Boris Karloff: Picturesque ingenuity

“I am a very lucky man. Here I am in my 80th year, and I am still able to earn my bread and butter at my profession. I am one of that very small family of the human race who happens to thoroughly enjoy his work. If I didn’t enjoy it, I wouldn’t go on” -Boris Karloff8

In celebration of the English actor Boris Karloff (November 23rd, 1887-February 2nd, 1969), with whom I’m honored to pay a tribute to on what would have been his 124th birthday today, I would like to offer you an insightful glimpse into the life & film career of one of Hollywood’s most respected, talented, charismatic and impassioned individuals to have ever graced the silver screen. What can I say about someone who has given so many classic movie lovers the classic films that we’ve loved and appreciated for generations like 1931’s Frankenstein? Though this may just be the film that most will always associate with him, to me I feel that he achieved an even greater success by portraying characters against type (more on that later); sometimes being just a classic horror icon can have its ups and downs, but whatever classic film role Boris Karloff characterized on the silver screen he performed it with finesse, class, maturity, depth, soul, passion and unparalleled humility. During his 60 year film career, Boris Karloff has appeared in over 90 films and countless television appearances and yet was never nominated for an Academy Award–though I believe that he gained a deeper level of respect and ardent appreciation that did not require a golden statuette. 14 of his classic films I’ve had the immense pleasure of viewing: Frankenstein (1931) starring Colin Clive, Mae Clarke and John Boles, Scarface (also from 1931) w/ Paul Muni, Ann Dvorak, George Raft & Osgood Perkins (father of Psycho star Anthony Perkins), The Ghoul (1933) starring Sir Cedric Hardwicke and Ralph Richardson, The Lost Patrol (1934) w/Victor McLaglen, Wallace Ford, Reginald Denny & Alan Hale Sr, The Black Room (1935) starring Marian Marsh, Henry Kolker and Katherine DeMille, The Walking Dead (1936) w/Ricardo Cortez, Edmund Gwenn, Barton MacLane & Henry O’Neill, West of Shanghai (1937) starring again Ricardo Cortez along with Beverly Roberts and Vladimir Sokoloff, You’ll Find Out (1940) w/Kay Kyser as himself, Peter Lorre, Bela Lugosi, Peter Lorre & Dennis O’Keefe, The Body Snatcher (1945) starring Bela Lugosi, Edith Atwater and Henry Daniell, Isle of the Dead (also from 1945) w/Alan Napier, Ellen Drew & Jason Robards Sr, Lured (1947) starring George Sanders, Lucille Ball, Charles Coburn, Alan Mowbray and Joseph Calleia, The Terror (1963) w/ Jack Nicholson, Sandra Knight & Dick Miller, Die, Monster, Die! (1965) starring Nick Adams, Freda Jackson and Patrick Magee, and finally my perennial animated television favorite How the Grinch Stole Christmas! (1966) where he provides the narrator’s memorable voice as well as the incomparable vocal talents to the main character…..The mean old Grinch!! In addition to the countless of his classic films, I’ve also enjoyed watching him in the 1960s U.S. anthology TV series Thriller where he was hosting (and sometimes guest starring) the classic TV show from the Golden Age of Hollywood that introduced the classic film world to a mix of macabre tales and suspenseful thrillers!6


He was born William Henry Pratt on November 23rd, 1887 at 36 Forest Hill Road, East Dulwich, London, England, where a blue plaque can now be seen. His parents were Edward John Pratt, Jr. and Eliza Sarah Millard. His paternal grandparents were Edward John Pratt, an Anglo-Indian, and Eliza Julia (Edwards) Pratt, a sister of Anna Leonowens (whose tales about life in the royal court of Siam (now Thailand) were the basis of the musical The King and I). The two sisters were also of Anglo-Indian heritage. He was the youngest of nine children, and following his mother’s death was raised by his elder siblings. He later attended Enfield Grammar School before moving to Uppingham School and Merchant Taylors’ School, and went on to attend King’s College London where he studied to go into the consular service. He dropped out in 1909 and worked as a farm laborer and did various odd jobs until he happened into acting. His brother, Sir John Thomas Pratt, became a distinguished British diplomat. Karloff was bow-legged, had a lisp, and stuttered as a young boy. He conquered his stutter, but not his lisp, which was noticeable all through his career. In 1909, Pratt traveled to Canada and began appearing in stage shows throughout the country; and sometime later changed his professional name to “Boris Karloff”. Some have theorized that he took the stage name from a mad scientist character in the novel The Drums of Jeopardy called “Boris Karlov”. However, the novel was not published until 1920, at least eight years after Karloff had been using the name on stage and in silent films (Warner Oland played “Boris Karlov” in a movie version in 1931). Another possible influence was thought to be a character in the Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy novel H.R.H. The Rider which features a “Prince Boris of Karlova”, but as the novel was not published until 1915, the influence may be backward, that Burroughs saw Karloff in a play and adapted the name for the character. Karloff always claimed he chose the first name “Boris” because it sounded foreign and exotic, and that “Karloff” was a family name. However, his daughter Sara Karloff publicly denied any knowledge of Slavic forebears, “Karloff” or otherwise. One reason for the name change was to prevent embarrassment to his family. Whether or not his brothers (all dignified members of the British foreign service) actually considered young William the “black sheep of the family” for having become an actor, Karloff himself apparently worried they did feel that way. He did not reunite with his family until 1933, when he went back to England to make The Ghoul, extremely worried that his siblings would disapprove of his new, macabre claim to world fame. Instead, his elder brothers jostled for position around their “baby” brother and happily posed for publicity photographs with him. Karloff joined the Jeanne Russell Co. in 1911 and performed in towns like Kamloops, BC and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. On June 30th 1912, a then-unknown Karloff had taken some time off to canoe while touring around the city of Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada. When he came back to the city, he returned to find his accommodation had been destroyed by a tornado that killed 28. He organized a concert that raised some much needed funds for the city. After the devastating Regina, Saskatchewan, Regina Cyclone of June 30th, 1912, Karloff and other performers helped with cleanup efforts. He later took a job as a railway baggage handler and joined the Harry St. Clair Co. that performed in Minot, North Dakota, for a year, in an opera house above a hardware store. Due to the years of difficult manual labor in Canada and the U.S. while trying to establish his acting career, he suffered back problems for the rest of his life. Because of his health, he did not fight in World War I. Once Karloff arrived in Hollywood, he adopted the stage name Boris Karloff and made dozens of silent films, but work was sporadic and during these early stages of his career he was mostly left in obscurity. Boris often had to take up manual labor such as digging ditches and driving a cement truck to earn a living. A number of his early major roles were in movie serials, such as The Masked Rider (1919), in Chapter 2 of which he can be glimpsed onscreen for the first time, The Hope Diamond Mystery (1920) and King of the Wild (1930). In these early roles he was often cast as an exotic Arabian or Indian villain. By 1919, Karloff found regular work as an extra at Universal Studios. Karloff’s first significant hit film was in Howard Hawks’ The Criminal Code (1931) which was a key film that brought Karloff recognition. The Criminal Code was a prison drama in which he reprised a dramatic part he had played on stage. Another significant role in the fall of 1931 saw Karloff play a key supporting part as an unethical newspaper reporter in Five Star Final, a harshly critical film about tabloid journalism which was nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture of 1931-32. Boris Karloff appeared in 80 films before his breakthrough role in a classic horror film which not only made him a star, but sealed his immortality as a classic horror legend, as the Monster (unaccredited in the beginning) in James Whale’s pre-Code horror classic Frankenstein (1931)12
Karloff was captivating, harrowing and deeply poignant portraying The Monster in Frankenstein after Bela Lugosi refused to play the part, making his subsequent career possible and graced the silver screen with cinematic craftsmanship and masterful brilliance. Director James Whale also considered casting Karloff for the iconic role as the Monster in the film. Karloff was a charter member of the Screen Actors Guild, and was especially outspoken regarding working conditions on sets that actors were expected to deal with in the mid-1930s, some of which were extremely hazardous. In 1931, Boris Karloff took out insurance against premature aging that might be caused by his fright make-up. His popularity following Frankenstein was such that for a brief time he was billed simply as “Karloff” or “Karloff the Uncanny.” Karloff played Frankenstein’s monster in two other films, Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939), with the latter also featuring Lugosi. He celebrated his 51st birthday during the production of Son of Frankenstein and remarked that he received the best birthday present ever: the birth of his daughter Sara Karloff. He reportedly rushed from the set to the hospital in full makeup and costume; Karloff would revisit the Frankenstein mythos in film several times afterward. The first would be as the villainous Dr. Niemann in House of Frankenstein (1944), where Karloff would be contrasted with Glenn Strange’s portrayal of The Monster. The bulky costume with four inch platform boots made it an arduous role but the costume and torturously administered make-up produced the classic image. Karloff actually played Frankenstein’s creation only three times–once in the original Frankenstein (1931), again in Bride of Frankenstein and finally in Son of Frankenstein. He played Dr. Frankenstein only once, when he returned to the role of the “mad scientist” in 1958’s Frankenstein 1970, as Baron Victor von Frankenstein II, the grandson of the original inventor. The finale reveals that the crippled Baron has given his own face (i.e. Karloff’s) to The Monster. The actor appeared at a celebrity baseball game as The Monster in 1940, hitting a gag home run and making catcher Buster Keaton fall into an acrobatic dead faint as The Monster stomped into home plate. Norman Z. McLeod filmed a sequence in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty with Karloff in The Monster make-up, but it was deleted. Karloff donned the headpiece and neck bolts for the final time in 1962 for a Halloween episode of the TV series Route 66, but he was playing “Boris Karloff,” who, within the story, was playing “The Monster.” A year later, Karloff played another iconic character, Imhotep in The Mummy which was quickly followed by The Old Dark House with Charles Laughton and the star role in The Mask of Fu Manchu. These films all very much confirmed his newfound stardom.4


The 5’11” (1.8 m) brown-eyed Karloff played a wide variety of roles in other genres besides horror. He was memorably gunned down in a bowling alley in the 1932 film Scarface. He played a religious World War I soldier in the 1934 John Ford epic The Lost Patrol. Karloff gave a string of lauded performances in 1930s Universal horror movies, including several with his main rival for heir to Lon Chaney, Sr.’s horror throne, Béla Lugosi. While the long, creative partnership between Karloff and Lugosi never led to a close mutual friendship, it produced some of the actors’ most revered and enduring productions, beginning with The Black Cat. Along with fellow actors Lon Chaney, Bela Lugosi and Vincent Price, Boris Karloff is recognized as one of the true icons of horror cinema Follow-ups included Gift of Gab (1934), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936), Black Friday (1940), You’ll Find Out (also 1940), and The Body Snatcher (1945). During this period, he also starred with Basil Rathbone in Tower of London (1939). From 1945 to 1946, Karloff appeared in three films for RKO produced by Val Lewton: Isle of the Dead, The Body Snatcher and Bedlam. In a 1946 interview with Louis Berg of the Los Angeles Times, Karloff discussed his three-picture deal with RKO, his reasons for leaving Universal Pictures and working with producer Lewton. Karloff left Universal because he thought the Frankenstein franchise had run its course. The latest installment was what he called a “‘monster clambake,’ with everything thrown in — Frankenstein, Dracula, a hunchback and a ‘man-beast’ that howled in the night. It was too much. Karloff thought it was ridiculous and said so.” Berg continues, “Mr. Karloff has great love and respect for Mr. Lewton as the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul.”bodysnatch2

During this period, Karloff was also a frequent guest on radio programs, whether it was starring in Arch Oboler’s Chicago-based Lights Out productions (most notably the episode “Cat Wife”) or spoofing his horror image with Fred Allen or Jack Benny. An enthusiastic performer, he returned to the Broadway stage in the original production of Arsenic and Old Lace in 1941, in which he played a homicidal gangster enraged to be frequently mistaken for Karloff. Although 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 reprised the role on television with Tony Randall and Tom Bosley in a 1962 production on the Hallmark Hall of Fame. Somewhat less successful was his work in the J. B. Priestley play The Linden Tree. He also appeared as Captain Hook in the play Peter Pan with Jean Arthur. He was nominated for a Tony Award for his work opposite Julie Harris in The Lark, by the French playwright Jean Anouilh about Joan of Arc, which was also reprised on Hallmark Hall of Fame. Karloff spent the remainder of the 1930s continuing to work at an incredible pace, but progressively more into less financially successful films. Karloff starred in a few acclaimed Val Lewton produced horror films of the 1940s and by the mid-1950s, he was a familiar presence on television hosting his own series including Thriller and The Veil and guest starring on such variety programs as The Donald O’Connor Show. What’s really more impressive about the actor that I’m paying tribute to today was the fact that although he played many sinister characters on screen, Karloff was known in real life as a very kind gentleman who gave generously, especially to children’s charities. Beginning in 1940, Karloff dressed up as Santa Claus every Christmas to hand out presents to physically disabled children in a Baltimore hospital. He was renowned as a refined, kind and warm-hearted gentleman, with a sincere affection for children and their welfare and also made many publications for the children’s market included Three Little Pigs and Other Fairy Stories, Tales of the Frightened (volumes 1 and 2), Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories and, with Cyril Ritchard and Celeste Holm, Mother Goose Nursery Rhymes, and Lewis Carroll’s The Hunting of the Snark. During the 1950s Karloff appeared on British TV in the series Colonel March of Scotland Yard, in which he portrayed John Dickson Carr’s fictional detective Colonel March who was known for solving apparently impossible crimes. Karloff, along with H. V. Kaltenborn, was a regular panelist on the NBC game show, Who Said That? which aired between 1948 and 1955. Later, as a guest on NBC’s The Gisele MacKenzie Show, Karloff sang “Those Were the Good Old Days” from Damn Yankees, while Gisele MacKenzie performed the solo, “Give Me the Simple Life”. On The Red Skelton Show, Karloff guest starred along with horror actor Vincent Price in a parody of Frankenstein, with Red Skelton as the monster “Klem Kadiddle Monster.” In 1966, Karloff also appeared with Robert Vaughn and Stefanie Powers in the spy series The Girl from U.N.C.L.E., in the episode “The Mother Muffin Affair.” Karloff performed in drag as the titular Mother Muffin. That same year he also played an Indian Maharajah on the adventure series The Wild Wild West (“The Night of the Golden Cobra”). Karloff is also heard as the narrator of Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra under Mario Rossi. The performance from the LP era is still available as a CD. Boris also received a Tony nomination in 1956 for his dramatic role in ‘The Lark.’ In contrast to the image he presented in most of his films, the private Karloff was, by every account, a quiet, bookish man off- screen. A true gentleman, he had many friends, both in and out of show business, and he was particularly fond of children. For the latter, among other things, he recorded many successful albums of children’s stories. His favorite author was the Polish born English novelist Joseph Conrad. In the 1950s he was cast as Kurtz in a production of Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” on “Playhouse 90” (1956). Also in 1955: He was a celebrity contestant on “The $64,000 Question”. The category he chose was children’s fairy tales. He won the $32,000 level and quit due to tax considerations. Despite living and working in the United States for many years, Karloff never became a naturalized American citizen, and he never legally changed his name to “Boris Karloff.” He signed official documents “William H. Pratt, a.k.a. Boris Karloff.” In the 1960s, Karloff was a fixture at Roger Corman’s American International Pictures appearing in several films, like Die, Monster, Die!(1963) and The Terror (also from 1963). In later years, Karloff hosted and acted in a number of television series, most notably Thriller, Out of This World, and The Veil, the last of which was never broadcast and only came to light in the 1990s. He was also featured in Michael Reeves’ second feature film The Sorcerers (1966). In 1966, Boris Karloff’s career skyrocketed to new heights when he cemented his legendary status in a memorable holiday classic that would become a year round animated favorite for countless classic movie lovers:9
Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas helped Karloff gain a late-career surge of American popularity when he narrated the made-for-television animated film and also provided the voice of the Grinch, although the song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch” was sung by American voice actor Thurl Ravenscroft. Karloff later received a Grammy Award in the spoken word category after the story was released as a record. Because Ravenscroft was unaccredited for his contribution to How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, his performance of the song was often mistakenly attributed to Karloff. In 1967, he played an eccentric Spanish professor who thinks he’s Don Quixote in a whimsical episode of I Spy (“Mainly on the Plains”). In 1968 he starred in his final American film Targets, a movie directed by Peter Bogdanovich about a young man who embarks on a spree of killings carried out with handguns and high powered rifles. The movie starred Karloff as retired horror film actor, Byron Orlok, a thinly disguised version of himself—facing an end of life crisis, resolved through a confrontation with the shooter. He was married six times and had one child, daughter Sara Karloff, by his fifth wife Dorothy Stine.11


He lived out his final years at his cottage, ‘Roundabout,’ in the Hampshire village of Bramshott. After a long battle with arthritis and emphysema, he contracted pneumonia, succumbing to it in King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, Sussex, England and on February 2nd, 1969, the classic film world lost a genuine impassioned legend when Boris Karloff passed away @ the age of 81. He was cremated, following a requested low-key service, at Guildford Crematorium, Godalming, Surrey, where he is commemorated by a plaque in the Garden of Remembrance. A memorial service was held at St Paul’s, Covent Garden (The Actors’ Church), London, where there is also a plaque. However, even death could not put an immediate halt to Karloff’s media career. Four low-budget Mexican horror films: The Snake People, The Incredible Invasion, The Fear Chamber, and House of Evil for which Karloff shot his scenes in Los Angeles were released over a two-year period after he had died. This was a package deal with Mexican producer Luis Vergara. Karloff’s scenes were directed by Jack Hill and shot back to back in Los Angeles in the spring of 1968. The films were then completed in Mexico. All four were released posthumously, with the last, The Incredible Invasion, not released until 1971, two years after Karloff’s death. They were dismissed, by critics and fans alike, as undistinguished efforts. Cauldron of Blood, shot in Spain in 1967 and starring Karloff and Viveca Lindfors, was also released after Karloff’s death. Karloff recorded the title role of Shakespeare’s Cymbeline for the Shakespeare Recording Society (Caedmon Audio). The recording was originally published in 1962. It is very rare today, although a download of it is available from Also, during the run of Thriller, Karloff lent his name and likeness to a comic book for Gold Key Comics based upon the series. After Thriller was cancelled, the comic was retitled Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery. An illustrated likeness of Karloff continued to introduce each issue of this publication for nearly a decade after the real Karloff died; the comic lasted until the early 1980s. For his contribution to film and television, Boris Karloff was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 1737 Vine Street for motion pictures, and 6664 Hollywood Boulevard for television. Karloff was featured by the U.S. Postal Service as Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy in its series “Classic Monster Movie Stamps” issued in September 1997. In 2010, writer and actor Mark Gatiss interviewed Sara Karloff about her father’s career for his BBC documentary series A History of Horror. On January 24th , 2011 a new, authorized, biography – Boris Karloff: More Than a Monster by Stephen Jacobs – was published in the UK by Tomahawk Press. The book was published in Canada and the U.S. on March 14th, 2011. The Batman villain Clayface (aka Basil Karlo) was inspired by Boris Karloff and his career. Boris Karloff was much more than the classic horror film actor so many of us recognized as the Monster in the pre-Code classic Frankenstein; he truly was an incredibly gifted, versatile, humbled, empathetic, compassionate, generous, kind, understanding, gentle, captivating, benevolent, impassioned, wondrous, ardent, good natured and enigmatic human being who gave so much and had a big heart to prove it. He cared so much about so many, yet his actions truly spoke louder than his words. With his heavy eyebrows & deep, distinctive smooth voice, Boris Karloff has delivered that unique cinematic intensity time after time….along with Vincent Price, Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela Lugosi and many others, he has become one of my favorite classic film artists of Hollywood’s Golden Age and for that I’m very grateful that his presence has grace the silver screen and the countless hearts of classic film lovers for generations to come!


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