Sunday, July 25, 2010

November 29, 2009: 20 Things You May Not Have Known About Boris Karloff

Well, today is the final day of , Frankensteinia’s Boris Karloff Blog-a-Thon , and as I’m certain that you’ve been stuffing your brains with Karloff information all week, it’s time to set the primers aside and get down to the obscure minutia. By the time you’ve reached the end of 20 Things You May Not Have Known About Boris Karloff, you can consider yourself a genuine Karloff scholar.



1. Born William Henry Pratt, Boris Karloff was typecast as a nasty ghoul at an exceedingly early age. His very first performance was the Demon King in a school play of Cinderella.

2. Boris Karloff was bow-legged, a condition caused by a bout of rickets, a childhood bone disease that causes softening of the bones.

3. Following his feature debut as an extra in the 1916 silent film The Dumb Girl of Portici, Boris Karloff acted in 76 films before finally achieving his breakthrough success with Frankenstein in 1931. Fourteen of those films were released in ‘31 alone.

4. During a 1935 interview, Bela Lugosi, who was originally slotted to play the Frankenstein Monster, claimed producer Carl Laemmle, Jr., agreed to release him from the film if he could find a replacement actor. Lugosi then claimed that he scouted acting agencies until he found Karloff, and Laemmle hired the brooding Brit on his recommendation. Director James Whale's boyfriend, David Lewis, claimed he recommended Karloff after seeing the actor play a convict in the gangster picture The Criminal Kind. The truth is no one knows the exact circumstances behind Karloff's hiring.

5. While James Whale and Universal’s makeup wizard Jack Pierce deserve the bulk of the credit for the appearance of the Frankenstein Monster, Boris Karloff made two vital contributions to the celebrated creep: he suggested the heavy-lidded eyes after seeing Pierce’s original design and deciding the monster looked too alive, and he removed the bridgework in the right side of his mouth to create a hollow-cheeked appearance, which Pierce further emphasized with dark makeup.

6. Despite the Frankenstein Monster’s status as cinema’s most famous heavy, Karloff once remarked that much of the fan mail he received was from folks who wanted to offer the Monster “help and friendship.” According to David J. Skal’s book Screams of Reason: Mad Science and Modern Culture, Karloff described this as “one of the most moving experiences of my life.”

7. In 1933, writer/director Robert Florey suggested a film called The Wolf Man as a starring vehicle for Boris Karloff. Of course, the film would not emerge until 1941, with Curt Siodmak writing, George Waggner directing, and Lon Chaney, Jr., starring.

8. According to James Curtis's biography of James Whale, Karloff nearly played another classic Universal monster in ‘33. Laemmle had his sights on Mr. Uncanny to play The Invisible Man, but the deal disappeared when Karloff asked him to make good on his promise to raise Karloff’s salary from $750 a week to $1,000 and Laemmle refused.

9. Karloff underwent intense physical discomfort playing some of his most famous roles. The Frankenstein Monster costume involved boots weighing about 32 pounds together. While filming Bride of Frankenstein, his costume was so stifling that he lost 20 pounds in sweat. But according to Mark A Viera’s Hollywood Horror: from Gothic to Cosmic, no other role was more torturous than Imhotep in The Mummy. The agony of having the spirit-gum make up removed from his face after a day of shooting was “the most trying ordeal I have ever endured,” Karloff said. Conversely, he once benefited considerably from his Monster get-up: during the scene beneath the destroyed windmill in Bride of Frankenstein, Karloff slipped and dislocated his hip, but the braces he wore as part of his costume kept the broken bone in place until it could be set by a doctor.

10. The long hours in painful monster make-up Karloff endured led him to become a founding member of the Screen Actor’s Guild union. He believed the most powerful studio heads in Hollywood were so opposed to the unionizing of their actors that they tapped his telephone, so he would always walk around with his pockets filled with loose change in order to discuss the Guild on pay phones.

11. In her autobiography, Elsa Lanchester wrote that Boris Karloff so wanted to avoid being stared at while in his monster make-up while filming Bride of Frankenstein that he would eat lunch in the commissary at Universal Studios while wearing a muslin cloth over his head. Surely, no one stared at that!

12. Boris Karloff’s daughter Sara was born while the actor was in the midst of filming Son of Frankenstein. Reports then surfaced that he was so excited to see his newborn girl that he didn’t bother removing his monster make-up before heading to the hospital, but this has since been dispelled as myth.

13. There has been much speculation that Lurch in Charles Addams’s “Addams Family” comic was based on Boris Karloff, a theory that Karloff, himself, shared. In fact, Karloff was asked to pen the introduction to Addams’s 1942 collection Drawn and Quartered, in which the actor wrote “I hope I will not be accused of undue vanity if I publicly thank Mr. Addams for immortalizing me in the person of the witch’s butler.” Mr. Addams, however, did not share this theory. He insisted that any similarities between Karloff and Lurch were merely coincidental.

14. According to Glenn Strange, the one actor who played the Frankenstein Monster as many times as Karloff (3), the elder actor offered Strange many valuable tips during his first performance as the Monster in House of Frankenstein, in which Karloff played mad doc Gustav Niemann.

15. Boris Karloff long suffered severe back problems exacerbated by the heavy costume he had to wear in the Frankenstein films. By the time he made Isle of the Dead for Val Lewton in 1944, his condition had grown so dire that he spent his time between takes in a wheelchair and ultimately had to have an operation that postponed the film for several months.

16. Horror’s biggest star had serious issues with the word “horror”. He preferred referring to his pictures as “terror films”, explaining that horror is too closely associated with revulsion. Karloff always intended his films to chill more than repulse.

17. Although Karloff did not appear in Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein, Universal asked him to make publicity appearances to help promote the film. Karloff agreed to do so, adding “as long as I do not have to see the movie!” Of course, Karloff’s (misguided) critique did not stop him from co-starring in Abbott & Costello Meet Boris Karloff, The Killer and Abbott & Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

18. Notorious “worst filmmaker of all time” Ed Wood often spoke of his plans to work with Karloff. He plotted a film that would have featured the final pairing of Karloff and Lugosi called Invasion of the Gigantic Salami. Whether or not Wood ever actually approached Karloff about the absurd project is unknown. Wood’s favorite film was The Mummy.

19. If Dr. Seuss had his way, Boris Karloff would not have been the voice of the 1966 holiday classic How the Grinch Stole Christmas. The good doctor was concerned that the horror legend might make the Grinch “too scary.” The makers of the film actually had opposite concerns. After Karloff finished recording his voice over, they electronically altered his voice in to make it more menacingly raspy.

20. Boris Karloff once lived on the top floor of New York City’s Dakota, the apartment building that figured prominently in Rosemary’s Baby, the last great horror film released before Karloff’s death on February 2, 1969.


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