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Monday, November 23, 2009

Boris Karloff Blog-A-Thon --- We Had a Karloff That Swings!

The big cameo in teen-targeted Bikini Beach turned seventy-seven in 1964 when that pic came out, yet few in its audience needed introduction to Boris Karloff. He was youth’s oldest friend and longest standing cool personality. Boris played sinister straight but kept a wry distance. He was for having fun with scares and that made him welcome most everywhere during the sixties. Here was the decade of Karloff’s fullest flowering. No more Broadway (too old finally?) nor pursuit of character work outside spooky type, his was an image firmly entrenched once Thriller made Boris Karloff TV's brand name for gooseflesh. That hosting (and sometimes top-lining) hour program put the actor in a televised hall of mirrors where avuncular host morphed into hours later alter ego from decades before. You could board a Karloff express with afternoon theatre stops (his for American-International), straight on to Thriller in the evening, then midnight arrival with Shock Theatres at (seemingly) all stations (what television market in the 60’s didn’t have one of these?). His was exposure the likes any player might dream on, and it made Karloff’s a face (and voice) so familiar as to be living under our very roofs. I used to scan TV GUIDES to see where he’d be that week. Didn’t matter the vintage. I’d surf his clowning with Red Skelton right to the next wave of Behind The Mask from 1932, all in a same viewing cycle. Oh, and it never mattered if shows or movies were worthy of him. Simply Karloff was enough and closed the deal for whatever they were running.

Pierre Fournier at Frankensteinia anticipates over a hundred participants for his Karloff Blog-A-Thon this week. I’ve pondered just how BK rates such blogging fervor. Would counter-programming on Bela Lugosi’s behalf inspire such participation? We know Boris ran success-wise rings round Bela during their lifetimes. What was it about Karloff that transcended monster ghettos? Yes, he was stuck in the genre most of the time, but embraced nonetheless by entertainers who’d not otherwise venture near horror folk. I just listened to a Bing Crosby radio broadcast from 1947. Karloff was guest and engaged easy repartee with Bing and announcer Ken Carpenter. He did scary movies, but maintained a kind of remove from all that, as though joshing with show biz pals like Crosby was the real Karloff life and menace work mere fooling (and other than infrequent quality work with a Val Lewton, that’s likely how he viewed it). Lugosi could never manage such distance. He came off intense even when laugh lights were flashing. Part of it was Bela’s foreign-ness. Crosby might have invited him before a microphone but for doubt BL could manage outside prepared skits. You could never be sure that Lugosi’s act was just an act. Karloff, on the other hand, readily exited his graveyard to relax among personalities way outside genre boundaries. Curling hair for AIP, but also voicing the Grinch, and doing it playfully enough to relax us and earn good will among folks not given to horror patronage.

Some of you might want to go out and get popcorn now, because this is where I start talking about how I grew up with Boris. Are monster memories getting tired? My generation has been at it now for longer than Universal made all those Frankenstein and Dracula pics, and I’m apprehensive that my look-backs are looking mighty like everyone else’s. Are we getting like those old timers going on and forever about Bob Steele and Captain Marvel? And what of ones in the cemetery still rhapsodizing over Fred Thomson (and come to think of it, Lon Sr.)? I look forward to chatting with them if there’s an eternity, but in the meanwhile, I wonder if it isn’t time to give my monster kid past a rest. Just … not quite yet. Indulge me one more late show in my footie pajamas (which I’d actually like to have had at one time, but could never locate) and chance to relive what it was like seeing The Mummy on August 7, 1964 (like so many others excavating childhood, I went back and confirmed that date). Karloff was one of the first to offer me a sense of continuity in life, supplying as he did an ongoing visual record of the aging process and how increments of a year or ten will change a person’s circumstance and appearance. Fascinating was fact that a man who’d made movies labeled (1931) in my guide listings was yet turning up in just-out ones I’d caption (1964) for home-compiled records. Remarkable too was his guesting on pop shows first-running in primetime. The man who was the original Frankenstein monster was now Jim West’s opponent, and next week The Girl From U.N.C.L.E would play host to his villainy. Camped up television timed perfectly with Karloff’s grand old man phase of spookery. He stopped short of outright genre ridiculing Vincent Price and Peter Lorre indulged, disdaining ad-libs they peppered The Raven with, for Karloff maintained dignity and a champion’s defense of horror conventions that brought him fame. For interviews, he’d split hairs over Horror as opposed to Terror as descriptive term for work he did. I don’t think Boris would have sanctioned that Frankenstein model where the pants fell down.

As to my dedication, just a for instance. When Karloff did his Wild, Wild West (9/23/66), I guested (not necessarily by invitation) at neighboring cousins to watch in color, our own household being three months shy of a multi-hued set. Karloff was a maharajah of sorts, resplendent in costume and disgorging lines I still quote (This absurd ape begins to weary me --- just watch it). What disturbed were situations where this elderly man was clearly overtaxed. I didn’t enjoy his being struck down at the WWW finish any more than previous watery struggles in The Terror’s final reel. Both these were well past time when Karloff could easily manage on-set ordeal, yet we knew he was too much actor to permit doubling. It was like seeing one’s grandfather needlessly imperiled. Boris got pneumonia doing Black Sabbath in Spain and you knew someone was to blame for not looking out for him properly. How solicitous were ten-year olds of the time for real life seniors they knew?

Boris Karloff is introduced as guest host of Shindig (10/30/65) and teen girls scream as though he were all of the Fab Four … put to-gither. Here’s where we understand best just how contemporary BK's appeal was. Among other things, he sang The Monster Mash, a song credited to imitator Bobby Pickett, though I suspect most thought it was Karloff himself on that chart buster. It’s a heady thing to watch Boris reciting lyrics of The Peppermint Twist as go-go girls swivel around him. From vantage point of a throne chair, he introduces acts like Jim Doval and the Gauchos (a name not likely to be spoken again until the next siege of Troy) and spars verbally with Ted "Lurch" Cassidy, on hand to lead his own signature dance. Rock n’ Roll was still of two minds in 1965. How else to account for the Wellingtons’ straightforward rendition of Some Enchanted Evening? Surviving prints boast usual ghostly pallor of TV done primitive, the fact Shindig played basement network ABC making it all the more so. That Karloff should thrive here was no surprise, though I’ll declare without closer research that he was the only artist nearing eighty to ever appear on Shindig (or for that matter, Hullabaloo). Trips to the newstand found him aboard mastheads of varied mystery comics, the Karloff name sufficient to relieve us of twelve-cents for purchase. Monster mags celebrated past greatness of the senior Chaney and Lugosi, but Karloff was a here-and-now-working presence they’d visit on sets. Die, Monster, Die! made Castle Of Frankenstein headlines for Karloff playing an actual monster for the first time in years, and look at this herald for that film’s Charlotte first-run where Boris and Channel 3’s Dr. Evil are billed together as WBTV’s Two Favorite Bogeymen. It’s noteworthy too that the Capri was one of that city's premiere hardtops, and here was Die, Monster, Die! booking there as a single for nine days.

It couldn’t last forever. Karloff looked frail on his Red Skelton appearance toward the end, and by the time they reran it in the Spring, he was gone. My cousin was the one who broke news of that. I wrote a tribute for a local paper that had been printing my scrawls they charitably called movie reviews. Meanwhile, there was indication of Karloff having done a brace of horror films still to be released. We caught up with The Crimson Cult, billed as his last (it wasn’t), and near unwatchable save for an unexpected nude scene out of left field (and BK’s presence). Coincidental was belated appearance of one of what critics referred to as Mexican abortions Karloff did, these being his actual last. The Fear Chamber played our Channel 8’s Shock Theatre in the mid-seventies and rocked viewers for nudity as generous as that afforded most "R" features. Clearly this was a print the station’s editor had failed to vet. Maybe Karloff was as well to exit when he did. Ugly times lay ahead, and these final bows were proof he’d have had no place in horrors to come. Targets in 1968 was all the more valuable for reflecting Karloff’s awareness of that.


Blogger Booksteve said...

Excellent piece on several levels. having written my own Karloff piece yesterday, I find it interesting that he has come to so much transcend the genre for me. His movies don't always thrill me anymore but he continues to do so. Thanks.

6:36 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks Steve. Very much enjoyed your own analysis of Karloff's final four Mexican films, of which only a couple appear to be available on DVD.

6:53 AM  
Blogger Paul Castiglia said...

Another excellent post, John! I particularly enjoyed the background on Karloff's Shindig appearance.

On my horror-comedies blog ( I'll be covering "The Raven," "The Comedy of Terrors" and "The Ghost in the Invisible Bikini" this week, and I started off the Karloff blogathon with my review of "You'll Find Out," citing your own great entry on the film for further reading.

9:07 AM  
Anonymous Jim Lane said...

I once read an interview with Karloff in which he said that the language barrier kept Bela Lugosi from becoming the great actor he could have been; no doubt Boris was too tactful to mention Lugosi's drug addiction as another possible factor.

One of Karloff's most endearing qualities was his bemusement at the public image he enjoyed, this dignified, tea-and-cricket-loving English gentleman. When he appeared on The Garry Moore Show in the early '60s, Moore commented on the delicious creepiness of his name. "Well, that's not my real name, you know; I had to change it. I mean, it wouldn't have looked very good on a marquee: 'Lock your windows! Bolt your doors! Hide under your beds! Here comes William Henry Pratt!!'"

In the late '60s, when a friend and I read Frank Herbert's novel Dune (a one-off book then, long before it became the sci-fi juggernaut it is now), we sat down and came up with our dream cast for a movie version. For Thufir Hawat, the House Atreides Mentat and Master of Assassins, we agreed that only one actor would ever do: Boris Karloff. My opinion on that hasn't changed; both the 1984 movie and the 2000 miniseries drew from me the same derisive snort: "Not Karloff, not even close!"

1:55 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Liked your coverage on "You'll Find Out", Paul. Someday I'd like to do a post on "Ghost In The Invisible Bikini", owing to that cast and the fact it represented the end of the line for AIP's beach series.

Jim, the Garry Moore/Karloff appearance is one I never saw. Wish it would turn up somewhere ..

3:11 PM  
Blogger Paul Castiglia said...

John – I very much look forward to your “Ghost in the Invisible Bikini Post!” After all, I’m mostly offering my critical assessments (nee humble opinions) of the films I’m covering. I come to you (as do we all) for the history. And the ballyhoo!

4:32 PM  
Blogger Dave said...

If I can add my own contribution:

The thing about Karloff for me is, when I was a kid, it was only the monster/horror movies that I loved, but in the intervening years, getting to see more of his work, I've really come to admire his acting ability and range. He never fails to disappoint, and even in his weaker films, always rises above the material.

Some time ago, I saw a screening of his Hallmark Hall of Fame "Arsenic and Old Lace," and he was marvelous. I only wish I could see the 1955 telecast with John Alexander, Peter Lorre, Helen Hayes, Billie Burke and Orson Bean. Does anyone know if that one ever exists?

5:03 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Donald Benson sent the following e-mail with memories of that final Karloff appearance with Red Skelton, plus the rare BK "Sting Of Death" from 50's TV ...

I was more fanatical about the Skelton show than monster movies ("This is Art Gilmore speaking"). I do recall Karloff walking with a cane as he and Vincent Price mistook Skelton (in his rube character) for their new monster. When Price commanded Skelton to walk, Karloff hooked his cane on Price's arm and did a few seconds of mock monster, bringing down the house. Either before or after, Price and Karloff made an entrance on a decorated golf cart -- clearly a concession to Karloff's health -- to sing "The Two of Us" with Skelton. The payoff had Karloff standing up and doing the monster again to silence the orchestra.

If you haven't seen it, there's a nicely packaged grab bag of Sherlockania titled "Sherlock Holmes The Archive Collection" by Synergy Entertainment. Much of it is of interest only to dedicated Holmsians, but the prize find is a kinoscope of "Sting of Death," a 1955 anthology hour starring Karloff. He plays "Mr. Mycroft," an elderly bee fancier who suspects a neighbor of foul play. It's less than classic -- really a borderline comedy with a cast of four and a story that could have been told in 15 minutes -- but Karloff seems to enjoy playing a melodramatic old detective. The character name is as close as they come to identifying Karloff as the retired Sherlock Holmes -- for what I suspect were legal reasons they make the other hints very, very subtle.

6:48 PM  
Anonymous Dan Varner said...

I remember Karloff appearing on Gary Moore's show and singing a delightful version of "Tiptoe Through The Tulips". I'd love to hear that again.

9:55 PM  
Anonymous r.j. said...


It was a double-pleasure to be reading this wonderful tribute to a great man on the night on which we both celebrate our respective b'days. Sybil Jason told me that when he was shooting at Warners they both celebrated on one of the soundstages together that year. And -- get this -- turns out Ellen Drew was also a Nov. 23rd Sag. (Meaning that if "Isle of The Dead" was shooting at this time at RKO --).

A friend played for me several years ago a Jolson/Kraft Xmas show in which Karloff played Santa. There is also a charming Dinah Shore/Chevy Show of the 50's floating around that I've seen bits and pieces of, and is well worth seeking out. I think the major distinction between K and Lugosi is one you really pointed-out. Lugosi was from Budapest and a very different school of theatre. Mr. Pratt was much more an all-around entertainer as well as a serious actor, who could appreciate a good vaudeville-turn as much as a dramatic piece. One cannot overlook the fact he appeared on Broadway several times (and was very well-received, I understand) in "Peter Pan" with Jean Arthur and "The Lark" with Julie Harris. This sort of range goes way beyond the bread and butter horror films that we usually associate him with.

Among his later television appearances, I think honorable mention has got to be made as well, of his excellent turn as the Cervantes-obsessed scientist (or whatever it was supposed to be) on the old "I Spy" series, in which one could clearly see the two younger co-stars openly paying homage to him, and at the same time proof of what a really fine actor he was.

In closing, Dad wrote several of the "Thrillers" at Universal at that time, and I remember begging him to take me down to just let me meet him. He told me later that K would just show up for one or two days and film the intro's back-to-back.

Thanks once again for a really great piece, John.

Best, R.J. (Happy Thanks!)

12:07 AM  
Blogger Ted Newsom said...

I see no need to write anything about Boris Karloff and my memory of him... because John has done it for me, foot-jammies and all. In fact, if I keep reading this stuff, I may just stop writing altogether and just read his stuff instead.

Well done, old boy, well done.

Ted Newsom

1:26 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Great hearing from you as always, RJ. I'm not surprised to hear that Karloff shot his "Thriller" wrap-arounds so concentrated. Seems I read that Hitchcock also did his in all-day groups.

Ted, I'm pleased and humbled by your kind words, but promise never to stop contributing at CHFB. Your comments over there are my favorites.

6:42 AM  
Blogger JoeM said...


Have been looking at/reading your site for about two years, but this article finally made me register to post comments, so I could see if you or one of your other readers may have some information on a bit of a Karloff mystery.

Rather than get into details, let me just cut and past some data from the IMDB entry for the 1947 Danny Kaye film, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”:

"In an unused Mitty dream sequence, Boris Karloff appears as the Frankenstein monster, which explains Mitty's fear of Karloff's character. Test photos of Karloff in makeup (by Jack P. Pierce) exist, as well as a letter from Universal Pictures to Goldwyn Pictures giving permission to use the makeup design."
That pretty sums it up. Karloff wanted to help Pierce who had been fired from Universal, so a dream sequence was included with Karloff as the Frankenstein monster. Supposedly there were at least test photos done and it varies as to whether or not the sequence was filmed or not. Does anyone know anything about this, what I have termed “The Lost Frankenstein Appearance of Boris Karloff.”

Joe McGrenra

12:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

John, very nice piece on the way we monster kids took Uncle Boris to heart. I, too, remember him as a favorite TV guest star in the 1960s. If I remember rightly he was the very first celebrity guest on "I've Got a Secret"--his secret was that he was afraid of mice. And I remember being charmed right down to my socks when he sang "Chim Chim Charee" on Jack Paar's Friday night program.
I'm sticking to reviews (although with a nostalgic bent) on my new blog, Bentin's Miscellany, Please stop by. Doug Bentin

3:14 PM  
Anonymous Kimberly said...

I really enjoyed this and I really liked seeing the pictures of Elke and Boris together. I love them both!

4:18 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Hi JoeM: That Karloff as the Frankenstein monster in "The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty" was very much for real. The stills of BK in make-up have shown up at the Classic Horror Film Board and are really interesting to see. Too bad nothing more appears to survive from this 1947 return of the monster ...

GGB, Enjoyed your site very much and the piece on "Bedlam". Oh, and I'd sure like to have seen that Karloff on Jack Paar segment you referred to.

Elke and Boris, Kimberly. They were just bound to work together eventually.

4:35 PM  
Anonymous George said...

Monster memories "getting old"? Not if the Karloff Blog-A-Thon is any indication! A terrific, sprawling tribute here befitting the magnitude of Karloff's legacy. I also liked the side note about folks never being quite certain about how much of Lugosi was the "act." Actually, I rather like that about him and find that it distinguishes him in a good way. Not every actor should be like Lugosi (or, say, Klaus Kinski!), but we should be thankful for 'em all the same.

6:53 PM  
Anonymous Dan Varner said...

Here's the url for the Walter Mitty Frankenstein images. I think the makeup looked terrific.

6:16 PM  
Anonymous Chris said...

Karloff on Shindig "recreated"

8:22 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Thanks Dan and Chris for these very useful links to rare Karloff images and footage. The "Walter Mitty" stills are amazing!

10:37 PM  
Blogger Kevin K. said...

I remember that Skelton appearance; even at that age I kind of knew that Karloff needed the golf cart to save his strength.

His appearance on the Dinah Shore show singing "Little Darlin'" (along with Art Carney) is hysterically funny.

1:27 PM  
Blogger Ray Faiola said...

Great Karloff stuff. I have a 16mm print of THE WHITE BIRCH, which was the last thing he filmed before his death. Even in this final performance, Karloff was able to muster the strength not only of character but to get up from his wheelchair and walk the scene. He was a great, great actor.

12:26 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Having a print of Karloff's "Name Of The Game" episode ... now that is a truly rare collectable, Ray. If I'm ever up that way again, you'll need to show it to me.

12:37 PM  
Anonymous Gord Shriver said...

Dave, from all I've been able to determine over the last four decades, the 1955 ARSENIC show does not exist. It may in be in someone's private collection. The 1962 version--which I have on VHS--is at UCLA (where Sara Karloff, her husband and I saw it in 1996) and the Paley Center For Media. It's still very funny. Those two locations also have the excellent Hallmark broadcast of THE LARK.
"The Sting of Death" episode of ELGIN HOUR is based on a novel called A TASTE FOR HONEY and the character is named Mr. Mycroft. It's a Sherlockian-themed novel without mentioning Holmes directly. I wish the Red Skelton estate would release the show with Boris and Vincent.

12:08 AM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Gord, I've never looked, but I assume there are bootleg DVD's out there on some of these rare shows. I should start checking around ...

1:54 PM  
Anonymous Cancasa said...

Those classic black and white horror movies can't be improved upon.
I remember watching Peter Cushing etc in Hammer House of Horrors as a kid and it used to scare me senseless.

1:20 PM  
Anonymous CIPS said...

Great tribute to the man himself although I never really got into Karloff's films that much, probably due to my age.
Been a massive fan of horror movies since my parents first started to let me watch them back in the 80's.
I still think to this day that you will never find a better trio of horror movie actors than:
Peter Cushing
Vincent Price
Christopher Lee
Absolute classics!
Does anyone know all the films in which all 3 actors starred in?

4:08 PM  

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