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Boris Karloff Edit Profile

also known as William Henry Pratt


Boris Karloff was a British film actor.


Karloff, Boris was born on November 23, 1887 in Dulwich, England. Son of Edward and Eliza Sara (Millard) P. He was the son of a diplomat in the Indian Civil Service— and there were always stories that he had Indian blood.


Studied at Merchant Taylor School, London. 1897-1902, Uppingham School, Rutlandshire, England, 1902-1906.


For twelve vears he worked in small parts, specializing in Oriental bogeymen, but hardly doing well enough to make up for missing English summers of Jack Hobbs and Maurice Tate. Between pictures, he often had to work as a laborer—one reason perhaps why he remained physically striking into old age: The Last of the Mohicans (20, Maurice Tourneur); Cheated Hearts (21, Hobart Henley); The Infidel (22, James Young); The Altar Stairs (22, Lambert Ilillyer); Omar the Tentmaker (22, Young); The Prisoner (23, jack Conway); Dynamite Dan (24, Bruce Mitchell); Lady Robin-hood (25, Ralph luce); The Golden Web (26, Walter Lang); with Lionel Barrymore in The Bells (26, Young); Old Ironsides (26, James Cruze); Tarzan and the Golden Lion (27, J. P. McGowan); The Meddlin' Stranger (27, Richard Thorpe); Tito Arabian Knights (27, Lewis Milestone); The Love Mart (28, George Fitzmaurice); Phantom of the North (29. Harry Webb); The Unholy Night (29, Barrymore); Behind that Curtain (29, Irving Cummings); and The Sea Bat (30, Wesley Ruggles).

In 1931, Hawks cast Karloff as the prisoner who works as the governor’s butler in The Criminal Code. Karloff had already played the part on the stage, but the film established him. Hawks recognized the way violence in Karloff was related to gravity. His butler is aloof, disapproving, a man hurt by vulgarity, a noble savage scornful of civilization. But his moment comes when he is able to kill the stool pigeon in the prison. The butlers white coat then becomes the uniform of a vengeful angel, and the superb slow' advance on the cowering victim is the first sign of the sleepy rhythm that Karloff was to bring to horror. In the same year, he had good parts in Five Star Final (31, Mervyn Le Roy), The Mad Genius (31, Michael Curtiz), and The Yellow Ticket (31, Raoul Walsh). But he became a household name when lames Whale took over the Frankenstein project and preferred Karloff to Lugosi for the monster. That part was a crucial innovation: his makeup and interpretation have remained essential to the monster ever since; above all, Karloff presented a feeling creature, a vulnerable colossus, capable of destruction but touched by beauty. As such, Karloff’s monster is an important forerunner of the madman hero, and the scene in which he and the little girl float flowers on a pond, before he kills her, has become more moving and suggestive with the years.

It is not easy to chart purpose in a career in horror: the genre is subject to fashion, the reckless cheapness of many productions, and the wild variation of directors. Karloff’s work rises and (alls in response to all these. He made trite, rushed movies that must have offended him. He had the obligatory encounters with Abbott and Costello and The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini (66). But most of the great horror directors appreciated him and the successive revivals ol the genre renewed his enthusiasm. Say first that he made a few straight films—Scarface (32, Hawks); The Lost Patrol (34, John Ford); The House of Rothschild (34, Allred Werker); The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (47, Norman Z. McLeod); Unconquered (47, Cecil B. De Mille)—and then remember his best films: The Mummy (32, Karl Freund); The Mask of Fu Manchu (32, Charles Vidor and Charles Brabin); The Old Dark House (32. Whale); The Miracle Man (32, McLeod); The Ghoul (33, T. Hayes Hunter); The Black Cat (34, Edgar G. Ulmer); The Bride of Frankenstein (35, Whale); The Raven (35, Lew Landers); The Invisible Ray (36, Ilillyer); The Walking Dead (36, Curtiz); The Man They Could Not Hang (39, Nick Grinde); Son of Frankenstein (39, Rowland V. Lee); The Tower of London (39, Lee); Before I Hang (40. Grinde); The Devil Commands (41, Edward Dmvtryk); The House of Frankenstein (45, Erie C. Kenton); The Body Snatcher (45, Robert Wise); Isle of the Dead (45, Mark Robson); Bedlam (46, Robson); Tap Roots (48, George Marshall); The Strange Door (51, Joseph Pevney); The Raven (62, Corman); The Terror (62, Corman); Black Sabbath (63, Mario Bava); Comedy of Terrors (64, Jacques Tourneur); and Die, Monster, Die (65, Daniel Haller).


Clubs: Players, Lambs (New York City).


It is a credit to Peter Bogdanovichs imaginative kindness that amid all the harassments of his first film. Targets (68). he managed to make it—among other things—an affectionate valediction to Karloff. In Targets, Karloff is barely disguised as Byron Orlok, the mandarin of horror, eighty years old, leaning on a stick and a lovely Asiatic secretary his skin a blend of Californian tan, jaundice, and the old parchments of Gothic castles. Orlok thinks of himself as an antique: so used to the conventions of the horror genre, he can no longer play a straight role. But he is appalled by the efficient, spiritless slaughter of the young rifleman who hides behind the screen at a drive-in theatre, waits for Orlok/Karloff in The Terror (62, Roger Corman) to be projected, and then begins to pick off the audience in their cars. The end is grand guignol with apologetic built-in significance, as Orlok in life and Orlok on the screen both stride vengefully toward the killer.

At that moment the rather glib director’s conception is lent seriousness by the presence of Karloff: not just in the elderly dignity of his walk, but because he carried with him an honorable record of insisting on human values within one of the cinema’s most exploited forms. Karloff had always shown us monsters and mad magicians who had been isolated by the unthinking cruelty of the “wholesome” world.

Karloff died two years later in the rural setting of a Sussex hospital.

At Uppingham and Merchant Taylors he found his great passion: cricket. But something in the scheme of English duty must have rankled, for in 1909 he went to Canada and, after a variety of jobs, he took to acting with traveling companies. The roots of melodrama lay there, and. inevitably, by 1919 he wandered into the movies: a tall man, with striking, gaunt features and a natural slowness that could suggest menace.


Married Dorothy Stine, 1928.; married second Evelyn Helmore.

Edward P.

Eliza Sara (Millard) P.

Dorothy Stine

2d Evelyn Helmore.