the Arrival of Sound to Frankenstein


The arrival of sound was a major stepping stone for the American film industry, mainly because many of its silent stars proved to be unsuitable for sound, be it their voices didn't fit their characters in the least, be it their strong accents, be it their inexperience with actually delivering lines besides just mimicking, be it what was commonly known as mike-fright, or be it whatever else.

Boris Karloff though, who had a background in theatre, who had a very soothing voice (hauntingly soothing one could say), a very clear pronounciation (despite his lisp) and a British accent, seemred to have been cut out for sound cinema, so the switch that destroyed so many careers didn't cause him any problems at all.


Karloff made his sound debut in 1929 in Behind that Curtain (Irving Cummings), which was also the first Charlie Chan-talkie, with E.L. Park playing the part of the Oriental sleuth. Karloff only had a small role in this one - but so, rather cusiouly, had E.L. Park. Karloff would be in another Charlie Chan-film a mere 7 years later. Both Karloff and Chan (then played by Warner Oland) would get more to do in that movie ...

The King of the Kongo (1929, Richard Thorpe) was the first ever sound serial, produced by Mascot [Mascot history - click here] - though technically speaking, the whole thing was only part-sound. Karloff plays the lead villain in this one opposite Walter Miller's heroic lead. Interestingly, Miller and Karloff would meet again in 1931 in another Mascot-serial with a very similar name also directed by Richard Thorpe, King of the Wild, again on opposite sides of the law - with Karloff being the baddie of course. Karloff wouldn't make any more serials after this one by the way.

In 1930, Karloff made his last ever Western with The Utah Kid (Richard Thorpe), a Rex Lease-Western for small Tiffany.

Karloff's first important film of the sound era though was The Unholy Night (1929, Lionel Barrymore), in which his role as as a mysterious Hindu was at first intended to be very small, but thanks to Karloff's acting talents, it grew pretty much on a daily basis.



Karloff's first really important talkie-role came because he went back to the theatre in 1930 to play a role in The Criminal Code by Martin Flavin. The play became a big success on the West Coast, and before long, Columbia bought the film rights. And since Columbia didn't have a stable of contract players like the bigger studios, they took over most of the cast from the theatrical run, including of course Boris Karloff - and thus he had a small but important part in the film The Criminal Code (Howard Hawks) from 1931, playing a prison trusty turned murderer.

Still that film didn't lead to immediate stardom, it didn't even lead to bigger roles immediately - but it led to bigger, more important pictures, e.g. Young Donavan's Kid (1931, Fred Niblo) and The Public Defender (1931, J.Walter Ruben), both starring Richard Dix, or the Edward G.Robinson-starrers Smart Money (1931, Alfred E.Green) - this one also stars James Cagney - and Five Star Final (1931, Mervyn LeRoy), the comedy I Like your Nerve (1931, William C.McGann) starring Douglas Fairbanks jr and Loretta Young, or the John Barrymore-starrer The Mad Genius (1931, Michael Curtiz),  a drama with horror undercurrents in which Karloff plays young Frankie Darro's abusive father [Frankie Darro bio - click here].


Still, in a way, Graft (1931, Christy Cabanne) was Karloff's most important film from that era, simply because it was produced by Universal. Taken by its own merits, Graft, your typical newspaper melodrama in which Karloff plays a gangster, was nothing special, but it was because of this film that Karloff was at the right spot at the right time: Universal had just landed a big hit with Dracula (1931, Todd Browning) starring Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here] and wanted to follow that film up with an adaptation of Mary W.Shelley's Frankenstein, to be directed by Robert Florey and starring Lugosi as the monster ... but both Florey and Lugosi backed out for whatever reasons, and direction of the film was handed over to James Whale, then the hottest property (concerning directors, of course) in Universal's employ - and legend has it that Whale, desperate for an actor able to portray the monster, spotted Karloff in the studio cantina and was immediately intrigued by both his facial features and his personality ... and before you knew it, Boris Karloff had the role of Frankenstein's Monster in Frankenstein (1931, James Whale), a film starring Colin Clive as the titular scientist, Edward Van Sloan of Dracula-fame as his mentor and Dwight Frye (also from Dracula) [Dwight Frye bio - click here] as his crazed assistant.


The role of the monster, on first look, was an unrewarding one: Karloff's face would be barely recognizable, hidden under the (unarguably ingenious) makeup work of Jack Pierce, his dialogue would be reduced to grunts and growls and muttering the odd word, and his character would be a staggering hunk, not exactly a role that required much acting ... but that was only one side of the coin, what Karloff made out of the monster was a different affair altogether, a creature that had a wide array of emotions (all expressed through those facial features not covered up by makeup), a creature that despite all of its wrongdoings deserved sympathy, but also a creature that despite of all the sympathy one might feel towards it was totally menacing - and that was not too small a feat for the then relatively unknown Boris Karloff, as he gave a performance in the role that no other actor playing the role yet managed to match, not Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here], not Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here], not Christopher Lee, not Robert De Niro.

As a result, Frankenstein became a boxoffice success, outdoing even Dracula, and deservedly so, Frankenstein is and probably always will be seen as one of the best horror movies there is (especially in the light of the rather low technical standards at the time) - but while Frankenstein was good, probably even fantastic, Boris Karloff was simply sensational ...

In fact, Karloff was so good in Frankenstein that the film made him an instant star (even though his role as such had no star qualities).



King of Horrors in the 1930's


The first few films that Karloff was in after Frankenstein were still shot before his star rose to fame, so don't expect too much traces of the monster in films like the comedy Tonight or Never (1931, Mervyn LeRoy) starring Gloria Swanson and Melvyn Douglas, the crime drama Behind the Mask (1932, John Francis Dillon) starring Jack Holt, the Will Rogers-comedy Business and Pleasure (1932, David Butler), the (seminal) gangstermovie Scarface (1932, Howard Hawks) starring Paul Muni and George Raft, The Miracle Man (1932, Norman Z.McLeod), and Night World (1932, Hobart Henley).


However, once Frankenstein became a hit at the box office, Universal was quick to put the film's unexpected star (Boris Karloff that is) under contract, and soon enough they teamed him up with Frankenstein's director James Whale once more to make another (sort-of-)horror flick, The Old Dark House (1932). 

The film, telling your typical old dark house story from a very humourous perspective and featuring a great cast including Melvyn Douglas, Raymond Massey, Charles Laughton, Ernest Thesiger and Gloria Stuart, turned out to be a film that is as funny as it is creepy and suspenseful, and it showed James Whale once again at the top of his game. Ironically though, Karloff, despite being top-billed, plays a mere supporting role in this one, and his character, a hulking and alcoholic butler (who like Frankenstein's Monster has next to no dialogue) is probably the palest character in the film - and unlike the monster, Karloff seems unable to fill this role with much life as well ... but still, even if Karloff fails to impress in The Old Dark House, the film as a whole is a definite must-see.


Next, Karloff went on lease to MGM to make yet another genre classic, The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932, Charles Brabin, Charles Vidor), and even if from today's politically correct point of view, his rendition of the Oriental supervillain might seem at least questionable and he doesn't exactly make a convincing Chinaman to begin with, Karloff's performance shows the character at his most ruthless and sadistic (in parts of course also thanks to a for its time incredibly violent script). What also makes The Mask of Fu Manchu special of course is that it's Karloff's first genre film in which he is allowed to speak in whole sentences, not just to grunt and growl ...


Back at Universal, Karloff embodied what would yet become yet another iconic horror character in The Mummy (1932, Karl Freund), a living dead much like Frankenstein's Monster, but this time one with a mission: To find the reincarnation of his former lover, played in this movie by Zita Johann. Unlike later renditions of the character by Tom Tyler [Tom Tyler bio - click here], Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here] and Christopher Lee though, Karloff doesn't play his role merely as a hulking bandaged living corpse. After only a little bit of hulking and scaring the heebiegeebies out of some people, Karloff's mummy actually becomes a live human once more, even with the ability to speak in whole sentences, and Karloff more closely resembles an Arabian villain - a very creepy one of course.


Despite all the success Karloff's Universal spookers enjoyed though, the studio was unwilling to give him a better contract, so he (temporarily) quit employ with the company, and in 1933, he decided to return to his native Great Britain to star in The Ghoul (1933, T.Hayes Hunter), a shocker also starring Cedric Hardwicke and Ernest Thesiger. In style the film was made to directly rival the Universal horrors of the time, but overall it failed to impress since in basic plot it resembled The Mummy a tad too closely, and furthermore its script was a bit too muddled to really catch on with audiences. But at least the film gave Karloff the opportunity to reunite with his family for the first time in years, and his siblings all proved to be rather proud of their former black sheep ...


Returning to the USA somewhat disappointed, Karloff made two straight, non-horror films as a freelancer, the Darryl F.Zanuck-production The House of Rothschild (1934, Alfred L.Werker) starring George Arliss, and John Ford's The Lost Patrol (1934) starring Victor McLaglen, both A pictures. Especially The Lost Patrol, in which he played a bible-thumping soldier, drew him critical praise.


Impressed by Karlof's success in mainstream roles, Universal decided to get him back and give him the new contract he wanted that included a pay-raise and the permission to freelance at other studios throughout the duration of the contract.

Karloff's first movie after his return to Universal was yet another horror classic, Edgar G.Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934), the first film that would see him star opposite Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here], Universal's other horror star. But the film is not a classic because it is their first film together but because The Black Cat is a genuine artistic achievement, a film that rips horror from its then usual period settings and throws it into an art deco world that's as stylish (even from today's point of view) as it is haunting, and it is filled with sadistic elements (including live skinning) that are bound to frighten the best of them (even if most of the sadisms are only hinted at). Karloff plays an Alistair Crowley-like villain in this one while Lugosi plays a former prisoner of war who wants his revenge on him. Allegedly the film is based on the short story of the same name by Edgar Allan Poe, but apart from the mere presence of a black cat, the film and the story have nothing in common.

A few words about the relationship between Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi: According to some reports they were the best of friends while others call them sworn enemies - but actually neither is true, the two men had a professional relationship and they respected each other, nothing more. At first, it is said that Lugosi had reservations about their collaboration because he feared Karloff would try to upstage him, but when it turned out that Karloff wasn't even interested in such games, they got along quite fine during all of their shoots but would have as good as no contact outside work.

That all said, it also has to be noted that Boris Karloff gives the more impressive performance in The Black Cat, but simply because he has the meatier role.


Content with the good box office The Black Cat made, Universal was quick to reteam Karloff and Lugosi, first in Gift of Gab (1934, Karl Freund), a weak-chested comedy/revue starring Edmund Lowe, then in The Raven (1935, Lew Landers), another shocker allegedly based on Edgar Allan Poe though it had little more to do with the author's source material than did The Black Cat. But to be quite honest, The Raven, a tale about a mad doctor who's madly in love (Lugosi) and a cutthroat who is in his employ but has a change of hearts (Karloff), suffers in comparison to The Black Cat, even if it has a certain pulp charm. And it should also be noted that this time around, Lugosi has the meatier role and makes the most out of it.


Between Gift of Gab and The Raven though, Boris Karloff made what might be the best and most important film of his long career, Bride of Frankenstein (1935, James Whale), one of the few sequels about which critics agree that it outdoes the (already great) original. Karloff returns in his role as the monster of course, and he manages to add even more subtleties to his characterisation than in part one and make it more menacing and more sympathetic at the same time. Add to this the great direction of James Whale and a great ensemble cast (featuring Ernest Thesiger in a role allegedly intended for Bela Lugosi and Elsa Lanchester in a short but iconic appearance as the monster's bride) and you've got a film that's nothing short of great.


In the latter part of the 1930's, Karloff's films only rarely (if ever) reached the quality of the many classics he made in the early years of the decade, even if some of the films were quite entertaining:

  • Columbia's The Black Room (1935, Roy William Neill) is a period piece with sadistic undercurrents in which Karloff plays twin brothers, one good one bad. 
  • Universal's The Invisible Ray (1936, Lambert Hillyer) teamed up Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi yet again, this time in a science fiction adventure about the all-powerful Radium X involving time travel, a meteor, radiation poisoning and the like. The resulting film is as silly as it sounds but also as entertaining.
  • Warner Brothers' The Walking Dead (1936, Michael Curtiz) is an entertaining if a bit pointless film that blends the horror- and the gangster-genre (Warner Brothers' stock-in-trade back then, actually).

  • The British produced Juggernaut (1936, Henry Edwards) is an old-fashioned and routine crime drama with your typical wild inheritance scheme and Karloff as a villainous scientist. But if films like this are your thing, you might find yourself well entertained.
  • Karloff also made The Man who Changed his Mind/The Man who Lived Again (1936, Robert Stevenson) back in his native Great Britain, but while his earlier British effort The Ghoul failed to convince and Juggernaut was just so-so, this one is an extremely entertaining little film in which Karloff plays a mad scientist able to swap minds with other people - and this way he figures he will live forever ... however, he goes about his aim with such ruthless determination that he in the end falls prey to one of his own schemes. Sure, the story is silly as can be, but it is told in a light-hearted way, the film is carefully directed, and Karloff gets able support from Anna Lee, one of the best (if by now largely forgotten) leading ladies of her time.

  • Charlie Chan at the Opera (1936, H.Bruce Humberstone) is another entry into the Charlie Chan-series, this time with Warner Oland in the lead. This time around, Karloff plays an opera singer who is the chief suspect in a murder case for the longest time - only to be revealed innocent in the end. Actually Charlie Chan at the Opera is one of the best entries into the series, which was pretty good as it is (at least as long as Fox/20th Century Fox handled it).

In 1937, Boris Karloff's career suffered a minor blow, when Great Britain imposed a horror-ban - and since back then Great Britain was the USA's biggest overseas market by a longshot, all the bigger film studios, forst amd foremost Universal, seized to produce shockers, which were after all Karloff's stock-in-trade.

Karloff was relatively lucky during that time, as he was a versatile enough actor to take other roles, but his colleague Bela Lugosi for example saw his career come to a grinding halt. Still, the films Karloff starred in were all less than special:

  • Universal's Night Key (1937, Lloyd Corrigan) has Karloff playing a sympathetic role, that of an inventor who was tricked out of an invention - a highly sophisticated security system - and now uses his knowledge about the weak spots of the system to have his revenge by playing harmless pranks. But then gangsters want to use his knowledge for their advantage ... The whole film is as lightweight as it is pointless and not really worth watching.
  • West of Shanghai (1937, John Farrow), a Warner Brothers-production, sees Karloff playing a Chinese warlord. He plays his role well enough, but even his makeup job isn't too bad, he simply fails to convince as a Chinaman - but more of that later ... Interestingly, this film is based on a play that is set in Mexico, not China - and Karloff would probably have made a much more convincing Mexican.
  • The Invisible Menace (1938, John Farrow), again produced by Warner Brothers, is a light-hearted army-based thriller/comedy which has Karloff wrongly accused of murder. And even though the film might be pointless, at least it's fun to watch.


A Chinaman named Wong, the Resurgence of Horror, and other Stories


By the end of the 1930's, Karloff had to realize he was no longer as much in demand as he used to be in the early years of the decade, and as a result he had to hook up with smaller production houses once offers came in - and I'm especially talking about Monogram here: When little Monogram saw what success 20th Century Fox had with their Charlie Chan-series and also their Mr. Moto-series, they decided they wanted part of it too and thus acquired the film rights to Mr. Wong, an Oriental sleuth created by Hugh Wiley, who published the short stories about the character in Collier's magazine. And for some reason - maybe because of his recent role in West of Shanghai - Monogram decided to give Boris Karloff the title role in their new series. (At this point it perhaps has to be noted that back in the 1930's/40's, it was quite common to cast Caucasian actors as Orientals, e.g. Warner Oland, Sidney Toler and Roland Winters as Charlie Chan and Peter Lorre as Mr. Moto [Peter Lorre bio - click here]).


On paper, the differences between Mr. Wong and Charlie Chan were marginal - which is why Monogram later remade several Mr. Wong-films as Charlie Chan-flicks once they had acquired the film rights for that series -, however, in entertainment value, Mr. Wong never lived up to the other series, not when it was done at 20th Century Fox and not once Monogram itself handled the series, quite simply because by and large the Mr. Wong-series lacked the comic elements of Charlie Chan and the titular character himself remained relatively pale throughout the series as well - plus softspoken and tall (tall at least for a Chinaman) Karloff with his distinct facial features, his lisp and precise British pronounciation does not make a convincing Chinaman.

In all, Karloff played Mr. Wong in five films, Mr. Wong, Detective (1938), The Mystery of Mr. Wong and Mr. Wong in Chinatown (both 1939), and The Fatal Hour and Doomed to Die (both 1940), all directed by Wiliam Nigh, and while neither of these films is a classic, at least some of them are entertaining cheap murder mysteries and especially those in which series regulars Karloff as Wong and Grant Withers as inspector are joined by Marjorie Reynolds as quick-mouthed girl reporter (Mr. Wong in Chinatown, The Fatal Hour and Doomed to Die) are quite humourous.



After Doomed to Die, Karloff, director William Nigh and Marjorie Reynolds were ale removed from the series and it was revamped, with Keye Luke (formerly Charlie Chan's Number One Son) taking over the role of the Oriental sleuth - and therefore being one of the few Asians in Hollywood to ever play an Asian detective - in the film Phantom of Chinatown (1940, Phil Rosen). Quite possibly, the switch to the much younger Luke was an attempt to make the character more appealing to young audiences - but to no avail, after Phantom of Chinatown the series was scrapped altogether.


Karloff would however make one more film at Monogram, and again under the direction of William Nigh: The Ape (1940), a rather silly but somehow likeable horror film in which Karloff plays a well-meaning but misguided surgeon who dresses up as a gorilla to kill and collect spinal fluid to help an 18-year old girl suffering from polio.


Rewind a year or so: Right after Mr. Wong, Detective, Karloff made yet another non-horror film, the Warner Brothers-production Devil's Island (1939, William Clemens), in which he plays a brain surgeon who is convicted to serve a sentence on the infamous titular prison island. Karloff himself is quite good in this B-picture, but the film as a whole is less than special.


1939 however saw an unexpected turn for the better for Boris Karloff: Universal had just re-released its classics Dracula and Frankenstein - and were more than just pleased by the drawing power these films still had at the box office ... so the powers-that-be at Universal decided to give horror another try, in a lavish film with a stellar cast that would include Karloff, Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here], Basil Rathbone [Basil Rathbone bio - click here] and Lionel Atwill [Lionel Atwill bio - click here]

The film in question is of course Son of Frankenstein (1939, Rowland V.Lee), which saw Karloff take his third (and final) turn as the monster ... but despite all its lavishness, unfortunately neither is the script for Son of Frankenstein as good as those for Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein, nor is Rowland V.Lee remotely as imaginative a director as James Whale was, nor indeed is Karloff's role in the film as big and as interesting as in the earlier films. As a matter of fact, it is Bela Lugosi as hunchback who manages to steal the show - even if Karloff in his role is as good as the script lets him be.


Still, after seeing Son of Frankenstein, it's hardly surprising that Karloff refused to repeat the monster role yet again, leaving it to Lon Chaney jr [Lon Chaney jr bio - click here], Bela Lugosi, and finally Glenn Strange. He did however return to Universal's Frankenstein-series one more time, in House of Frankenstein (1944, Erle C.Kenton), but this time he would play the mad scientist (with Strange playing the monster for the first time). As a whole, the Frankenstein-series during that time had grown a bit silly though.


With the success of Son of Frankenstein, Universal knew they had a winner in their hand, so they were quick to reteam Karloff and Basil Rathbone in Tower of London (1939), essentially a period piece with horror undercurrents, then Karloff and Lugosi were teamed up for Black Friday (1940, Arthur Lubin), a sci-fi/horror/gangster flick in which the two men for some reason don't share a single shot. Then Karloff disappeared from the Universal horror cycle until 1944, when he starred in above mentioned House of Frankenstein and the lavishly produced but incredibly boring The Climax (1944, George Waggner), basically a weak rehash of Arthur Lubin's (vastly overrated) Phantom of the Opera from a year before and shot in the same (admittedly impressive) sets.


Besides the Mr. Wong-flicks, the Universal-shockers, the Kay Kyser horror-comedy You'll Find Out (1940, David Butler) also starring Bela Lugosi and Peter Lorre [Peter Lorre bio - click here], and an espionage-film for Warner Brothers, British Intelligence (1940, Terry O.Morse), Boris Karloff also made a series of little shockers for Columbia during the late 1930's/early 40's. In these films he almost exclusively plays mad scientists involved in some way or another with experiments ought to prolong life or raise the already dead. These movies all have telling titles, like The Man they Could Not Hang (1939, Nick Grinde), The Man with Nine Lives and  Before I Hang (both 1940, Nick Grinde), The Devil Commands (1941, Edward Dmytryk), and The Boogie Man will Get You (1942, Lew Landers) - this one being a comedy also starring Peter Lorre -, with many of them being at least entertaining B-pictures, even if none of them is a classic.


However, Karloff's main contribution to the horror genre during the early 40's wasn't on film at all but on stage, when he took the role of Jonathan Brewser in the original cast of Joseph Kesselring's legendary Broadway play Arsenic and Old Lace, a role that pays tribute and makes fun of Karloff's screen image (which he by the time had grown a little tired of) at the same time and which was allegedly sold to Karloff by a dialogue exchange in which his character said he killed someone else because "he said I looked like Boris Karloff" - exactly the kind of humour Karloff could identify with.

The play was amazingly successful, and starting in 1941, Karloff stayed with the role for three years, hardly ever doing filmwork during that time (which might have been a good choice anyways, given the quality of horror films in general in the early to mid-1940's). Karloff is also said do have invested some money into the play - and getting it back manyfolds.

Eventually, no other than Frank Capra made a film out of the play in later 1941, but due to contractual reasons, the classic Arsenic and Old Lace wasn't released until 1944, after the Broadway play had closed down. The film stars Cary Grant and Peter Lorre, but due to contractual reasons, Boris Karloff had to be replaced by Raymond Massey. Karloff would however play the role on television thrice, first as part of The Ford Theatre Hour in 1949 under the direction of Marc Daniels, then (in colour) as part of The Best of Broadway in 1955 under the direction of Herbert B. Swope jr. In the latter film, Karloff was supported by Peter Lorre, who also was in Capra's classic. The third time (back in black and white) Karloff appeared in an adaptation of a play was in 1962's Arsenic & Old Lace, with Tony Randall in the Cary Grant role.



RKO-Horrors, Bad Comedies, Botched up Horror Revivals and Indian Chiefs


By the mid-1940's, the horror genre had once again dried out - when film studio RKO and especially producer Val Lewton and director Jacques Tourneur infused the genre with new blood, relieing less on sensationalist plot devices and over-the top narratives than on subtle storytelling and creepy atmosphere - and somehow, Boris Karloff, who was known for his subtle rather than ham performances, was one of the few horror-actors of the old school who managed to adapt to this kind of filmmaking.


Karloff's first film with RKO - and producer Val Lewton - was Robert Wise's The Body Snatcher (1945), according to many critics one of the best Lewton-shockers out there. In the film, which is based on a short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, Karloff plays a cabman who supplies a doctor (Henry Daniell) with corpses for his experiments - and when there are no fresh corpses to be obtained from the graveyard, Karloff just goes around and makes some. Interestingly, Karloff does his killing mainly to save a paralyzed child - which makes the film not at all unlike his earlier The Ape, if only on a story level. By the way, Bela Lugosi [Bela Lugosi bio - click here] is also in The Body Snatcher, but his role is only a minor one. Interestingly though, this was the last film that saw the two actors together.


The Body Snatcher was quickly followed by Isle of the Dead (1945, Mark Robson). In this one, Karloff plays a General visiting an island plagued by ... well, the plague, who is driven half mad by the locals' superstitions about vampirism, and in the end, these superstitions lead to his downfall.


After Isle of the Dead came Bedlam (1946), which was technically not a horror film but a period piece about an especially cruel prison in the 1700's based on engravings by William Hogarth, but still the horror undercurrents could be felt throughout the movie, not only thanks to Boris Karloff in the role of the especially mean cheif warden. However, despite a strong cast including Anna Lee as Karloff's nemesis, and the highest budget of all of Val Lewton's films from that era, Bedlam remains suspiciously flat and is at times even boring.


Bedlam ended Karloff's association with Val Lewton (who in turn quit RKO), but not his association with RKO. Soon, Karloff got a guestspot on the Danny Kaye-comedy The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947, Norman Z. McLeod), and he played the main villain in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947, John Rawlins), the most horror-like film of the Dick Tracy-series. Then Karloff and RKO parted ways as well ...


In the late 1940's, the horror genre had hit rock-bottom once again, so Karloff once again looked for (and found) work in other genres, and some films were more prestigious by far (if not necessarily better) than his usual shockers, like Douglas Sirk's Lured (1947), a story about Lucille Ball (in her pre-I Love Lucy-days) trying to track down a serialkiller with Karloff providing a red herring, and Cecil B. DeMilles Unconquered (1947) and George Marshall's Tap Roots (1948), in both of which he played Indian chieftains.


Tap Roots marked Karloff's (temporary) return to Universal, and the studio soon cast him in a few more horror films, but was apparently undecided if to waste him in weak horror comedies - Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff (1949, Charles Barton) and Abbott and Costello Meet Dr.Jekyll and Mr.Hyde (1953, Charles Lamont) - or to use him to revive the gothic horror genre with two period pieces, The Strange Door (1951, Joseph Pevney) and The Black Castle (1952, Nathan Juran). 

However Universal's attempts to revive the horror genre of old came to naught, as in the 1950's the horror genre had developed into a totally different direction more closely related to science fiction than to gothic traditions, and stars of Karloff's calibre were no longer in demand ...



Television (and more) in the 1950's


The advent of television changed the film industry (especially the B-film industry) to put it slightly. The B-film of old was no more, giving way to drive-in movies that were mainly made to give cheap thrills to teenage couples, and not to support any kind of star system, even if it was merely B-stars. And just like the arrival of sound, this transition cost many (B-)movie stars - first and foremost probably Bela Lugosi - their careers.


Accordingly, Boris Karloff played in only a handful movies during the early 1950's, apart from the above-mentioned there were also the Italian feature Il Mostro dell'Isola/Monster of the Island/The Island Monster (1954, Roberto Bianchi Montero) - despite the monster in the title not a horror film but a movie about smugglers - and Sabaka/The Hindu (1954, Frank Ferrin), an adventure set in India. After those, Karloff wasn't to make another feature film until 1957, but more of that later.


However, Karloff weathered this change of the industry as a whole better than most B-performers, because even though he was first and foremost labelled a horror actor, thanks to his versatility he was able to tackle pretty much any role (within reason of course) - and thus he would play pretty much everything on television from a role in Anton Chekhov's Uncle Vanya in Masterpiece Playhouse (1950) to the title role in CBS Television Workshop's Don Quixote (1952, Sidney Lumet) also starring Grace Kelly, to several appearances in the series Suspense - including 1949's The Monkey's Paw and a turn as Rasputin in 1953's The Black Prophet -, to King Arthur in an episode of the series Studio One - A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1952, Franklin J.Schaffner) as well as the TV-movie A Connecticut Yankee (1955, Max Liebman), to a role in The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (1958, Paul Bogart), an episode of Shirley Temple's Storybook, to Captain Billy Bones in Treasure Island (1960, Daniel Petrie), an episode of The DuPont Show of the Month, and Captain Hook in the TV-movie The Secret World of Eddie Hodges (1960, Norman Jewison).


He also starred as the title character in the British series Colonel March of Scotland Yard in 1954, in which he plays an investigator who specializes in unusual, seemingly supernatural cases, and he hosted and occasionally starred in  the series The Veil (1958) and Thriller (1960-62).

Apart from that there also was an abundance of guest spots on various popular shows of the 1950's and also the 1960's like Schlitz Playhouse of Stars (1952), Robert Montgomery Presents (1951, 53), Tales of Tomorrow (1952, 53), Climax! (1954, 56), Suspicion (1957), Playhouse 90 (1956, 58, 60), The Wild Wild West (1966), The Girl from U.N.C.L.E. (1966) and I Spy (1967).

Karloff's most enduring TV-performance though was in film that he only lent his voice for, the animated Doctor Seuss-adaptation How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966), directed by animation veteran Chuck Jones, in which Karloff both did the narration and voiced the title character.


1957 finally saw Karloff's return to the big screen with Voodoo Island (1957, Reginald Le Borg), a film that seems to have everything to be a trash msterpiece - zombies, voodoo, carnivorous plants, unconvincing natives and obviously fake jungle sets - but falls a few feet short of expectations.


The British Grip of the Strangler/The Haunted Strangler (1958, Robert Day) is an ok period thriller on a budget, made when British horror was on the rise. In the film, Karloff plays a journalist who reexamines the case of the Haymarket Strangler, suspecting that the wrong man had been convicted - but in the end it turns out that Karloff's character himself was the strangler ...


1958 also saw Karloff as Frankenstein - finally, one is tempted to say - but not the monster, the scientist, in the Allied Artists-production Frankenstein - 1970 (1958, Howard W.Koch), but this film is a far cry from the classic Frankensteins he made at Universal, merely a cheaply made blend of horror and science fiction based on an uneven and not-really-thought-through script. Former cowboy star Don 'Red' Barry is also in this one.


Corridors of Blood (1958, Robert Day) was another British produced period piece. In this one, Karloff plays a doctor trying to develop an opium-based anesthetic - but eventually he becomes addicted on his own serum and in consequence has to hook up with a gang of murderers to ensure a constant supply of the needed chemicals, while thr murderers need his signature to sell corpses to the local hospital ...

A young Christopher Lee on the verge of international stardom is also in this one.



No Slowing Down in the 1960's


For Boris Karloff, there was no slowing down in the 1960's, even though he was already in his seventies/early eighties, and his health began to fail. But that didn't affect his performances one bit, and it actually was in the 1960's that he made some of his most popular films.


The early years of the decade, he spent performing on television, but in 1963, he threw in with Roger Corman [Roger Corman bio - click here] and AIP and made his big screen comeback with the horror comedy The Raven (1963, Roger Corman), which also starred Peter Lorre [Peter Lorre bio - click here], a young Jack Nicholson, and of course Vincent Price [Vincent Price bio - click here], since the film was (at least allegedly) based on the poem by Edgar Allan Poe. In the film, Karloff plays an evil magician and the nemesis of benign magician Vincent Price, whose wife (Hazel Court) he has once stolen. More than anything else, the film is a parody of Corman's own Edgar Allan Poe-adaptations - and while the film is not perfect in every aspect, it's at least great fun to watch Price, Lorre and Karloff make fun of their own screen images in a non-embarrassing way.


AIP apparently was quite pleased with the success of The Raven, as it soon enough teamed up Karloff, Price and Lorre for another horror comedy, The Comedy of Terrors (1963, Jacques Tourneur) which also stars Basil Rathbone [Basil Rathbone bio - click here], but somehow this film about two inept graverobbers (Price and Lorre) never manages to quite match the comedic heights of The Raven.


In between these two horror comedies, Karloff made two films that are to this day fondly remembered: First there was The Terror (1963, Roger Corman, Francis Ford Coppola, Monte Hellman, Jack Hill, Jack Nicholson), a period shocker with an almost incomprehensible storyline that was on and off directed by no less than five different men (all of whom have since become big names in one way or another) - and somehow, in this film everything falls together perfectly nevertheless. Jack Nicholson co-stars by the way.


The other film in question was the horror anthology I Tre Volti della Paura/Black Sabbath (1963) by Mario Bava [Mario Bava bio - click here], then a hot young genre director, for which Karloff was on loan from AIP. He plays an Eastern European vampire in the film's middle segment, The Wurdalak, based on a story by Aleksei Tolstoy. Interestingly, for American release, Karloff's episode was moved to the end of the film and Roberto Nicolosi's score was replaced by music by Les Baxter. It might also be worth noticing that Black Sabbath was the only film in which Karloff played a vampire.


In contrast, of at best minor interest might be Bikini Beach (1964, William Asher), 3rd part of Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello's Beach Party-series, in which Karloff does a mere cameo appearance at the end of the film - as did colleagues Vincent Price and Peter Lorre in the previous two entries in the series. Unfortunately, Bikini Beach is very probably the worst and unfunniest of the Beach Party-films.


The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (1966, Don Weis) was not actually part of the Beach Party-series as such (and didn't even feature a beach), but it was very similar in style, and it did feature Harvey Lembeck as Eric Von Zipper, the popular biker character of the Frankie & Annette-films. The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini is headed by Tommy Kirk and Deborah Walley, who get support from (among others) Basil Rathbone [Basil Rathbone bio - click here] and Nancy Sinatra. Karloff plays a corpse in this one who has 24 hours to do a good deed if he wants to become young again ... oh well.


Die, Monster, Die! (1965, Daniel Haller), made right between the Bikini-films, is more serious in tone, one of AIP's H.P.Lovecraft-adaptations - even if the film more closely resembles Roger Corman's Edgar Allan Poe-adaptations in style, which of course is hardly surprising considering Daniel Haller worked as an art director on several of them. The film as a whole though is less then perfect, a not-really-thought-through sci-fi-horror hybrid that above all else is plain dull.


Karloff would return to Lovecraft in 1968 with the British-American co-production Curse of the Crimson Altar (Vernon Sewell), a film also starring Christopher Lee and Barbara Steele [Barbara Steele bio - click here], but not necessarily with better results. In fact, Curse of the Crimson Altar is a very clichéd film about witchcraft not at all helped along by a muddled script that does Lovecraft as such little justice.


The Venetian Affair (1967, Jerry Thorpe) starring Robert Vaughn of The Man from U.N.C.L.E.-fame (a series to which this film despite contrary belief is not related) is Karloff's last ever departure from the horror genre (at least on the big screen). In all, The Venetian Affair is your typical James Bond-rip-off as they were produced in the 1960's a dime a dozen, but at least this film benefits from extensive location shooting in Venice and a better than usual cast, including besides Vaughn and Karloff Elke Sommer, Karlheinz Böhm, Luciana Paluzzi and Edward Asner.


The British film The Sorcerers (1967, Michael Reeves) was a strong reminder that Karloff, despite being by now 80 years of age, was still a force to be reckoned with, as this tale about a couple (Karloff, Catherine Lacey) taking over the mind of a young man (Ian Ogilvy) via machine is one of his best and most memorable films. Interestingly, Karloff doesn't play his usual mad scientist in that one but a brilliant inventor who lets his wife talk him into having a little fun with his mind machine - and when he realizes his wife has sinister motives, it's almost too late.


The Roger Corman-production Targets (1968) [Roger Corman bio - click here], the directorial debut of Peter Bogdanovich, is perhaps even more impressive than The Sorcerers (though that's a matter of taste). In this one, which is basically a modern thriller very much in contrast to Karloff's main body of work, which consists of mostly old school horrors, Karloff plays an ageing horror actor attending the premiere of one of his movies - when a serial killer starts shooting at the audience. The finale is an interesting and carefully orchestrated clash of old school and new school horror, as Karloff the actor approaches the killer to disarm him just as behind the two of them on the big screen Karloff's movie alter ego approaches his victim in the film that is premiering.

Interestingly, the film that has since become a bona fide classic was initially only made because Corman found out that Karloff still owed him a couple of days of shooting and wanted the rest of the film made up from (unused) footage from The Terror and a few scenes with other actors to link the narrative - and since he always had a good instinct for new, talented directors, Corman assigned the project to Peter Bogdanovich ... who totally turned the concept of the film around and who managed to impress Karloff in such a way that Karloff agreed to put in some extra days of acting work without pay.


Some say that Targets would have been a perfect coda for Karloff's career, and he should have quit acting after this since his health was increasingly failing by 1968, when he had contracted a case of pneumonia while filming Curse of the Crimson Altar - which is why he remains wheelchair-bound throughout all of that movie. But Karloff would hear nothing of quitting, and he soon signed on for the Spanish film El Colleccionista de Cadáveres/Cauldron of Blood/Blind Man's Bluff (Santos Alcocer), which wasn't released until 1970, after Karloff's death. Basically the film is a rather average and a bit trashy but somehow enjoyable piece of Eurohorror with Karloff playing a blind sculptor who, unbeknowest to himself, uses the skeletons of his wife's (Viveca Lindfors) murders as armatures for his sculptures.


After finishing Cauldron of Blood, Karloff accepted an assignement from Mexico to shoot his final foursome of movies for the company Azteca to be directed by Juan Ibáñez. However, by that time Karloff was so sick that the doctors forbade him to go to Mexico City because of the altitude, so instead his scenes were shot in Hollywood by Jack Hill and then edited into the Mexican footage. These four films, La Cámara del Terror/Chamber of Fear/Torture Zone, Invasión Siniestra/The Incredible Invasion, La Muerte Viviente/Isle of the Snake People and Serenata Macabra/House of Evil (all 1968, Juan Ibáñez, Jack Hill) are all pretty trashy, badly written and made on the cheap, and they certainly are no appropriate swansong for an actor of Karloff's calibre - but seen outside their historical context, they are also pretty enjoyable (if by no means good in any way) pieces of crap, with Karloff adding just the right kind of colour to the proceedings.

Boris Karloff died in England in early 1969 from emphysema, having just finished filming an episode of The Name of the Game. He has been cremated in Surrey, England and left behind a wife (he was married 6 times in all) and a daughter, Sara (from his fifth marriage).

While mainly playing villains onscreen, it should perhaps be noted that he was a very quiet, timid and cultured man off-screen, a man who contrary to his boogieman-image loved children, who did much charity work, and who was one of the founding members of the Screen Actors Guild back in 1933.



The Legacy


Boris Karloff is an actor to whom time has been good, even after his death. He is one of these horror actors who simply hasn't been forgotten, due to the many classics he made, due to some simply iconic performances (first and foremost of course Frankenstein's Monster), but also of course because of the fine performances he gave even in lesser movies, which he always approached with a certain kind of enthusiasm that easily translated onto the screen. This is probably why books are written on him to this day, and why many of his (even lesser) films have been made readily available first on tape and now on DVD, and why some of his smaller films still sell due to the power of his name alone. And looking back to his filmography it's safe to say that horror would be a different genre without him.


© by Mike Haberfelner

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