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Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster: The Authorised Biography by Stephen Jacobs

01/01/2012. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster: The Authorised Biography in the USA - or Buy Boris Karloff: More Than A Monster: The Authorised Biography in the UK

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pub: Tomahawk Press. 568 page illustrated indexed large softcover. Price: GBP25.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-9557670-4-3).

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William Henry Pratt took the name Boris Karloff because he realised that it would be better than his own name for the stage. What is interesting about this book is how author Stephen Jacobs gives not only a history of Karloff’s early life but a real glimpse of what it was like to be a jobbing actor and the kind of life they led, often penniless, looking for work, first in the theatre and then in those new things, movies and television back at start of the last century. It is hardly surprising that ‘Frankenstein’ was the turning point in his career.

To some extent, Karloff was half-caste from an English father and an Indian mother but this had to be played down because of prejudice at the time. Young Billy Pratt fell in love with the stage at the age of nine but had to struggle against family and ended up leaving them to fulfil this ambition in Canada.

It’s hardly surprising that there are whole chapters devoted to Karloff’s ‘Frankenstein’ films, but also to other significant productions like the original stage plays, ‘Arsenic And Old Lace’ (which he had an invested share in) and ‘Peter Pan’ playing Captain Hook. With the 1931 ‘Frankenstein’ film, there is a lot of emphasis on how Universal saw Karloff more as a commodity than a star failing to bring him to the film premieres across the States, although to be fair, they also did pick up his contract and ensured they placed him in other films, mostly in disguise or rather because he would tolerate long hours in the make-up chair like with ‘The Mummy’. I suspect also Universal didn’t want him bought up by any other studio as well. It’s interesting to read how different edits were made of ‘Frankenstein’ across the States so as not to offend people or seen as too gory. Granted the only other significant horror talkie at that time was ‘Dracula’ but it does show how much censorship existed at the time and cinema-goes rarely saw the original director’s cut and if anything, as Jacobs points out, the omissions make it too easy for people to think something far worse went on. Mine you, across the world, some countries wouldn’t show the film at all. Interestingly, ‘The Bride Of Frankenstein’ had similar problems although the cut footage was actually lost completely.

What I didn’t know before reading this book was how much of a key player Karloff was in recruiting towards the Screen Actor’s Guild and more so with getting links with British Equity while he was making films in the UK.

Among the many photographs in this book is a tiny one you might over look but actually shows the European village from on high on the Universal back-lot on page 170.

Karloff makes an interesting point about being typecast as being the ‘horror man’ on page 323 as being a mistake as what he is really selling is terror. Now that is an even scarier thought. Reflecting on that, considering how all the horror stars are remembered with reverence compared to those in the more general films, one has to say which are the most remembered? That tells a lot about human perception which is far more telling than the critics.

There are notes on the page and at the back of the book. The latter can be mostly ignored because they only reference source. There has been a long time since I’ve had notes on the pages where they are connected to which makes for a welcome change.

Make no mistake, this is a depthy book and a heavy read. Nothing wrong with that but you get not only Karloff’s history but also that of the productions and people involved which in turn gives a snapshot of the time period and puts everything in context.

One thing that is always known was how unlike a monster Boris Karloff was in real life and who charmed everyone. Then again, that was true of all long-term horror…excuse me, terror actors. I suspect the reason Karloff didn’t mind being typecast was because he was rarely out of work and kept working right up to his death. Something very few actors can say the same for.

If you enjoy reading about the old horror movies and, indeed, the people who were in them then this book is a true gem that you will want to get your claws into with relish. Although I do suggest you read, rather than eat this book. A great salute to the life and performances of Boris Karloff. Long remembered and never forgotten.

GF Willmetts

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