Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Heart of an Actor: Why I Love Boris Karloff

When we're younger we have less respect for hard work and dedication and more appreciation of the cliched and showy. We make grand pronouncements about what's great in this area, what's great in that and through it all hold fast that our youthful convictions are not only accurate and correct but always will be. As a parent to four children ranging in age from 8 to 20 I've seen the black and white certitude of youthful judgment firsthand from the other side as well. When we get older however we learn to, as the cliche states, appreciate the finer things, those things not necessarily thrown in front of our collective faces with lights flashing and bells ringing. Since childhood I have acted, played and composed music, drawn and painted and worked on short films. I love the arts and my view of the arts has changed as dramatically as my view of most other things in life.



I find myself now reacting with cringes and bristles to much of what I accepted without question in my youth. In youth I would have ranked Jimi Hendrix as the greatest guitarist ever and probably did but as an adult who loves the guitar I can now see the foolishness of such a proclamation. Oh it's not that Hendrix wasn't great and didn't know his way around a six-string, it's that in his short time here he didn't leave enough of a record and never grew as I know he would have beyond the basic trappings and limitations of the blues and rock and roll form. I'd still rank him pretty high but now find myself much more impressed with the fretwork of Wes Montgomery or Django Reinhardt or Les Paul. Hell, if I had to rank the 25 greatest guitarists of all time probably no more than two or three rock and roll guitarists would even make the list. But rock and roll is showy and rock and roll critics never grow much older than seventeen intellectually so don't expect much of a shakeup next time you stumble across a "Best Guitarists of All Time" list. Expect Hendrix near the top. Again. Look for the incredibly rich, expansive and mature stylings of Wes, Les and Django much further down the list and don't bother looking for geniuses like Barney Kessel or Jim Hall at all. Most twenty-something rock critics don't even know who they are.

Same goes with most of the other arts and certainly acting is no exception. When I was a teen studying acting and learning my craft it's probably an easy guess who I spent a lot of time brooding over as the all-time great. Brando. Of course. And again, as with Hendrix, I'm certainly not here to tell you that Brando wasn't great. Like Hendrix, he was. But something happened to me with acting as I watched thousands and thousands of movies and became a figure of authority and responsibility to four children getting ready to face the world. I began to greatly appreciate hard work. Greatly. Let's face it, Brando phoned in more than his allotted share of performances throughout his career and while that amuses me most of the time there arrives a point when it irritates me as well. I love Marlon Brando in many ways but it also feels like he never quite matured as he should have. Willaim Redfield, known to most people, if at all, as the chain-smoking patient Dale Harding in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, was an actor working in theatre since the thirties and he had great hope for Brando. He felt Brando could bring to America the theatrical tradition that existed in Britain. But it was not to be. Redfield repeated in interviews later in life how disappointed he was in Brando's lack of dedication and his abandonment of the theatre. As a youth I might not have understood that but as an adult I feel Redfield's disappointment.

And all of this brings us around to a conversation I had with my wife just two days ago. We were talking about Peter Cushing and I remarked that when Cushing was making Star Wars, just one year after making At the Earth's Core, he had no idea of the magnitude of the success that Star Wars would have. Working on a soundstage in front of odd, futuristic looking sets he must have imagined this film would result in roughly the same level of technical quality as his previous Amicus production and probably around the same fate financially. And yet there he was turning in a goddamned performance, a real performance, despite it all. Peter Cushing did not phone it in. And neither did Boris Karloff, but more than that, Karloff was the one who set the standard.

Boris Karloff came to prominence in the most stepped on, beaten about and disrespected genre of filmmaking there is, horror. He played Frankenstein's monster and played it supremely well. So well that he became the standard bearer for the genre for most of the next two decades. He played the monsters, the mad scientists and even the dangerous butler and he played them all at the top of his form. Karloff must have known that despite his fame and popularity he was being sneered at by lesser known actors of the legitimate theater and he didn't care. He never stated it publicly, at least not to any direct degree, and never let it affect a performance. Hell, he even gave his all in this lighter commercial!



While other actors complained about being typecast Karloff revelled in it (as noted in the quote in the banner above - seen here for those using a reader view) and never let it affect his attitude. Whatever part he was given he would devote to it all of the skills and tools he had accumulated in learning the craft of acting. Karloff lent respect and credence to the growing success story of the horror genre in the thirties. The fact that such a fine actor happened to be where he was at the time Universal was casting Frankenstein, preventing the role from going to a lesser actor who may never have filled the role with the necessary pathos, is an act of supreme historical luck and a great gift to the genre and all fans of it.

And another stroke of incredible luck was that this actor of such awe-inspiring talent was also an actor of hark work and dedication. The genre not only needed someone with talent to lend it respect but someone willing to be a refined and well-spoken cheerleader inviting in the masses that might otherwise turn away.

As for myself, I came to realize all of this much later in life. As a youth I saw all the Universal classics and loved them through and through. I knew Karloff was a good actor but never thought of him as a great actor, so blind was I to the brilliantly mimed performance of Frankenstein. Then, years later, older and hopefully wiser in the ways of film, I saw The Body Snatcher. It was a revelation. I was immediately struck by the supreme artistry on display as I watched Karloff's murderous John Gray weave webs of cunning charm and sinister pseudo-sincerity all the while hypnotizing the viewer. It was a brilliant performance, sadly and unfairly ignored for consideration for an Oscar during the time of its release.



Not long after seeing The Body Snatcher Karloff began to elevate in my mind as an actor and soon, very soon, he was among my favorites. And his hard work and dedication to the genre that he helped achieve its greatest success inspired other actors of dedication to follow, such as Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.

I can offer up many accolades to Boris Karloff as an actor but for me, personally, it is his hard work in honing his skils to complete his craft that stands above all else and says something to me about him as a person. There are and will continue to be several great actors in the world of film and I like many of them but as I get older I love Boris more and more and it's only natural. Karloff goes better with age, or better put, age goes better with Karloff. Boris Karloff was and is an actor for grown-ups, and that's the highest praise I can offer.

*****************


This post has been a contribution to Pierre Fournier's Boris Karloff Blogathon taking place at Frankensteinia this week.

58 comments:

Pierre Fournier said...

It's a terrific piece, Greg. Just terrific.

Greg said...

Thanks Pierre, it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to write up one of my favorite actors.

Ed Howard said...

A great appreciation. Karloff really was amazing, giving his all to parts lesser actors would have sneered at or phoned in. And when he got the opportunity to stretch out into territory somewhere outside of traditional horror — as he did in his movies with Val Lewton, or his amazing performance in The Black Cat — he showed just how much range and depth he actually had. I do get the sense, though, that as much as he may not have complained about the roles he was given and the films he was in, he did wish for more respectability, did chafe a little against the confines of horror, as evidenced by his relief at realizing that Lewton's films for him were horror only in their marketing campaigns.

Gloria said...

I recall reading that James Whale (who coming from a working Class background styled himself in Hollywood as a dandy gent) disliked Karloff because he didn't hide the fact that when he had been out of a job as an actor, he had resorted to manual work in order to make a living.

I guess that Karloff never forgot that hard work is hard work whether you're driving a truck or working on a role: it probably explains his endurance to long make-up sessions.

What else can I say? From The Mummy to Targets he's given me much joy as an spectator (and a fair share of shudders, too)

John McElwee said...

Wonderful essay. One of my favorites of the whole week.

Greg said...

Ed, thanks, I'm glad you liked it.

I'm sure Karloff did chafe to a degree about always working in horror but had the class to never really publicly complain. Even in the interview I pulled the banner quote from he is asked about a statement he made about Hollywood not knowing how to make horror anymore and he responded that he never said that, and then added, "at least not publicly" indicating that even when talking in general about the industry and not calling out one individual filmmaker he still felt one shouldn't say unkind things in public. I certainly don't have that kind of restraint so I admire it even more.

Greg said...

Gloria, I love that about Karloff. He stayed grounded his whole life and I can imagine there were people in the biz that didn't like that about him. But boy, what a great actor he was.

Greg said...

John, thanks so much, I really appreciate that, especially considering how great a piece you wrote on him.

Anonymous said...

tdraicer:

Just wanted to add my appreciation of this fine post.

What I liked most about the entire blogathon is how it brought out Karloff's range. People always speak of the sympathy that Karloff brought to Frankenstein and other parts, and while that is certainly true, he could also play really hateful and evil characters. And in Black Sabbath he played a vampire that was truly chilling because it had no real humanity at all, but was simply "other than human."

Greg said...

tdraicer, that's so true. Maybe that's why The Body Snatcher was such a revelation for me. He's a bastard and a murderer but he's got this slick charm that makes him all the more menacing. That was the movie that really opened my eyes to what he could do.

Caftan Woman said...

Wonderful post that I will be sharing with the younger people of my acquaintance.

Greg said...

Thank you Caftan Woman - I certainly hope they like it once you show it to them.

bill r. said...

Great piece, Greg. THE BODY SNATCHER was the watershed Karloff movie for me, as well. I was already itching to see Val Lewton's films -- ANY Val Lewton film -- based on stuff I'd read about him (primarily Harlan Ellison -- always with that guy!), but I remember I was in college, in the library, reading Danny Peary's ALTERNATIVE OSCARS book, and he chose Karloff as Gray as his pick for Best Actor in 1945. It would be a while before I actually got to see it, but when I did I knew Peary was right.

I didn't mention this in my own blogathan piece (though I probably should have) but Karloff was really excellent in both THE MAN THEY COULD NOT HANG and BEFORE I HANG. As stories, the two films aren't that dissimilar, but Karloff gives two distinct, individual, and wholly different performances. Granted, the characters are different as written, but I think a lot of actors would have carried certain habits from one role to the other, or would have tried to root out the madness in Dr. Garth in order to make him a mirror of Dr. Savaard, or something, but Karloff didn't. The two men have the same passions, but each expresses them differently.

Greg said...

I remember I was in college, in the library, reading Danny Peary's ALTERNATIVE OSCARS book, and he chose Karloff as Gray as his pick for Best Actor in 1945. It would be a while before I actually got to see it, but when I did I knew Peary was right.

I never read that book and I thought I'd read all the Oscar books. How cool that he picked Karloff for Best Actor that year and I couldn't agree more with him. His performance is just so rich with detail.

Anyway, I've been offline most of the weekend so let me get over to read your piece now.

commoncents said...

Excellent - Excellent Post!

I really like your blog!!

Common Cents
http://www.commoncts.blogspot.com

ps. Link Exchange??

bill r. said...

Peary's book is really fun. It's just what it sounds like: he goes through each Oscar year, from the beginning to whenever the book was published (mid to late 80s) and gives his picks for the six main categories (with full write up explaining why) and lists his runners up, as well. Every so often he'll agree with the academy, but not often. I think he picked John Heard in CUTTER'S WAY for Best Supporting Actor for 1981, chose Richard Widmark as a runner up for Best Actor in MADIGAN for 1968...that sort of thing. It's a great resource for budding cinephiles, too.

Greg said...

I used to have several posts of Oscar picks here in which I would go through each year and give my choices with a full write-up. I think I agreed with the Academy, on average, about once a decade. Anyway, I changed my mind on my own choices so much that I deleted all of the posts because I didn't like a lot of my choices after the fact (so I guess I should definitely never try to do a book on the subject).

As for Peary's choice of John Heard, that's an excellent choice. Heard is terrific in that movie, which has a lot to recommend it.

Greg said...

cc, thanks but I only do movie and art blogs in my links here. Sorry.

bill r. said...

Heard is great in CUTTER'S WAY (almost as good as he is in CHUD), but after my own cursory glance at what 1981 had to offer, I'd probably go with Albert Brooks in MODERN ROMANCE, with John Travolta in BLOW OUT as a runner up. And while it's been a really long time since I've seen it, a very strong case good be made for Treat Williams in PRINCE OF THE CITY.

Greg said...

But Brooks, Travolta and Williams were leads. You said Peary picked Heard for Supporting. By the way, it's been a long time since I've seen Prince of the City too but Williams was great in that.

bill r. said...

Oh yeah. Okay, well...shut up!

bill r. said...

Here's the list of Peary's alternate Oscars. And it turns out he had Heard for Best Actor, so my screw-up has been validated.

Arbogast said...

cringes and bristles

I start every day with a heaping bowl of Cringes-n-Bristles (c).

Okay, now to keep reading.

Arbogast said...

as much as he may not have complained about the roles he was given and the films he was in, he did wish for more respectability, did chafe a little against the confines of horror

He probably chafed more at the makers of horror movies than having to act in them. He wanted them done right, with respect and a measure of gravitas. Peter Cushing was that way, too; there's a story about how he dressed down the entire cast of Captain Clegg when the playing of an ensemble scene got too winking and ironic. Can you imagine Karloff and Cushing sharing a scene?

Marilyn said...

He got tired of playing monsters and was relieved by his work with Val Lewton. Too back Lewton didn't live forever. At least we'll always have Targets. Was there ever a better actor working with someone who couldn't act his way out of a bag (Bogdanovich)?

Appropriately, my word verification is "herse".

Greg said...

Bill, that's an interesting list and I agree with him a lot more than I do the Oscars. I haven't seen Modern Romance in years but I liked it a lot when I did see it. It's nice to see someone like Brooks get recognition, even if only on a list like Peary's, for playing his alter-ego roles so well.

Greg said...

Arbo - Cushing and Karloff! What a team! They would've been great together. I wonder if anyone at Hammer (and you'd probably know this) ever gave thought to offering Karloff the role of the tutor in Curse of Frankenstein and if so why didn't they follow through. That would have made for an excellent pairing.

Greg said...

Marilyn, funny you should mention that because the few clips on YouTube of Welles last unfinished work, Other Side of the Wind, are rendered virtually unwatchable thanks to PB's presence. Really, you just want to smack him.

bill r. said...

Man, people really hate Bogdanovich, don't they? I actually liked him in TARGETS.

Arbogast said...

Speaking of Targets, I've always wondered about the circumstances of the death of Nancy Hsueh, who plays Orloff's secretary. She died in 1980 at the age of 38 or 39 and I've never heard a cause of death. She isn't given a lot to do but I think she works well with Karloff in Targets.

Word verification: cretebag. Not as good as cretin but it's up there.

bill r. said...

Man, you're right. Not even TCM has anything on her. That's weird.

bill r. said...

And she died the day after what would have been Karloff's 93rd birthday. Weirder still.

Greg said...

Okay, I've done a lot of searching and discovered 1) her husband Dan Carr died the same day so no natural causes 2)still no article to confirm it but someone on a message board said it was a murder/suicide. Absolutely no confirmation of that though. Even searched for obit on the NY Times and LA Times archives and came up empty. But that's what I've got for now.

bill r. said...

Greg, she died in Portland, Maine. What's the big newspaper up there?

bill r. said...

Also, IMDB lists Dan Carr as still living.

Greg said...

I went to a "celebrity death" site and they had him as dead on that day. Must be a different Dan Carr listed as alive or the site is (quite possibly) wrong. I'll have to search for Maine archives now. I must know!

bill r. said...

No, the one on IMDB I checked is listed as being married to Nancy Hsueh. They're probably wrong, though. My understanding -- uncomfirmed -- is that Tim O'Kelly, who played Bobby Thompson in TARGETS, also passed away, but IMDB doesn't have that information, either.

Greg said...

Seeing as all I have to go on is a message board I am taking the murder/suicide proclamation with a huge grain of salt. And since there's nothing listed it's possible it was a car accident or perhaps cancer that took her so early.

bill r. said...

What message board has the murder/suicide claim?

BLH said...

Great piece. Karloff's career is a pretty deep source of pleasure and fascination.

It's odd that Peary doesn't recognize any other Lewton film in any sense. I suppose it is the most conventionally entertaining of the bunch, but that's always been a part of the reason why it's one of my least favorites.

Greg said...

Bill, one of the IMDB message boards, "How did Nancy Hsueh die?". And it's pretty much an "I heard" kind of a thing.

Greg said...

BLH, I find most Lewton films entertaining, conventional or not. I would have assumed though that Peary would have gone with Cat People over Body Snatcher due to its popularity. By the way, I just watched Cat People again last week and it still amazes me with its ambience and mood. Jacques Tourneur does such a great job with it. No matter how many times I see it it always seems fresh.

bill r. said...

BLH, I would say that LEOPARD MAN and GHOST SHIP are far more conventional than THE BODY SNATCHER.

BLH said...

Not to get into a petty little thing about it, but I'd say The Leopard Man is one the least conventional of the Lewton pictures. It has such an unusal structure for its time and genre. Just the way it keeps shifting focus to new characters, even in the late stages of the picture, and the sincerity with which it builds compelling drama around these characters before killing them off. I think it's one of the best of the cycle.

BLH said...

And I don't want to suggest that I automatically equate "conventional" with "bad". It's just that the aspects of Lewton's pictures that I find so fascinating have a lot to do with the ways in which they differ from films of the time in general.

Greg said...

And I don't want to suggest that I automatically equate "conventional" with "bad"...

So if I'm reading you correctly you're saying conventional = bad. Also, again if I'm reading you correctly, you're saying Bill is petty. In fact, I believe the exact quote was "[Bill]...[is]... petty..."

Arbogast said...

I never imagined Bill to be all that big.

Greg said...

Yeah, you've had some harsh words for Bill. In the second sentence of your recent post "Nothing to Declare" you wrote, "Mind you... [Bill] [is] [a] [red]...neck..."

I still remember how shocked I was to see that.

Greg said...

Then in the second half of that same sentence you wrote, "[Bill] [is] a[n] [un]professional writer, ... [an] unwise... bon[ehead]..."

Damn, you know how to cut 'em at the ankles.

bill r. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
bill r. said...

Hey, guys, what's going on? Somebody said you were talking about me.

[Reads previous posts]

What...but I don't...why are you saying these things about me, guys? What'd I do? I just wanted to hang out and be friends with you guys.

I...I thought I'd finally found a place in this world. A group of people who would accept me for me. I guess...I guess not.

[Runs away crying hysterically]

[Gets hit by bus]

Greg said...

I just wanted to hang... you guys...

Well maybe if you weren't always threatening us!

Oh, and, watch out for the bus.

RJ said...

Really, if anyone hasn't seen Targets, it's A MUST see.

Greg said...

RJ, agreed. It's Karloff at his best.

Audra said...

Outstanding piece! Bravo! I stumbled across your piece when I was searching for information on the the movie Targets that happened to be on television yesterday. I always thought Nancy was a beautiful woman that was the embodiment of wholesome & natural beauty. Terrible tragedy about her passing so young. Thank-you for your exceptional literary piece & updated information on the talented & beautiful Nancy H. I was surprised to read that Tim O'Kelly hasn't worked since he was dropped from the coveted role as Dan-O on Hawaii 5-0. His career looked promising but next to Karloff in Targets, Karloff is in a class of his own & a true gentleman that never forget his humble roots. That's what made him such a unique & talented actor in my opinion. Actors tend to lose their "hunger" & talent sometimes after they have a few movies under their belt & the money & greed take precedent, but that was never the case with Karloff & that's why he's still being talked about today as an icon & only becomes more sensational as time goes on. His allure & popularity seems to only enhance w/ time & age with the general public. His talent,love of his craft,his style & devotion to his fans & his art is what directors & actors of the present horror cinema are so sadly & desperately lacking today. Quel dommage! There isn't a horror flick that I watch today that couldn't use a bit of Karloff sprinkled throughout the movie! Thanks again & so happy that I serendipitiously came across your fabulous piece! :)

GinaS said...

Strangely, on the imdb there is no mention of Dan Carr's being married to someone called Amber, the only person mentioned as his spouse is Nancy. Portland, Maine is stated on the imdb as his location, as is the day Nancy died.

Anonymus and A.Bee are most likely the same person, pretending to know Nancy and her family. On this website, "Anonymos" posted the same sort of "information", which A.Bee "confirmed". Get a life!

http://monsterkidclassichorrorforum.yuku.com/topic/2922/BORIS-ON-TARGET?page=3

GinaS said...

an assistant professor of medicine by the name of NANCY HSUEH BEGGS postet some comments on the topic of atherosclerosis on a website for internal medicine back in 2006. On that website it's stated that only two people have ever died of atherosclerosis, and the actress Nancy Hsueh isn't one of them. Perhaps that's where the joker posing as Nancy's cousin got the idea from. I really hate it when people go on forums posing as someone they aren't, and sharing "information" they fabricated themselves, probably out of boredom.

Greg said...

People do very weird things on the internet, Gina. I've deleted their comments. Thanks.