In Praise of Boris Karloff

by Daedalus Howell on October 31, 2012

in IN PRAISE OF...

Boris Karloff as the MonsterThough the neck-bolts persisted like a pair of parens framing Boris Karloff’s 38-year career following his portrayal of the Frankenstein monster in 1931, the actor once beamed “The monster was the best friend I ever had.” Such is a testament to good casting, better luck and why the role remains indelibly Karloff’s though he only portrayed the human-patchwork a mere three times.

Raised as “William Pratt” (there are dozens of apocryphal stories detailing the origin of the actor’s chosen pseudonym) and sometimes billed as “Karloff the Uncanny,” Karloff’s uncanniness often lay not with his roles but with the roll calls within his name appeared. Consider the unholy trinity cited below by writer Holland Cotter in a recent New York Times piece about Mad Magazine illustrator Basil Wolverton:

“…Cartoonist Al Capp introduced a character named Lena the Hyena, “the ugliest girl in Lowr Slobbovia” to his “Li’l Abner” strip. Her face, however, was not seen… Naturally, the public clamored to see her.  In response Capp issued an open invitation for people to send versions of what they imagined her to look like, with the best entry to be chosen by a double-take triumvirate of celebrity judges: Frank Sinatra, Boris Karloff and Salvador Dali.”

Wolverton won the contest and Karloff et al took the prize for “most surreal celebrity meeting,” bested, perhaps, only by Nixon and Elvis’ photo-op at the Oval Office.

bkarloffstarOf course, Karloff leant his marquee name to scads of projects and promotions, including such brazen efforts as “Abbott and Costello Meet the Killer, Boris Karloff” and a comic, “Boris Karloff’s Tales of Mystery,” in which an illustrated Karloff introduced every issue through the 70s, though he had died in 1969. However, such namedropping certainly helped cement Karloff’s career as a bona fide Hollywood celeb – literally – the man has no fewer than two stars molded into the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Here, again, Karloff finds himself in strange company – the star for his film work (at the GPS coordinates 34.102776, -118.326837) finds him sandwiched between those of country music maven Dale Evans and lauded Polish pianist Arthur Rubinstein, which suggests that stars aren’t placed in constellations that denote musical ability (this duet of “We’re Horrible Men” sung by Karloff and frenemy Bela Legosi makes this particularly evident).

Interestingly, many assume Karloff’s vocal performance as the title character and narrator in the animated classic “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” included singing the popular tune “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” It didn’t – the ditty was performed by Thurl “They’re Grrreat!” Ravenscroft, better known as Tony The Tiger for Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes.

Karloff’s TV star (34.101449, -118.335588) finds him between comedian Drew Carey and Hans Confried, a television, radio and voice actor, who, incidentally, also loaned his pipes to the Grinch though this time in “Dr. Seuss’ Halloween is Grinch Night,” which aired about a decade after Karloff’s Grinch in 1977 (Karloff had died, eight years prior).

Also sharing grinchly billings with Karloff are, of course, Jim Carrey who also has two stars (one on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and the other on the Canadian Walk of Fame, for what it’s worth) and Mason Adams, who played the Grinch in “The Grinch Grinches the Cat in the Hat” (a mashup title worthy of Abbott and Costello) who has no stars. None. Jim, you could at least give him your Canadian star.

As with his Frankenstein monster, Karloff’s portrayal of the Grinch remains definitive (apparently, it’s easy being green), despite the roster of those that have also pinned their names to the part. This observation, however, might be contrary to the actor’s own assessment of his career: “You could heave a brick out of the window and hit ten actors who could play my parts. I just happened to be on the right corner at the right time.” Karloff’s timing, I submit, is uncanny.

Daedalus Howell

Daedalus Howell is an itinerant newspaperman and media maker. He writes books and blogs at DHowell.com. Subscribe to the Sunday Edition, Howell's weekly dispatch of original and curated curios, emailed to you for free. You'll also receive The Tea Cup Whale: How to Find Your Creative Niche as a Thank You for subscribing. Click here to subscribe now!

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