Boris Karloff was born William Henry Pratt in the Camberwell district of London, thousands of miles from the place that would make him a star of such magnitude that, for a time, he was known merely by his (fake) last name. Though he appeared in dozens of silent films, Karloff shot to fame with his moving portrayal of The Monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein, and went on to star in a slew of other mostly horror films, from The Mask of Fu Manchu to Edgar G. Ulmer’s Poe adaptation, The Black Cat.
Next week, in recognition of the 75th anniversary of the release of Frankenstein, New York’s Film Forum is presenting a week of Karloff features. The series includes the trio of films mentioned above, as well as Bride of Frankenstein, Targets and a pair of virtually unseen pre-Frankenstein rarities: Graft and The Guilty Generation, in addition to seven others.
Thought of primarily as a looming, sinister screen presence, Karloff was in fact an actor of remarkable skill and subtlety, traits that were never more fully realized than in Frankenstein. Despite having not a single line to speak, Karloff infused the Monster with such a profound melancholy that even today the movie, despite its otherwise often dated acting, remains deeply affecting. Though he had never worked with the actor before, Whale clearly understood the power at his disposal: instead of portraying the monster as the pitiless beast he had been in previous screen incarnations, he instead gave us a massive, awkward creature who, from the very beginning, is abused and misunderstood. And in Karloff’s hands, the creature’s suffering is abundantly clear; a sense of solemnity comes over the movie when he first appears on screen after nearly 30 minutes of buildup, and it refuses to relinquish its grasp until the credits roll. Given the restrictions placed on his character by the creature’s awkward body and wordlessness, Karloff was able to use only his face to convey emotions. Despite this, he created a being that, by turns, is befuddled, desperate to please, terrified, and filled with explosive rage.
The famous scene in which the Monster interacts with a remarkably open young girl, for example, is held in high esteem for a good reason. Encountering true, unadulterated kindness for the first time in his short life, Karloff’s Monster reacts with a wonderful range of emotions, first simply gazing up the girl’s tiny hand with naïve wonder and curiosity, as if wondering how such a thing can possibly exist. Then, also taking in the flower the hand holds, he begins to smile. Despite the fact that, even when split by a smile, the Monster’s face remains hideous, the overflow of emotion that Karloff brings to the moment renders it almost overwhelmingly affecting. Even now, it remains one of the purest expressions of joy ever captured on screen.
Though Karloff plays the same character in Bride of Frankenstein, the tone of Whale’s sequel is completely different from that of the original, with new emphasis placed on an intentional campiness and wit that were largely overlooked by the Production Code Administration. Even under these new circumstances, though, Karloff’s monster maintains his dignity. Whether he’s standing in for Christ on a cross constructed by marauding townspeople or bonding gleefully with a blind musician, Karloff conveys a strong sense of being in on the joke - never laughed at, his warmth and awareness instead move the Monster the very center of a movie that is ostensibly about scientists, and their desire to play God.
The range and depth exhibited by Karloff in his first two appearances as Frankenstein's Monster (he would play the monster one more time, in Son of Frankenstein - that film is not part of the Film Forum’s series) immediately make clear to the modern viewer the real reason Karloff worked so steadily in the three decades following Frankenstein. It wasn’t because he was physically frightening or intimidating, or because of his name. Instead, it was due to the fact that he was a truly magical actor, who also, happily, happened to be a gentleman and a consummate professional.
The Film Forum series (complete schedule is here) begins on Friday February 3 with a Frankenstein/The Mask of Fu Manchu double feature. Highlight include Peter Bogdanovich introducing his (credited) directorial debut, Targets, at 8:20pm on February 9, and producer Richard Gordon introducing The Haunted Strangler at 6:20pm on the same day.