Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt on November 23, 1887, in Camberwell in south London. He was born into a large family--he had seven brothers and one step-sister--and had a moderately happy childhood though his father and mother died when he was quite young. Most of his brothers held important positions in the diplomatic corps and spent a good part of each year in foreign countries. But despite their best effort to get him into the consular service William deliberately failed his exams. This plunged him into family disgrace and in those days the black sheep of British families were obligated to emigrate, usually either to Australia or Canada. William flipped a coin and Canada won.
After six months of back-breaking work on a farm in Caledonia he moved to Banff where he tried to get stage work. But there was none available and he found himself helping to dig a racetrack instead. One night he decided tha Pratt wasn't the best of names for an actor and that he should change it to something else. He chose Karloff because it was an old family name on his mother's side; and the name Boris was just an invention. While in Vancouver Karloff visited an agent and told him that he was an experienced actor. He didn't expect the agent to believe him, but several months later Karloff had a job with the Jean Russell Stock Company in Nelson.
In 1917 Karloff joined the cast of the popular Western play The Virginian, playing the part of Trampas. In December of that year the company arrived in Los Angeles. Karloff had no intention of becoming a movie actor, but the great influenza empidemic of 1918 ruined the theatrical business in the West. The only outlet remaining now for an out-of-work actor was the rapidly growing film industry and Karloff appeared before the camera for the first time in a film shot, significantly, at Universal City. One of the people Karloff met while working at Universal City was Lon Chaney Sr. They were both fans of boxing and whenever they met at a match Chaney always had time for a few pleasant words. Those discussions with Chaney gave Karloff the courage to keep trying when the going was far from easy.
The next major event in Karloff's career was when he got a part in the successful play The Criminal Code in New York. Howard Hawks was the director of the film version and it was Karloff's good fortune to be asked to repeat his stage role, that of the convict trusty who is actually a killer. The film resulted in more work for Karloff--he made three pictures in a row at RKO and then four for Warner Bros. In 1931 Karloff went back to Universal Studios for a relatively small part in a film called Graft, and while working on it was noticed by director James Whale. Whale had been fascinated by the shape of Karloff's head and face. Karloff's physique wasn't really suitable for the Monster in his new film but Whale decided that it could be easily altered with padding.
When make-up expert Jack Pierce was satisfied they made the screen test. James Whale was delighted and the production of Frankenstein went ahead as planned. To Karloff it was just another acting assignment, even though Pierce had told him, "This is going to be a big thing." But none of Karloff's previous roles had invovled so much sheer suffering before. The make-up took three and a half hours to apply each day--a long and tedious process. Removing it took less time, but involved a great deal of pain. He was following in Chaney's footsteps in more ways than one.
Unlike Dracula, Frankenstein stands up very well when seen today. James Whale's directing style, which hasn't become as dated as that of some of his contemporaries, is responsible to a large extent. Frankenstein's success prompted Universal, and othe other studios, to try and repeat it, and so the first big horror film cycle was begun. The studio knew they had a good thing on their hands with the actor but they weren't sure what to do with him. While various horror projects were discussed, such as remakes of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and The Phantom of the Opera, Karloff was back playing supporting roles.
Karloff's next horror role was in The Old Dark House (James Whale, 1932), and at the end of the same year he appeared in another classic horror role--that of the Mummy. Actually The Mummy, directed by Karl Freund, wasn't really a horror film, it was more of a fantasy thriller. In 1934 Karloff was teamed with Bela Lugosi for the first time in The Black Cat (Edward G. Ulmer), based on the story by Edgar Allan Poe. In 1935 he made the long-awaited sequel to Frankenstein with The Bride of Frankenstein, again directed by James Whale, and featuring Elsa Lanchester as the monster's mate.
Karloff played the Monster in only one more feature film, Son of Frankenstein (Rowland V. Lee, 1939). With its Expressionistic sets, superb photography by George Robinson, a fairly good script, and memorable performances from Basil Rathbone as Frankenstein, Bela Lugosi as Ygor and Lionel Atwill as the police inspector with the artificial arm, it certainly maintained the high standards set by Whale. (Mel Brooks' affectionate spoof Young Frankenstein, incidentally, is a virtual remake of Son of Frankenstein.) Karloff was more fortunate than Lugosi during the 1930s and his roles tended to be of a higher standard, but the two made several more films together including The Raven (Louis Friedlander, 1935) and The Invisible Ray (Lambert Hillyer, 1936).
In 1940 Karloff's film career began another decline, but in that same year he was offered a part in a Broadway farce called Arsenic and Old Lace and the play was a huge success. Ironically, Karloff didn't appear in the film version (directed by Frank Capra in 1941); instead the part was filled by veteran character actor Raymond Massey. Also in the cast of the film was Peter Lorre (in a role later to be reprised onstage by Bela Lugosi). When he returned to Hollywood in 1944 one of the films he appeared in was The House of Frankenstein directed by Erle C. Kenton. The Monster this time was played by stunt man Glenn Strange while Karloff played a mad doctor.
In 1945 he made the first of three excellent films for producer Val Lewton at RKO. They were The Body Snatcher, Isle of the Dead (also 1945), and Bedlam (1946). These were the best films that Karloff would appear in for many years. He spent the remainder of the 1940s more often on the stage than on the screen. In 1951 Karloff moved from Hollywood to New York and began to make frequent trips back to England. Then in 1959, he moved back to England permanently and during the decade made frequent appearances on television programs like Thriller and the British sci-fi series Out of this World.
1957 saw the start of the third big horror film cycle with the arrival of Hammer Films. Karloff, like Lon Chaney Jr. and others, suddenly found himself back in demand as a horror star, but the quality of his new films left much to be desired. He made a few relatively good horror films in the early 1960s, notably the Roger Corman productions The Raven (1963), Comedy of Terrors (Jacques Tourneur, 1968), and Mario Bava's Black Sabbath (1963). After that the only other film of importance that he made was Targets (1967), the first film directed by Roger Corman's now famous protege Peter Bogdanovich.
Karloff had caught bronchitis during February of 1968 while in California. After completing a contract for four Mexican/American horror films he flew back to England where he was admitted to hospital. Three months later he died on February 2, 1969. The last words on Karloff come from his good friend Robert Bloch: "He was a lovely and charming man. Everyone in the business really loved, respected and admired him and we miss him greatly still."
--JOHN BROSNAN, from
The Horror People.
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A History of Horror
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