–by Jennifer Kellow-Fiorini
Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt on November 23, 1887, in London England. His father abandoned the family when he was eight, and with his mother already passing away, he grew up in the house of his older sister. When William turned 21, his mother left him an inheritance which he used to emigrate to Canada. There he toured in stock companies and changed his name to Boris Karloff — the last name taken from his mother’s family. In 1919 he landed in Hollywood. His swarthy looks — a quarter Egyptian on his mother’s side — got him steady work as “exotic characters,” but it wasn’t enough to quit day jobs like truck driving and construction. A chance meeting with Lon Chaney in 1923 inspired him to continue his career, and four years later, in 1927, casting in a play called “The Criminal Code” led to a role in the film adaptation and his career found its footing. James Whale saw Karloff in the film and, when assigned to direct “Frankenstein,” began drawing pictures of Karloff as the monster.
“Frankenstein” grossed 12 million dollars worldwide — far and away from the biggest hit of 1931, effectively eclipsing “Dracula” at the box office. Its success led to a bigger payday than Lugosi’s and started a long and varied career for Karloff, who found himself being billed by the studio as just Karloff!
Shoots for “Frankenstein” averaged 16 hours a day not including the five hours to apply makeup and several hours for removal. There was no stunt double, so Karloff had to perform scenes like carrying the doctor up a hill in the rain with multiple takes in a suit leaden with steel. Pushed to the brink physically, he wrote a letter of complaint to the studio, which was all an actor could do at the time without a real union. A pay cut from Universal in the year following the release of “The Mummy” in 1932 resulted in Karloff meeting with other actors to start a union. The existing Broadway union was ineffectual in helping Hollywood actors negotiate contracts or protect them from abusively long working hours. On June 30, 1933, after many meetings at Karloff’s home, articles of incorporation were filed on behalf of their group of actors for the Screen Actors Guild. Soon stars like Fredrick March, Groucho Marx, and James Cagney left The Academy (which served the interests of studio heads more than actors) to join the new union.
In the mid-1930s, Universal sought to cash in on their two stars by putting them in films together. “The Black Cat” gave Lugosi the meaty, heroic role he’d been trying to land. The movie bears no real resemblance to anything written by Poe. It’s the story of a couple on their honeymoon in Hungary who find themselves drawn into a game of life and death between a mysterious doctor (Lugosi) and a Satan-worshiping architect (Karloff). Released in May of 1934, just before enforcement of the Code, it’s still shocking and taboo with its (mostly implied) depiction of Satanism, necrophilia, torture, drugs, and chess. Karloff’s role, inspired by Aleister Crowley, and the modern Bauhaus art direction, as opposed to old-fashioned gothic, make it one of the most unique horror films ever made. Though critics mostly didn’t like it, the film was a success, leading to seven more on-screen pairings.
After the duo made “The Invisible Ray” in 1936, new British censorship rules slowed the production of horror films in Hollywood as studios couldn’t distribute them overseas. The next few years would be a low point for both actors. Even Karloff was acting in Mr. Wong serials for the poverty row studio, Monogram. And then in 1938, with both actors needing work, a local theater in Los Angeles bought prints of “Dracula,” “Frankenstein,” and “Son of Kong” and showed them as a triple feature for 30 cents a ticket. Lines around the block prompted Universal to rerelease the films with cuts that satisfied the new Code censorship standards.
Lugosi and Karloff’s final pairing would be in “The Body Snatcher” in 1945 directed by Robert Wise (West Side Story, The Haunting). While the film features good performances from both actors, it went through extensive rewrites to pass Joseph Breen’s censorship Code.
Sadly, Lugosi’s career, due to illness, medication, and lack of opportunity because of his accent, would be on a downward trajectory culminating with his appearance in Ed Wood films. His medical issues and prescribed use of morphine resulted in a battle with addiction lasting until his death in 1956.
Karloff, whose career benefited from more flexibility in casting and savvy business sense, found new life when baby boomers saw his films on television and Roger Corman cast him in new horror films marketed to teenagers. In addition to films, he worked continuously in radio, television, and on stage until his death in February 1969.
For more Reel Cinema articles, resources, and photos, check out the Reel Cin blog at jenfior.com/blog-1
Jennifer Fiorini holds a bachelor’s degree in advertising from The Fashion Institute of Technology where she minored in film studies, Italian film and language. Originally from Toledo, Ohio, she divides her time between New York City and Torino, Italy. She is part of Creative Oxygen’s New York team, writes for eCurrent Magazine, and contributed to Troy Howarth’s book, Murder By Design – The Unsane Films of Dario Argento.