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Does Frankenstein Deserve an Oscar?

Getty Images / Photo via John Kobal Foundation

Does Frankenstein Deserve an Oscar?

When you think of Boris Karloff, born November 23, 1887, you probably picture the lumbering, moaning monster of Dr. Frankenstein, or the cuddly-as-a-cactus Mr. Grinch. But when Sara Karloff thinks of him, she thinks of her dad. “He was the antithesis of the roles he played. A British gentleman, soft spoken, and very funny. What a modest, genuinely good human being he was!”

Ms. Karloff, 76, curates her father’s legacy at fan conventions and online, but she emphasizes that it's her father’s fans who are the driving force behind keeping his legacy alive. “Our family owes them a huge debt of gratitude and thanks.” Ms. Karloff became aware of the scope and devotion of her father’s fan base when she was invited to attend the Famous Monsters of Filmland Convention in 1993. There, she was “overwhelmed by appreciation of fan’s of father’s work.” It was then that she decided to create a website dedicated to her father’s legacy.

On that website, she catalogues dozens of letters from fans (though it's just a sampling of the number she receives) as well as artwork that features her father—often in character as Frankenstein.

If Ms. Karloff and her father's fans have their way, the actor's legacy could unfold into a new chapter. Hundreds have signed on to a fan-led effort to campaign the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to honor Karloff posthumously with a lifetime achievement award. His roles as Frankenstein and the Grinch are so iconic that they alone might make such an award deserved, but looking at the arc of his career reveals the story of a man who was deeply devoted to acting, and whose career and influence were among the greatest in Hollywood history.

The youngest of nine children, the man who would be known as Boris Karloff was born in London as William Henry Pratt. All of his older brothers served in the British diplomatic corps in India and China, and it was expected that he would follow the same path. But he knew from a young age that he wanted to be an actor, and at 22 he sailed to British Columbia, where he presented himself to a repertory company as an experienced actor. He claimed to have acted in plays that he had in truth only seen or read.

Pratt's inexperience was exposed as soon as he began performing: “his salary was $30 a night when the curtain went up and $15 when it came down,” jokes Sara Karloff. But though his wages were cut in half, he wasn’t fired, and that company allowed him to hone his craft.

Eventually he moved west, taking acting jobs or other work in the theatre. He changed his name along the way, emerging as Boris Karloff in Hollywood. But perhaps “emerged” isn't the right word: he continued toiling in obscurity, practicing the craft he was passionate about, for years. First he took roles as an extra in movies, then bit parts. He was always “third from the left in the fourth row.”

It wasn't until 1931’s Frankenstein that he became well known, and he was far from the first choice for the role. That first choice had been Lon Chaney Sr., whose death in 1930 left the role open. When Bela Lugosi turned it down, Karloff happened to be in the studio commissary and managed to land the part. He was 44 years old and had already been in show business for 20 years, and in Hollywood for 10, before he got that iconic role. “Frankenstein was his 81st film,” Sara Karloff recalls, “and hardly anyone had seen the first 80.”

 

Noone expected it to make him famous, but Frankenstein’s monster immediately resonated with audiences. By the time he reprised the role in two more movies, Bride of Frankenstein in 1935 and Son of Frankenstein in 1939, he was a bona fide star, and the movies he made thereafter were definitely seen by many.

Among the highlights were a series of eight horror movies in which Karloff starred alongside Bela Lugosi, including The Black Cat (1934) and The Body Snatcher (1945).

He also starred in the hit Broadway play “Arsenic and Old Lace,” playing a part so specifically written for him that the script includes jokes about how much “he looks like Boris Karloff.” The play ran from 1941 to 1944 with 1,444 performances. He continued making movies through the 1940s and 50s, as well as appearing on radio, television and the stage. In 1966, Karloff voiced a character for a television adaption of a Dr. Seuss book, and found himself with the other of his most iconic roles, The Grinch. Karloff both voices the character and narrates the story.

The beloved special gives Karloff an association with Christmas as well as Halloween, and he is said to have referred to the last few months of the year as his “busy season.”

But Boris Karloff’s importance to the movie industry goes beyond the roles he played. An important part of his legacy is his influence on actors that came after him. He was a mentor, teaching younger actors—some who would go on to win Oscars—his method for marking their lines in a script. And he was a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild in 1933. He and his fellow actors had to meet surreptitiously to plan the union’s first steps, and standing up to the existing studio system essentially put their careers on the line to secure rights for young actors on their way up. “He was very modest about his work with SAG,” Sara Karloff maintains, “but it was imperative that up and coming actors not be treated like meat.”

Boris Karloff clearly deserves that lifetime achievement Oscar that his fans are petitioning for. But were he still alive, he might discourage the campaign. Sara Karloff says her father “just wasn’t into awards.” She tells of the time when her father won a Grammy for his narration of a recording of How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1968. He did not attend the ceremony, letting his agent accept the award. And when he saw the statuette in his agent’s office, he “picked it up and said ‘it looks like a bloody doorstop!’” And then he left it on the floor in the doorway as he left.