THE SOFT SIDE OF BORIS
When I received the honour of being asked to write an article in We Belong Dead about my lifelong ‘hero’ Boris Karloff, I thought, ‘hasn’t everything been said about him already ?’ His fans know that he wasn’t just the most famous HORROR MAN ever, he was also a superb, very versatile motion-picture, stage, TV and radio actor.
And his fans also know that he accepted being typecast : it was his trademark and his calling, although the ‘Uppingham’ alumnus / ex-university student was the antithesis of the Monsters and the Mummies. A perfect British gentleman with class and style, well-educated, well-read, soft-spoken and warm-hearted.
And for the information of any non-fans : 43 years after his death on February 2nd 1969 we can still say, ‘He’s ALIVE !’ Browse the internet and you will see that almost all of his movies can be found on Youtube – and it’s not just the ‘Silver Surfer’ generation that watches them.
When asked how her father himself would react to the ‘long legs of his career’, to still being so famous in 2012, daughter Sara Karloff says in interviews that ‘no one would be more amazed and humbled than him … He would be so appreciative!’
On Facebook there’s an open discussion group called the Boris Karloff Association with lots of members, there’s my very own Boris Karloff Information Centre and my home site A 125th Anniversary Tribute to Boris Karloff. A new book has recently been published : More Than a Monster by my good friend Stephen Jacobs. Three Boris Karloff US post office stamps have been issued – an honour that only US presidents usually receive.
So, I thought I might write about Boris from a ‘female’ point of view (whatever that means !). But it is a fact that there are not too many devoted female Karloff fans around, and perhaps I should sort of speak out for those ladies who really ARE great Boris fans.
And for example – as much as I adore him in horror roles, I don’t particularly like to see this very handsome man permanently photographed with an unsmiling face (he had a sweet smile, look at my photos !) and as ugly as can be, even on candid pics. I mean, we have all seen ‘horror pics’ of ourselves somewhere – but didn’t we throw them away or delete them as fast as we possibly could ??
Well, living in the diaspora of Germany, I was almost 16 years old when I actually saw the first handsome ‘WOW !’ photo of my childhood hero, and from that moment on I couldn’t believe why this gentlemanly matinee idol had been turned into Frankenstein’s Monster and why he – of all actors ! – had to become a ‘master of horror’.
This mystery made me buy all I could find about him – all those biographies, magazine articles, photo books etc etc – because I wanted to know all about him … I wanted to find out about his secrets !
And – you may ask – what is the result of your research, of browsing through all those biographies ? All right, I’ll try and reply to this question as honestly as I can. One of the reasons is not hard to guess of course : William Henry Pratt aka Boris Karloff portrayed monsters, mummies and ghouls to finally make a career after 20 years of starvation.
But why didn’t his breakthrough and success happen earlier, despite his fine acting ? After all, he had all it takes to make a career – talent, looks and ambition. But there was his „tan“, as he liked to call it : his Anglo-Indian heritage.
As for his exotic colouring, Billy / Boris chose to ignore it, saying something like : ‘Too much sun – out of work, you know. A tight collar and plenty of gin.“ Of course, in those racist times – he simply HAD to ignore it.
A grandmother on his paternal side and a great-grandmother on his maternal side had been from India. The motion picture industry made mahogany-skinned Boris play ‘swarthy’ villains. And the good-natured actor did not mind – audiences loved him, especially the kids. He was such a loveable baddie. So, he said ‘a shoemaker should stick to his last’ and kept playing what gave him his trademark ‘on a silver platter’.
But of course, this gentle, sensitive man DID have his problems with his ‘monster- ghoul- murderer’ image, and he spoke about it : in magazine articles, radio comedy shows or in his three surprisingly intellectual anthologies.
For example, in his article ‘Houses I Have Haunted’ for Liberty Magazine (1941) Boris wrote – during the Broadway run of Arsenic and Old Lace – about the effect on his personal life : ‘A monster and a murderer tells all … Secret : He’s really a very mild man !
Being a bogeyman – like baggage smashing and truck driving – is apt to be a rather exhausting occupation. I know, because I’ve tried all three. On the whole, I think I would prefer truck driving were it not for the fact that my current job is apt to be more remunerative. And, of course, you meet the most interesting werewolves !
Nevertheless the Hollywood horror man runs into numerous occupational hazards that have nothing to do with the hours of work or the risk run in actual performance.
There is, for example, one’s social life to consider. Although Hollywood actors have long since come to realize that their private lives are every one’s concern but their own, they have at least the comfort of knowing that their public is certain to be reasonably well disposed toward them. Not so in my case.
For, no matter how pleasant the company in which I find myself, there is always that awkward moment when newcomers become aware of the fact that the quiet, soft-spoken man in the corner is actually Boris Karloff. (The more horrific my current role, the more I tend to modulate my voice off duty.) Nor are hostesses ever quite sure upon what I feed myself while other guests are sipping their whiskey-and-sodas. […]
Nor do I find New Yorkers accepting me with any greater degree of self-assurance than their cousins on the Coast. Even my fellow commuters from South Norwalk, Connecticut, whose composure is shaken neither by missed trains nor by grand-slam bids, are apt to be taken aback on first discovering that the timid gargoyle in the next seat is Boris Karloff. […]
All of which, the reader may surmise, is offered in substantiation of the argument that I am really a mild and harmless sort of fellow who likes his coffee warm and his fruit juice cold ; who enjoys nothing more than puttering around his garden or lying in the sun and reading Joseph Conrad. Which, as a matter of fact, happens to be true, as I could illustrate from now to the last page of Liberty.’
And about the professional aspect of being a horror man Boris said in Memoirs of a Monster (1962) :’While some potential victims have eluded my fangs, claws and other assorted horrors, I myself have found it almost impossible to escape monster roles.’ And you could read in his articles that he admitted not being macho at all, but easily scared (for example suffering from extreme stage fright) and not as bold as on the big screen – only with a drink – but he added, ‘It gives me too much courage !’.
In the ‘Karloff Home Movies’ we see him as a doting father, cuddling his baby daughter Sara Jane, tying her shoelaces, crawling on the ground, playing with the baby and making her laugh. Lots of ‘behind the scenes’ shots show Boris clowning with fellow players and being irresistibly funny. His wry and very British sense of humour is legendary.
Boris’s portrayals of the tragic Frankenstein Monster and of the 3700-year-old Mummy are iconic, and he – whose lifelong work ethic was remarkable (or should we call him a workaholic?) – was proud of them. Those movies are truly immortal, and Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and The Mummy have recently been released on Blu Ray as part of ‘The Universal Monsters Collection’. But he was even prouder of his less commercial work like non-horror theatre roles and quality TV productions.
However he was proudest of risking his brand-new Hollywood career by co-founding the Screen Actors Guild in 1933, which is the largest union of its kind nowadays. And – this proved that he DID have plenty of courage if it was for the benefit of others … !
He loved to support and be helpful. Generally, as an actor, he was not afraid of taking risks : not only did he do his own stunts, but he also carried fellow actor Colin Clive uphill almost all night during the Frankenstein production, to show director James Whale that he had more stamina than Whale.
But why ? It seems there had been an argument between the two of them, the almighty director and the virtually unknown actor, most probably about the cruel scene with the little girl – ‘Monster’ Boris disliked it, he wanted to be gentle to the child. Whale was not happy about this and proceeded to make about three dozen takes of the Monster carrying Frankenstein up the windmill ! His daughter Sara Karloff said later on that this ordeal had ruined her father’s back.
Boris always liked to help fellow actors if he could, and he supported young players : there are so many examples for his long-term assistance in Stephen Jacobs’s biography.
On my website Boris Karloff Information Centre it strikes me that the fans not only love his most horrible makeups, but they also adore the photos showing the (much-divorced) actor as a stunningly handsome man. My mind boggles : could Boris have had a romantic career as well – like Cary Grant or Clark Gable ?
There are movie stills of him as young Imhotep embracing his Anck-es-en-Amun (Zita Johann).
There are fleeting hugs with his on-screen wives, as in The Devil Commands. Not too many embraces though : in lots of films he has a daughter and no wife. But in none of his movies we see Boris ‘really’ kissing a girl.
Instead, there’s this rather odd radio show called Truth or Consequences (1948) where a woman candidate has to guess who a heavily bearded and dressed up Boris is – she has to kiss him to find out – and promptly thinks that ‘these lips’ could only be her husband’s. And in the radio show Time to Smile (1941) he claims being ‘Cuddles Karloff’. Just for a laugh, just kidding – but I guess there was more than just a bit of truth in it.
So what type of a romantic hero would he have been ? I could imagine him playing a modern man (he always was a modern actor as well, with hardly any ‘old school acting’), pretending to be tough, but being gentle, good-natured and warm on the inside. With a soft heart, a noble soul and a practical mind.
A pity that Boris was never given that chance. From what I know about him, he would not have turned the role down, he would most certainly have tried it. And – he would have been damn good at it !
Pretty rare in his canon as well : sexual innuendo. The Black Cat (1934), a pre-Hays Code motion picture, was an exception. The set is full of phallic symbols, and Karloff’s Hjalmar Poelzig seems to be fascinated by necrophilia : he worships dead women in glass showcases. Looks at them longingly, while he’s stroking a black cat’s fur …
And his next victim is going to be Joan Alison, on a honeymoon with her husband and only accidentally at the architect’s fashionable home. How he leers at her – so much so, that she covers her cleavage with her hands. He clutches a naked woman’s statue : openly showing what’s going on in his mind. He’s shown stroking a queen chess figure with one obscenely outstretched finger, while playing a deadly game of chess with Bela Lugosi’s Dr. Werdegast.
Poelzig is seen sharing a double bed with his former wife’s young daughter, he lies down next to her, his own body clad in a skin-tight jumpsuit, he caresses her face on the bed …
And later on we keep wondering : what is this satanist going to do to his new victim Joan when she’s sacrificed during the ‘Black Mass’ ? Phallic symbols abound, and when the mass is celebrated, Poelzig wears such a symbol round his neck.
From the first moment to the very last in The Black Cat, Hjalmar is an obsessed pervert, sexually charged with evil desire. And Boris was extremely credible in this unusual role. But unfortunately, this was NOT a gentle or soft role at all.
The question is : how credible would he have been in a lover’s role, as a ‘leading man’ – not just showing his erotic side, but displaying genuine emotion, warmth, heart-felt love, his soft side ? To my mind, Boris would have been a fine romantic hero. Or, for example, why didn’t anyone hit on the idea of making him some handsome guy falling in love with another man’s wife ? That way, he could have stayed a ‘baddie’ !
His roles in films like The Deadlier Sex (1920, Boris as brutal macho Jules Borney), Dynamite Dan (1924, portraying a pretty bad-mannered villain & skirt chaser), The Nickel Hopper (1926, with Boris playing a ‘dancehall masher’) or Five Star Final (1931, with him as the womanising “Reverend” T. Vernon Isopod) do not count, as those parts are either sleazy or violent or both. And Boris was not allowed to be a leading man, could not display any soft side there.
But – as Boris said in Memoirs of a Monster (1962) : ‘On rare occasions I have managed to stay out of character : as jovial Father Knickerbocker in a Shirley Temple Storybook television show; as a wise Seneca chief in Cecil B. De Mille’s Unconquered; and in my favourite role of the kindly Gramps in On Borrowed Time in stock – but even then I felt that the audience was waiting for me to unmask and exterminate the rest of the cast.’
Boris was a modest man : he could have mentioned so many more non-horror roles – even on the big screen, like the nearly blind and very gentle Dave Mallory in Night Key, the soft-spoken, mild-mannered Professor Billings in The Boogie Man Will Get You, the sympathetic, heroic Dr. Gaudet in Devil’s Island, the long-suffering Jevries in The Invisible Menace.
Not to mention innumerable radio and TV shows where he gladly spoofed the ghastly image of ‘Boris Karloff, a name synonymous with horror’. Plus his wonderful recordings of Rudyard Kipling stories, Grimm’s Fairy Tales, Mother Goose nursery rhymes, Aesop’s Fables … On the radio he portrayed Shakespeare’s King Cymbeline. Boris had a beautiful voice – and he could lend it to the most amazing characters.
On Broadway – after his legendary success in Arsenic and Old Lace (1941- 44) where he played mass murderer Jonathan Brewster 1444 times and after a hit version of Peter Pan (1950) with him in the dual role of Captain Hook and Mr. Darling – it was Jean Anouilh’s The Lark that allowed him to play his most amazing out of character role ever, the gentle and soft-hearted Bishop Pierre Cauchon. For this brilliant performance Boris received a ‘Best Actors’ Tony nomination for 1955.
And of course – Boris performed the title role and narrated the story of the famous cartoon How The Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) which will forever remain in people’s minds : like the immortal, iconic Monster and the Mummy. In 1967 he received the famous Grammy award for his recording of The Grinch.
In director Peter Bogdanovich’s excellent debut film – the thriller Targets (1968) – Boris played himself, the aging Hollywood star Byron Orlok . A straight role of course, and he could demonstrate his ‘soft side’ as well. The film is currently included as one of 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die – like Frankenstein (1931), Scarface (1932), The Black Cat (1934) and Bride of Frankenstein (1935).
Boris was always extremely active for Charity as well – up to this day, ‘The Boris Karloff Charitable Trust’ helps young players and sportspeople, refurbishes old churches, to name just a few of the activities.
As it is almost Christmas while I’m writing this, I don’t want to forget his annual appearance as Santa Claus for sick or handicapped children. He simply excelled in that role : with his lovely, warm-hearted smile.
Well, Boris Karloff has always been a children’s favourite all over the world – it was they who understood his poor, abused Monster characters immediately. And he himself adored kids, loved to read fairy tales to them.
75-year-old Boris summed it up : ‘It is not true that I was born a monster – Hollywood made me one. That was thirty-one years ago, and I have lived accordingly ever since… If I stroll into the garden, spade in hand, the postman is almost certain to quip, ‘Disposing of another body, Mr. Karloff ?’ Groucho Marx’s standard greeting to me is, ‘How much do you charge to haunt a house ?’ Bright young advertising men are forever soliciting testimonials from me for such things as devil’s food cake …’
But then he added, ‘I have always been a happy monster.’ And that, I think, was why he did not mind being a Horror Man.
Author : Rhonda Steerer (*1953), language teacher.
– Boris Karloff Information Centre
– A 125th Anniversary Tribute to Boris Karloff