Of all the Universal stars of the Golden Age of Horror in the 1920’s, 1930’s and early 1940’s, for me, the greatest was christened William Henry Pratt, the baby in a family of nine children born to Edward and Eliza Sarah Pratt in Camberwell, London, England on November 23rd, 1887. A bit of trivia about little William’s family: his maternal great-aunt was Anna Leonowens, better known as THAT ‘Anna’ of Anna and the King of Siam or The King and I. But I digress…
Now I know what you’re thinking – who the hell is William Henry Pratt? You know Bela Lugosi of ‘Dracula‘ fame; you remember Claude Rains as the ‘Invisible Man‘; you know Lon Chaney, Jr. of ‘The Wolfman‘ and to a lesser extent possibly ‘Frankenstein‘ as well; you might possibly recall Vincent Price playing yet another ‘Invisible Man‘. If you’re a movie buff, you may have seen the work of the great Lon Chaney – the Man of a Thousand Faces – who thrilled audiences as ‘The Phantom of the Opera‘ and ‘The Hunchback of Notre Dame‘.
But William Henry Pratt? You don’t see his name in the Universal ‘Monster’ cavalcade.
According to his biography, while acting on the stage in Canada (where he had ended up after various jobs), Mr. Pratt decided to take the name of Boris Karloff. Where that first and last name came from is open to discussion – it might have been the name of a character in a book; it might have been the name of a character in yet another book; it might suggest a possible Slavic background, although Pratt’s daughter Sara denied this was part of their heritage. Who knows? But there you have the name we best know William by today, this actor in a family producing sons which were part of the British Empire’s diplomatic community.
I love this story, which is repeated on Wikipedia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boris_Karloff):
One reason for the name change was to prevent embarrassment to his family. Whether or not his brothers (all dignified members of the British foreign service) actually considered young William the “black sheep of the family” for having become an actor, Karloff apparently worried they felt that way. He did not reunite with his family until he returned to Britain to make The Ghoul (1933), extremely worried that his siblings would disapprove of his new, macabre claim to world fame. Instead, his brothers jostled for position around him and happily posed for publicity photographs. After the photo was taken, Karloff’s brothers immediately started asking about getting a copy of their own of it. The story of the photo became one of Karloff’s favorites….
That was in 1933 – he was famous by that year. Before then, Karloff – whose poor health prevented him from serving in World War I – ended up in Hollywood, where he was in mostly forgotten silent movies. As “talkies” began to take the place of the silent format, he appeared in movies which got him attention: The Criminal Code and Five Star Final (the latter was Oscar nominated for best picture).
But it was in 1931, as the mute, unnamed Creature/Monster brought back to life by Doctor Henry Frankenstein, which made the moviegoing world sit up and take notice. This was James Whale’s ‘Frankenstein,’ which as any horror or true movie fan will tell you, is NOT the name of the Monster, but the name of its’ Creator! But generations will always call the Monster Frankenstein. It’s stuck – that’ll never change.
William Henry Pratt, this gentle, soft-spoken, well-educated, well-read, cultured Englishman gentleman with a lisp, now aka Boris Karloff, became a household name and his “reign of terror” began in the Universal stable of now classic horror movies.
Karloff’s career was made.
‘The Old Dark House‘ (which featured Charles Laughton and future Oscar nominee/’Titanic’ star Gloria Stuart); the classic gangster film ‘Scarface‘ (the original with Paul Muni), ‘The Mask of Fu Manchu,’ the superior sequel ‘The Bride of Frankenstein,’ ‘The Black Cat‘ (with fellow Universal star Bela Lugosi in a sympathetic role), all these and more landed at his feet.
And one of the movies he made during the continuing rise to fame was directed by German immigrant Karl Freund, a former cinematographer in the great German Expressionist period of the 1920’s. The Freund/Karloff collaboration was called ‘The Mummy‘ and was released in 1932.
Whereas Boris was uncredited in ‘Frankenstein‘ – you only get “The Monster……?” to maintain the mystery, one of the first images you see as ‘The Mummy‘ begins are miniature models of a pyramid and a Sphinx and a title card which reads ‘Carl Laemmle Presents BORIS KARLOFF In…”
On a theater lobby card, he is listed only as ‘KARLOFF THE UNCANNY’. Uncanny – the dictionary defines that as “strange or mysterious, especially in an unsettling way” (Oxford Dictionary). Yep, that’s one way to put it!
No more ???????? for Boris. Well, in ‘Bride of Frankenstein‘ a few years afterwards, the ? would be left for the mystery person playing ‘The Monster’s Mate’. In fact, for ‘Bride…’ he is credited as KARLOFF. Nothing else, just KARLOFF. In ‘The Black Cat‘ he is credited with top billing as KARLOFF (while Bela Lugosi isn’t called LUGOSI but BELA LUGOSI – WOW and WOW).
KARLOFF! You only needed to hear the last name and you knew; a first name was no longer required.
Although he would play The Monster several times and would star in other films, the movies – in later years – became more B-level. Although one of my personal favorites is a Roger Corman comedy-horror called ‘The Raven‘ (which has about as much to do with the Poe poem as ‘Frankenstein‘ had to do with the original Mary Shelley novel. We’re talking suggestions and inspiration here – not page by page interpretations!) Anyway, not only is Karloff chewing the scenery as our villain, but Vincent Price and Peter Lorre are chewing right alongside him – while a VERY young Jack Nicholson has a secondary role. It’s a fun movie, and it was nice seeing Karloff back in form.
He would also have a children’s radio program which entertained – as they once said – young and old alike; the TV suspense drama ‘Boris Karloff’s Thriller,’ and generations now know his voice as the Narrator in ‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas.’
William Henry Pratt. Boris Karloff. Karloff. Karloff the Uncanny. By whatever name you call him, he is legendary.
More about the 1932 ‘The Mummy‘ in the future.