Classic movie site with rare images, original ads, and behind-the-scenes photos, with informative and insightful commentary. We like to have fun with movies!
Archive and Links
Search Index Here

Friday, November 24, 2006

Boris Karloff --- Part Two

Slide whistles in the main title theme of a Boris Karloff vehicle would seem neither welcome nor appropriate, but that’s just the opening bell for 66 minutes of derivative slap-stick-ery inspired by the success of Broadway’s Arsenic and Old Lace. The Boogie Man Will Get You was in theatres by October 1942, long before Warners could release its screen adaptation of the Karloff stage smash, allowing this pallid facsimile to give provincial audiences a taste of what they’d been reading about in Life and The Saturday Evening Post. Arsenic was black comedy of a sort new to movies, and Boogie Man treaded a ridge between harmless plagiarism and outright, actionable theft. This time Karloff’s misunderstood scientist was played for laughs, only here the yoks are few, so often the case when we’re force-fed zany antics by players straining too hard for the effect. Bodies are piling up in Karloff’s basement, but I had a feeling none of them were really dead, for if they were, he’d soon enough be facing the same electric chair that claimed him in previous Columbia outings. Sure enough, the "corpses" march unceremoniously through his lab just before the fade, arriving as if on cue to checkmate possible Code intervention. Karloff had a deft hand for comedy, and his parlays with Peter Lorre anticipate future teamings on Route 66 and AIP’s The Comedy Of Terrors, itself a similarly labored exercise in dark humor. The great thing about Arsenic and Old Lace (pictured below is a still from the Broadway production) was the prestige it conferred upon Karloff at a time when his career really needed a jolt. A "B" level comedy/horror for Columbia was tangible expression of the actor’s new status, but the truer reward by far was conferred by Universal two years later when they combined Technicolor with a big-budget musical thriller starring Boris Karloff …

The Climax is Universal-ly reviled by fans of Karloff, but when was any horror headliner otherwise entrusted with Technicolor amidst "A" trappings? The previous year’s Phantom Of the Opera was thought too lofty for the likes of Chaney, Jr., despite his familial links with the role and contract availability. Were it not for Arsenic and Old Lace, I doubt very much if Karloff would have gotten The Climax, even if Universal did play games with his billing (first position in the credits, but second to Susanna Foster in the trailer). I like this show because Karloff is at all times elegant and commanding. He’s also striking in Technicolor, enjoying plush accommodations denied him at Columbia and in lesser Universals. Horror fandom seldom overlaps with an appreciation for Susanna Foster, so I can understand the antipathy viewers feel toward The Climax. Universal would easily score bookings for a lavish follow-up to Phantom Of The Opera in theatres that wouldn’t dream of playing The Boogie Man Will Get You. Cheap horror movies were not for first-run houses. The Climax was sold as something quite different (and that's actress June Vincent with Karloff during an on-set break). Universal’s trailer emphasizes Karloff’s Arsenic antecedents. Romantic lead Turhan Bey, himself a veteran of previous horrors, is now celebrated as a romantic new star, acclaimed for his role in "Dragon Seed." The idea was to disassociate these players from low-budget monster movies, as premiere audiences of the day had no more interest in these than modern day Karloff fans have for Susanna Foster or Turhan Bey. With its emphasis on music, The Climax can’t help but disappoint horror mavens, but is it really any worse than the 1943 Phantom Of the Opera in that respect?

I don’t like seeing Karloff belittled and pushed around, least of all by the cut-rate likes of Stephen McNally, whose sole worthwhile accomplishment at the time of The Black Castle had been stealing Jim Stewart’s rifle in Winchester ’73 and engaging in some reasonably colorful villainy therein. Why diminish Karloff in these fifties costumed gothics? Was he regarded as too old to carry the lead? I wanted to see him play McNally’s part in The Black Castle. Imagine Boris with a patch over his eye, consigning victims to those same alligator pits McNally presides over so listlessly. And what twisted form of logic confers top billing and the leading role to past-his-prime Richard Greene? Watching The Black Castle was a bitter experience for this Karloff admirer. I’d glimpse him briefly fifteen minutes in, then he’d disappear for several reels. The role could have been played by Paul Cavanagh, Alan Napier (and both do lend minor support in The Strange Door), or any number of competent thesps. It’s obvious they only hired Karloff for his name, much as was the case with Bela Lugosi and Night Monster. There’s more effort toward selling Richard Greene as a swashbuckling romantic, Flynn-ed out in sword fights and tavern brawls. The Black Castle is no more a horror film than The Prince Who Was A Thief, The Golden Blade, or a dozen other Universal-International pageants, and I could as easily imagine Jeff Chandler or Rock Hudson playing this at about the same level of competence as Greene. As for Karloff, he was actually better served as Dr. Jekyll and (being doubled as)
Mr. Hyde opposite Abbott and Costello.

Karloff doesn’t enter The Strange Door. He’s dragged in, thrown on the floor, and
kicked by a top-billed Charles Laughton. Much of the film is taken up with the frustrated romance of two utterly vapid young players, Richard Stapley (once a Hal Wallis contract hopeful) and Sally Forrest (whose own billing was increased to equal prominence with Laughton and Karloff in a special pressbook supplement). Those tavern dust-ups so beloved of unimaginative Universal writers are given play in the opening reel of The Strange Door, and despite atmospheric graveyards and castle sets to come, we know horror themes will run a distant second to generic action-adventure content. Everyone seems committed to withholding Karloff’s presence. His is the mysterious eye peeking through walls for most of these 81 minutes, an impassive and largely offscreen observer of Charles Laughton’s flamboyant over-playing. The Strange Door was a step down for Laughton as well, though his motives were pure in that he wanted to finance his ongoing acting workshops and used fees from films like this (and Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd) to do it. If uninhibited Laughton is your meat, here is a banquet of same. Would that Karloff have had such a rich histrionic opportunity! As it is, he’s the loyal, self-sacrificing family servant (always the weakest role in any cast), whose voluntary forfeitures on behalf of undeserving masters seem pointless and unmotivated. No man (or actor) at 64 should have to endure two gunshots, night swims across a moat (after being shot), and a literal backstabbing from one whose part he should have played. Karloff might have managed all this twenty years before, but seeing him attempt it now, in the service of such a poor vehicle, makes you wish he could have collected the fee for less strenuous work --- live television perhaps, or another of his radio quiz programs (above at a broadcast with western great William S. Hart and Rudy Vallee). Considering the sorry state of horror films in the early fifties (and their further erosion as sci-fi took over), we can be thankful Karloff had the refuge of stage work (plus radio and TV) to sustain him. The Universal DVD box includes The Strange Door, The Black Castle, The Climax, Tower Of London, and Night Key. These represent lows and a few highs in his career, but all are well worth seeing, as are the Columbias, and the prices for both sets are irresistible.

Karloff Columbia Numbers

Here's a listing of domestic rentals for six films Boris Karloff did at Columbia. Considering the modest figures shown here, you can imagine why it was necessary to hold down the budgets for these shows. Karloff's vehicles were not unlike serials and "B" westerns in that respect ...

The Black Room --- $187,000
The Man They Could Not Hang --- $183,000
The Man With Nine Lives --- $156,000
Before I Hang --- $117,000
The Devil Commands --- $120,000
The Boogie Man Will Get You --- $160,000


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ah, I guessed wrong: Boris Karloff, not Harpo Marx.

Apropos of which, here's an interesting bit of trivia I picked up from the supplemental notes to the laserdisc box set of The King and I. The "Anna" of The King and I and Anna and the King of Siam, whom we know as Anna Leonowens (her real married name was Anna Owens), had a sister named Eliza. Eliza's daughter married a man named Edward Pratt, with whom she had three sons, the youngest of whom they named William Henry.

So there you have it: That famous schoolteacher at the Court of the King of Siam was the great-aunt of Boris Karloff! Small world, eh?

1:00 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Jim, that is a great story! I had no idea of that limk between Karloff and the King Of Siam. Thanks for educating me!

9:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have to disagree with you with the point about Laughton and his choice of roles in the '50s. He was wealthy enough and had enough clout at studios that he could support his own projects. His motivations for doing MEET CAPTAIN KIDD were primarily to work with Abbott and Costello, whom he was a great admirer of (they also shot a Christmas Seals snipe together the same year during that shoot).

3:09 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I remember seeing long ago in an old reference book a photo of Karloff and Tony Randall that was supposedly a "behind the scenes" pic from a TV version of 'Arsenic And Old Lace'. As I've never found any other info, I'll ask here: Did (or better yet, does) this show really exist?

5:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Earl B. -- I remember that production of Arsenic and Old Lace; it was done on the old Hallmark Hall of Fame in 1962, back when the HHoF was an intermittent series of plays (originally live, later on tape) rather than the occasional TV-movie that it has become. The dotty old aunts were Dorothy Stickney and Mildred Natwick, and Teddy Brewster was played by Tom Bosley (later of Happy Days, but then fresh from his Tony-winning stint as Broadway's Fiorello!). It also restored the play's original ending, where Mr. Witherspoon enjoys his last glass of elderberry wine, "but the curtain falls before he does..."

Since this was a Hallmark production, my guess is that it survives somewhere, albeit in that obsolete videotape format (like the Mary Martin Peter Pan) that would require conversion, with uncertain commercial potential. Too bad someone doesn't take the chance, as it's probably our only chance to see Karloff in his second-most-famous role. Being from 1962 on NBC, it would certainly have been done in color, too.

6:30 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks, Jim, for the data regarding the television adaptation of "Arsenic and Old Lace." Very interesting stuff.

7:02 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

I saw the Karloff/Randall "Arsenic" years ago at UCLA, so they have a copy. Unfortunately, my memory is that it wasn't very good, being watered down and edited for television.

If only Warners had been able to cast him for the film! (And if only Capra could have toned Cary Grant's performance down . . .)

And if only someone would cast Jeremy Irons as Jonathan Brewster, I'd be a happy man . . .

5:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Karloff also appeared in a 1955 TV production of Arsenic, costarring Peter Lorre, John Alexander, Orson Bean, Helen Hayes and Billie Burke. You can get more details from the link in BK's IMDb listing.

10:38 AM  
Blogger Michael J. Hayde said...

"(And if only Capra could have toned Cary Grant's performance down . . .)"

Based on what I've read, it may have been the other way 'round. To his dying day, Grant considered ARSENIC his worst performance ever, and fully blamed Capra for forcing him to play it so broadly.

12:29 PM  
Anonymous Henry S said...

Let me just add my "I'd buy it" if only there were a DVD of the HHoF 1962 version of Arsenic and Old Lace. Why do treasures like this, and Groucho Marx's Ko-ko in the 1959 HHoF version of The Mikado, remain on Kinescope and tape and not get copied onto DVD? Isn't the technology up to it? How much could it cost?

10:44 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Underlying rights, I suspect, are the problem.

11:33 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home
  • December 2005
  • January 2006
  • February 2006
  • March 2006
  • April 2006
  • May 2006
  • June 2006
  • July 2006
  • August 2006
  • September 2006
  • October 2006
  • November 2006
  • December 2006
  • January 2007
  • February 2007
  • March 2007
  • April 2007
  • May 2007
  • June 2007
  • July 2007
  • August 2007
  • September 2007
  • October 2007
  • November 2007
  • December 2007
  • January 2008
  • February 2008
  • March 2008
  • April 2008
  • May 2008
  • June 2008
  • July 2008
  • August 2008
  • September 2008
  • October 2008
  • November 2008
  • December 2008
  • January 2009
  • February 2009
  • March 2009
  • April 2009
  • May 2009
  • June 2009
  • July 2009
  • August 2009
  • September 2009
  • October 2009
  • November 2009
  • December 2009
  • January 2010
  • February 2010
  • March 2010
  • April 2010
  • May 2010
  • June 2010
  • July 2010
  • August 2010
  • September 2010
  • October 2010
  • November 2010
  • December 2010
  • January 2011
  • February 2011
  • March 2011
  • April 2011
  • May 2011
  • June 2011
  • July 2011
  • August 2011
  • September 2011
  • October 2011
  • November 2011
  • December 2011
  • January 2012
  • February 2012
  • March 2012
  • April 2012
  • May 2012
  • June 2012
  • July 2012
  • August 2012
  • September 2012
  • October 2012
  • November 2012
  • December 2012
  • January 2013
  • February 2013
  • March 2013
  • April 2013
  • May 2013
  • June 2013
  • July 2013
  • August 2013
  • September 2013
  • October 2013
  • November 2013
  • December 2013
  • January 2014
  • February 2014
  • March 2014
  • April 2014
  • May 2014
  • June 2014
  • July 2014
  • August 2014
  • September 2014
  • October 2014
  • November 2014
  • December 2014
  • January 2015
  • February 2015
  • March 2015
  • April 2015
  • May 2015
  • June 2015
  • July 2015
  • August 2015
  • September 2015
  • October 2015
  • November 2015
  • December 2015
  • January 2016
  • February 2016
  • March 2016
  • April 2016
  • May 2016
  • June 2016
  • July 2016
  • August 2016
  • September 2016
  • October 2016
  • November 2016
  • December 2016
  • January 2017
  • February 2017
  • March 2017
  • April 2017
  • May 2017
  • June 2017
  • July 2017
  • August 2017
  • September 2017
  • October 2017
  • November 2017
  • December 2017
  • January 2018
  • February 2018
  • March 2018
  • April 2018
  • May 2018
  • June 2018
  • July 2018
  • August 2018
  • September 2018
  • October 2018
  • November 2018
  • December 2018
  • January 2019
  • February 2019
  • March 2019
  • April 2019
  • May 2019
  • June 2019
  • July 2019
  • August 2019
  • September 2019
  • October 2019
  • November 2019
  • December 2019
  • January 2020
  • February 2020
  • March 2020
  • April 2020
  • May 2020
  • June 2020
  • July 2020
  • August 2020
  • September 2020
  • October 2020
  • November 2020
  • December 2020
  • January 2021
  • February 2021
  • March 2021
  • April 2021
  • May 2021
  • June 2021
  • July 2021
  • August 2021
  • September 2021
  • October 2021
  • November 2021
  • December 2021
  • January 2022
  • February 2022
  • March 2022
  • April 2022
  • May 2022
  • June 2022
  • July 2022
  • August 2022
  • September 2022
  • October 2022
  • November 2022
  • December 2022
  • January 2023
  • February 2023
  • March 2023
  • April 2023
  • May 2023
  • June 2023
  • July 2023
  • August 2023
  • September 2023
  • October 2023
  • November 2023
  • December 2023
  • January 2024
  • February 2024
  • March 2024
  • April 2024
  • May 2024
  • June 2024
  • July 2024