Boris Karloff: The Man as Monster

Today, I'm writing about the monsters played by Boris Karloff in the horror films of the 1930s. The photo above shows Karloff as Frankenstein's monster in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935).

This article is part of the 2016 Summer Under the Stars Blogathon hosted by Journeys in Classic Film.

"The monster was the best friend I ever had," -- Boris Karloff

Horror icon Boris Karloff is rarely mentioned as one of old Hollywood's great actors, but his performances in several thirties chillers show an artist of great sensitivity and accomplishment. While Karloff's friend and frequent costar Bela Lugosi provided campy thrills as Dracula and Claude Rains and Fredric March brought their theatrical background to horror roles, Karloff -- playing everything from a misshapen scientific experiment in the Frankenstein films to a lovelorn ancient Egyptian in The Mummy (1932) -- gave his monsters a rare humanity. Today, I'm writing about four of Karloff's films that will be featured during TCM's Summer Under the Stars film festival on Friday (8-26), but, first, here's a little background.

Karloff was born William Henry Pratt on Nov. 23, 1887, in London as the youngest of nine children in a prominent diplomatic family. Karloff's mother died when he was young and he grew up as a shy, quiet boy with a stutter. Karloff briefly flirted with a diplomatic career, but after a few semesters at King's College in London, he gave up on those ambitions and headed for Canada where he worked a series of odd jobs as an itinerant farm worker and railway baggage handler (the heavy physical labor required by these jobs left Karloff with back problems that would plague him throughout his life).

Karloff drifted into acting, where he appeared in several theaters in the Western Canadian provinces and the Midwestern U.S. (at this time, Karloff changed his name to avoid embarrassing his family). Karloff eventually went to Hollywood, and while he got a few parts in silent movies, his career really took off with the arrival of sound. Karloff had meaty supporting parts in the World War I drama, The Lost Patrol (1934), the gangster saga, Scarface: The Shame of the Nation (1932), and the newspaper film, Five Star Final (1931), but he became an international superstar thanks to his performances in the horror genre, which was wildly popular in the early 1930s.

Frankenstein's monster in Frankenstein (1931), dir. James Whale

Karloff only got the role of Frankenstein's monster after Lugosi, who was then Universal Pictures reigning horror star, turned the role down (Lugosi always fancied himself a suave ladies man, and he was reportedly unhappy with the unattractive makeup and grunting dialogue). Instead, director James Whale turned to Karloff, who brought his usual professionalism and good humor to the film. Karloff worked closely with legendary makeup artist Jack Pierce to create the monster's iconic look and while Karloff's physical appearance must have terrified audiences (the Frankenstein monster is such an unavoidable part of pop culture that it's difficult to remember that in 1931 no one had ever seen anything remotely like it), but his demeanor was even more strange. The monster's brute strength makes him a highly effective killing machine, but the creature -- who is made from spare body parts of criminals -- also longs for a human connection, which is emphasized in the poignant scene where he and an innocent little girl play with flowers. TCM at 8 p.m. Aug. 26 and 8 p.m. Oct. 2. It is also available on DVD, Blu-ray and video on demand.

Imhotep in The Mummy (1932), dir. Karl Freund

Frankenstein was a massive hit so Universal president Carl Laemmle came up with another monster for Karloff that was based on the supposed curse on the Pharaoh Tutankhamen's tomb. In The Mummy, Karloff plays ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep, who comes back to life after a British explorer (Arthur Byron) inadvertently recites an ancient incantation. Karloff worked closely again with Pierce to create Imhotep's makeup, but his performance is a complete 180 from his monosyllabic turn as Frankenstein's monster. In fact, Karloff is simply brilliant as Imhotep. He has the advantage of using his imposing baritone voice to intone lines like "my love has lasted longer than the temples of our gods," but he also uses his whole body to convey the impression of someone who is both extremely dignified and very ancient. TCM at 11 p.m. Aug. 26 and 9:30 p.m. Oct. 28. DVD, Blu-ray, and video on demand.

Fu Manchu in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), dir. Charles Brabin

Karloff was loaned out to MGM for a film about the evil genius Fu Manchu's attempts to get his taloned hands on the powerful ancient relics of the warlord Genghis Khan. Fu was already a popular film character: there had been several silent films and Warner Oland had played the character in three Paramount movies. Despite its ugly racial stereotypes, The Mask of Fu Manchu is mostly campy fun, especially Myrna Loy as Fu's man-hungry daughter and Charles Starrett as a brave, but somewhat dim-witted explorer (if there was a prize for asking obvious questions, Starrett's character would win in a walk). Karloff, who is layered in tons of terrible makeup, actually manages to give a good performance. He gives the character a good dose of campy humor, but Fu is also a dignified and proud man who doesn't want his country's heritage to end up in a British Museum. As Loy said in an interview quoted in the TCM database, "Boris was a fine actor, a professional who never condescended to his often unworthy material." TCM at 10:15 a.m. Aug. 26. Video on demand.

Frankenstein's monster in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), dir. James Whale

Despite Karloff's reluctance, it was inevitable that Universal would team he, Whale, and company for a sequel to Frankenstein, which was one of the top moneymakers of the sound era. This time around the monster is on the run after almost being killed by angry locals, while Dr. Frankenstein (Colin Clive) is lured back into the world of human experiments by his former university professor, Dr. Pretorius (Ernest Thesiger). While Dr. Pretorius and Elsa Lanchester as the monster's bride provide a great deal of campy chills, Karloff gives a beautifully modulated performance that is among the best in thirties cinema. The monster is now aware that he is a freak, and, after a brief respite with a blind hermit (O.P. Heggie), he is hunted down by an increasingly hostile world. When the monster says, "we belong dead" in the final scene, it is a heartrending moment. TCM at 9:30 p.m. Aug. 26, 9:30 p.m. Oct. 2, and 9:15 a.m. Nov. 12. DVD, Blu-ray, and video on demand.