Of all classic movie monsters, my favorite is Boris Karloff’s portrayal of Frankenstein’s monster in the 1931 film, Frankenstein and repeated in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939). The bulky costume with four-inch platform boots made it an arduous role but the costume and extensive makeup produced the classic image. The costume was a job in itself for Karloff with the shoes weighing 11 pounds (5.0 kg) each. Universal Studios was quick to acquire ownership of the copyright to the makeup format for the Frankenstein monster that Jack P. Pierce had designed.
Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt on November 23, 1887, at 36 Forest Hill Road, Camberwell, London, England. Pratt himself stated that he was born in Dulwich, which is nearby in London. His parents were Edward John Pratt, Jr. and Eliza Sarah Millard. His brother, Sir John Thomas Pratt, was a British diplomat. His mother’s maternal aunt was Anna Leonowens, whose tales about life in the royal court of Siam (now Thailand) were the basis of the musical The King and I. He was bow-legged, had a lisp, and stuttered as a young boy. He conquered his stutter, but not his lisp, which was noticeable throughout his career in the film industry.
Pratt spent his childhood years in Enfield, in the County of Middlesex. He was the youngest of nine children, and following his mother’s death was brought up by his elder siblings. He received his early education at Enfield Grammar School, and later at the private schools of Uppingham School and Merchant Taylors’ School. After this, he attended King’s College London where he took studies aimed at a career with the British Government’s Consular Service. However, in 1909, he left university without graduating and drifted, departing England for Canada, where he worked as a farm laborer and did various odd itinerant jobs until happening upon acting.
He began appearing in theatrical performances in Canada, and during this period he chose the screen name “Boris Karloff”. Some have theorized that he took the stage name from a mad scientist character in the novel The Drums of Jeopardy called “Boris Karlov”. However, the novel was not published until 1920, at least eight years after Karloff had been using the name on stage and in silent films (Warner Oland played “Boris Karlov” in a film version in 1931). Another possible influence was thought to be a character in the Edgar Rice Burroughs fantasy novel H. R. H. The Rider which features a “Prince Boris of Karlova”, but as the novel was not published until 1915, the influence may be backward, that Burroughs saw Karloff in a play and adapted the name for the character. Karloff always claimed he chose the first name “Boris” because it sounded foreign and exotic, and that “Karloff” was a family name.
One reason for the name change was to prevent embarrassment to his family. Whether or not his brothers (all dignified members of the British Foreign Service) actually considered young William the “black sheep of the family” for having become an actor, Karloff apparently worried they felt that way. He did not reunite with his family until he returned to Britain to make The Ghoul (1933), extremely worried that his siblings would disapprove of his new, macabre claim to world fame. Instead, his brothers jostled for position around him and happily posed for publicity photographs. After the photo was taken, Karloff’s brothers immediately started asking about getting a copy of their own of it. The story of the photo became one of Karloff’s favorites.
Karloff joined the Jeanne Russell Company in 1911 and performed in towns like Kamloops, British Columbia, and Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. After the devastating tornado in Regina on June 30, 1912, Karloff and other performers helped with clean-up efforts. He later took a job as a railway baggage handler and joined the Harry St. Clair Co. that performed in Minot, North Dakota, for a year in an opera house above a hardware store.
Whilst he was trying to establish his acting career, Karloff had to perform years of manual labor in Canada and the U.S. in order to make ends meet. He was left with back problems from which he suffered for the rest of his life. Because of his health, he did not enlist in World War I.
During the Word War I era, Karloff worked in various theatrical stock companies across the U.S. to hone his acting skills. Some acting companies mentioned were the Harry St. Clair Players and the Billie Bennett Touring Company. By early 1918 he was working with the Maud Amber Players in Vallejo, California, but because of the Spanish Flu outbreak in the San Francisco area and the fear of infection, the troupe was disbanded. He was able to find work with the Haggerty Repertory for a while, (according to the 1973 obituary of Joseph Paul Haggerty, he and Boris Karloff remained lifelong friends). According to Karloff, in his first film he appeared as an extra in a crowd scene for a Frank Borzage picture at Universal for which he received $5; the title of this film has never been traced.
Once Karloff arrived in Hollywood, he made dozens of silent films, but work was sporadic, and he often had to take up manual labor such as digging ditches or delivering construction plaster to earn a living. A number of his early major roles were in film serials, such as The Masked Rider (1919), in Chapter 2 of which he can be glimpsed onscreen for the first time, The Hope Diamond Mystery (1920) and King of the Wild (1930). In these early roles, he was often cast as an exotic Arabian or Indian villain.
A key film which brought Karloff recognition was The Criminal Code (1931), a prison drama in which he reprised a dramatic part he had played on stage. Another significant role in the autumn of 1931 saw Karloff play a key supporting part as an unethical newspaper reporter in Five Star Final, a film about tabloid journalism which was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture. Before shooting his first horror films, Karloff had a small role as a mob boss in Howard Hawks’ gangster film Scarface, which was not released until 1932 because of censorship issues.
In 1930, Universal Studios had lost $2.2 million in revenues. Within 48 hours of its opening at New York’s Roxy Theatre on February 12, 1931, Dracula starring Bela Lugosi had sold 50,000 tickets, building a momentum that culminated in a $700,000 profit, the largest of Universal’s 1931 releases. As a result, head of production Carl Laemmle, Jr. announced immediate plans for more horror films.
Frankenstein was adapted from the play by Peggy Webling (which in turn is based on the novel of the same name by Mary Shelley), about a scientist and his assistant who dig up corpses to build a man animated by electricity, but his assistant accidentally gives the creature an abnormal, murderer’s brain.
Immediately, following his success in Dracula, Bela Lugosi had hoped to play Dr. Frankenstein in Universal’s original film concept, but the actor was expected by Carl Laemmle, Jr. to be the Monster (a common move for a contract player in a film studio at the time) to keep his famous name on the bill. After several disastrous make-up tests (said to resemble that of Paul Wegener in The Golem), the Dracula star left the project. Although this is often regarded as one of the worst decisions of Lugosi’s career, in actuality, the part that Lugosi was offered was not the same character that Karloff eventually played. The character in the Florey script was simply a killing machine without a touch of human interest or pathos, reportedly causing Lugosi to complain, “I was a star in my country and I will not be a scarecrow over here!” Florey later wrote that “the Hungarian actor didn’t show himself very enthusiastic for the role and didn’t want to play it.”
However, the decision may not have been Lugosi’s in any case, since recent evidence suggests that he was kicked off the project, along with director Robert Florey when the newly arrived James Whale asked for the property. Whale had been imported from England by the Laemmles and given a free hand as to his choice of projects at Universal. He was immediately attracted to Frankenstein and greatly revised the script and conceptualization of the project, which had troubled the management. Florey and Lugosi were given the Murders in the Rue Morgue film, as a consolation. Lugosi would later go on to play the monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man a decade later, when his career was in decline (in the original shooting script the Monster spoke, cancelling Lugosi’s initial objection to the part, but his filmed dialogue sequences were cut prior to release, along with the premise that the Monster was blind, which was the way Lugosi had played it).
Actors who worked on the project were, or became familiar to, fans of the Universal horror films. These included Frederick Kerr as the old Baron Frankenstein, Henry’s father; Lionel Belmore as Herr Vogel, the Bürgermeister; Marilyn Harris as Little Maria, the girl the monster accidentally kills; Dwight Frye as Frankenstein’s hunchbacked assistant, Fritz; and Michael Mark as Ludwig, Maria’s father. Kerr died a year and a half later.
The Webling play was adapted by John L. Balderston and the screenplay written by Francis Edward Faragoh and Garrett Fort with uncredited contributions from Robert Florey and John Russell. The make-up artist was Jack Pierce. The movie stars Colin Clive, Mae Clarke, John Boles and Karloff, and features Dwight Frye and Edward van Sloan.
Kenneth Strickfaden designed the electrical effects used in the “creation scene.” So successful were they that such effects came to be considered an essential part of every subsequent Universal film involving the Frankenstein Monster. Accordingly, the equipment used to produce them has come to be referred to in fan circles as “Strickfadens.” It appears that Strickfaden managed to secure the use of at least one Tesla Coil built by the inventor Nikola Tesla himself. According to this same source, Strickfaden also doubled for Karloff during the creation scene, as Karloff was afraid of being burned by sparks being thrown off the arcing electrical equipment simulating lightning. Although he was partially covered by a surgical drape, Karloff’s abdomen was otherwise exposed during the scene and the high-voltage arc “scissors” threw white-hot bits of metal when they were used to create flashes.
Frankenstein begins with Edward Van Sloan stepping from behind a curtain and delivering a brief caution before the opening credits:
How do you do? Mr. Carl Laemmle feels it would be a little unkind to present this picture without just a friendly word of warning: We are about to unfold the story of Frankenstein, a man of science who sought to create a man after his own image without reckoning upon God. It is one of the strangest tales ever told. It deals with the two great mysteries of creation; life and death. I think it will thrill you. It may shock you. It might even horrify you. So, if any of you feel that you do not care to subject your nerves to such a strain, now’s your chance to uh, well,––we warned you!!”
The film opened in New York City at the Mayfair Theatre on December 4, 1931, and grossed $53,000 in one week. The film was a big hit. In June 1932, the film had earned reported rentals of $1.4 million. In 1943, Universal reported it had earned a profit of $708,871. By 1953, all the Frankenstein films earned an estimated profit of $13 million.
Mordaunt Hall gave Frankenstein a very positive review and said that the film “aroused so much excitement at the Mayfair yesterday that many in the audience laughed to cover their true feelings.” “[T]here is no denying that it is far and away the most effective thing of its kind. Beside it Dracula is tame and, incidentally, Dracula was produced by the same firm”.
Film Daily also lauded the picture, calling it a “gruesome, chill-producing and exciting drama” that was “produced intelligently and lavishly and with a grade of photography that is superb.” Variety reported that it “Looks like a Dracula plus, touching a new peak in horror plays,” and described Karloff’s performance as “a fascinating acting bit of mesmerism.” Its review also singled out the look of the film as uniquely praiseworthy, calling the photography “splendid” and the lighting “the last word in ingenuity, since much of the footage calls for dim or night effect and the manipulation of shadows to intensify the ghostly atmosphere.”
John Mosher of The New Yorker was less enthused, calling the film only a “moderate success” and writing that “The makeup department has a triumph to its credit in the monster and there lie the thrills of the picture, but the general fantasy lacks the vitality which that little Mrs. P.B. Shelley was able to give her book.”
Frankenstein has continued to receive acclaim from critics and is widely regarded as one of the best films of 1931, as well as one of the greatest movies of all time. It holds a 100% “Fresh” rating on the review aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes. In 1991, the film was selected for preservation in the United States National Film Registry as being deemed “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”. In 2004, The New York Times placed the film on its Best 1000 Movies Ever list.
Frankenstein also received recognition from the American Film Institute. It was named the 87th greatest movie of all time on 100 Years… 100 Movies. The line “It’s alive! It’s alive!” was ranked as the 49th greatest movie quote in American cinema. The film was on the ballot for several of AFI’s 100 series lists, including AFI’s 10 Top 10 for the sci-fi category, 100 Years… 100 Movies (10th Anniversary Edition), and twice on 100 Years… 100 Heroes and Villains for both Dr. Henry Frankenstein and the Monster in the villains category.
Karloff was soon cast as Imhotep who is revived in The Mummy, a mute butler in The Old Dark House (with Charles Laughton) and the starring role in The Mask of Fu Manchu, which were all released in 1932. These films confirmed Karloff’s new-found stardom. The 5-foot 11inch (1.80 m) brown-eyed Karloff still played a roles in other genres besides horror, such as a religious First World War soldier in the John Ford epic The Lost Patrol (1934).
Horror, however, had now become Karloff’s primary genre, and he gave a string of lauded performances in Universal’s horror films, including several with Bela Lugosi, his main rival as heir to Lon Chaney’s status as the leading horror film star. While the long-standing, creative partnership between Karloff and Lugosi never led to a close friendship, it produced some of the actors’ most revered and enduring productions, beginning with The Black Cat (1934) and continuing with Gift of Gab (1934), The Raven (1935), The Invisible Ray (1936).
Karloff reprised the role of Frankenstein’s monster in two further films, Bride of Frankenstein (1935), in which Elsa Lanchester plays the Monster’s bride, and Son of Frankenstein (1939), the latter also featuring Lugosi, with Basil Rathbone replacing Colin Clive as the scientist playing god. Rathbone appeared with Karloff again in Tower of London (1939) as the murderous henchman of King Richard III. Karloff revisited the Frankenstein mythos in several later films as well, taking the starring role of the villainous Dr. Niemann in House of Frankenstein (1944), in which the monster was played by Glenn Strange. He reprised the role of the “mad scientist” in 1958’s Frankenstein 1970 as Baron Victor von Frankenstein II, the grandson of the original creator. The finale reveals that the crippled Baron has given his own face (i. e., Karloff’s) to the monster.
Between 1938 and 1940, Karloff appeared in five films for Monogram Pictures. Directed by William Nigh, Karloff portrayed character James Lee Wong, a Chinese detective. More commonly referred to as Mr. Wong, Karloff’s portrayal of the character is an example of Hollywood’s use of yellowface and its portrayal of East Asians in the earlier half of the 20th century.
Karloff appeared at a celebrity baseball game as Frankenstein’s monster in 1940, hitting a gag home run and making catcher Buster Keaton fall into an acrobatic dead faint as the monster stomped into home plate. Meanwhile, Karloff appeared in British Intelligence (1940) with Margaret Lindsay for Warners.
The Ghost of Frankenstein was released in 1942. The movie features Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Monster, taking over from Boris Karloff, who played the role in the first three films of the series, and Bela Lugosi in his second appearance as the demented Ygor.
The fifth installment, Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man was released in 1943, directed by Roy William Neill, and starring Bela Lugosi as Frankenstein’s monster. This is also the sequel to The Wolf Man, with Lon Chaney, Jr. as the Wolf Man. Karloff returned to the series, but not the role, in the 1944 followup, House of Frankenstein, which also featured Chaney, and adds Dracula, played by John Carradine, and a Hunchback for good measure. 1945’s House of Dracula continued the theme of combining Universal’s three most popular monsters.
Many of the subsequent films which featured Frankenstein’s monster demote the creature to a robotic henchman in someone else’s plots, such as in its final Universal film appearance in the deliberately farcical Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).
Meanwhile, Kartloff’s connection with Bela Lugosi continued with Black Friday (1940), You’ll Find Out (also 1940), and The Body Snatcher (1945), the first of three films in a contract with RKO produced by Val Lewton. Isle of the Dead (also 1945) and Bedlam (1946) completed the trio.
In a 1946 interview with Louis Berg of the Los Angeles Times, Karloff discussed his arrangement with RKO, working with Lewton and his reasons for leaving Universal. Karloff left Universal because he thought the Frankenstein franchise had run its course. Berg wrote that the last installment in Karloff appeared — House of Frankenstein — was what he called a “‘monster clambake,’ with everything thrown in — Frankenstein, Dracula, a hunchback, and a ‘man-beast’ that howled in the night. It was too much. Karloff thought it was ridiculous and said so”. Berg explained that the actor had “great love and respect for” Lewton, who was “the man who rescued him from the living dead and restored, so to speak, his soul.”
For the Danny Kaye comedy, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (1947), Karloff appeared in a brief but starring role as Dr. Hugo Hollingshead, a psychiatrist. Director Norman Z. McLeod shot a sequence with Karloff in the Frankenstein monster make-up, but it was deleted from the finished film. Karloff donned the monster make-up for the last time in 1962 for a Halloween episode of the TV series Route 66, which also featured Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr.
He spent his retirement in England at his country cottage named Roundabout in the Hampshire village of Bramshott. He contracted bronchitis in 1968 and was hospitalized at University College Hospital. He died of pneumonia at the King Edward VII Hospital, Midhurst, in Sussex, on February 2. 1969, at the age of 81.
For his contribution to film and television, Boris Karloff was awarded two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, at 1737 Vine Street for motion pictures, and 6664 Hollywood Boulevard for television. Karloff was featured by the U.S. Postal Service as Frankenstein’s Monster and the Mummy in its series “Classic Monster Movie Stamps” issued in September 1997. In 1998, an English heritage blue plaque was unveiled in his hometown in London.
Universal Pictures is developing a shared universe of rebooted modern-day versions of their classic Universal Monsters, with various films in different stages of development. In June of 2017, producer/director Alex Kurtzman revealed that Frankenstein is one of the films that will have an installment in the Dark Universe. Javier Bardem is cast to portray the titular character.
The Postal Service issued five 32-cent Classic Movie Monsters commemorative stamps on September 30, 1997, in Universal City, California (Scott #3168-3172). Designed by Derry Noyes of Washington, DC, and illustrated by Thomas Blackshear of Colorado Springs, Colorado, the stamps were issued in a pane of twenty and printed by Stamp Venturers, Inc., in the photogravure process, perforated 10.2 x 10.1.
The stamps feature five legendary movie monsters and pay tribute to the actors who portrayed them. Featured on the sheet are Bela Lugosi as Dracula, Lon Chaney as The Phantom of the Opera, Lon Chaney, Jr., as The Wolf Man, and Boris Karloff as both The Mummy and Frankenstein’s monster. The selvage also contains a photograph of each actor and his signature.