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Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Boris Karloff's 10 Best Roles, Besides You-Know-Who

Astute Vault-Dwellers (I know you're out there) will note that I usually do top 10 lists on Tuesdays, not Thursdays. However, this is a special occasion--namely the Boris Karloff Blogathon, hosted by Pierre Fournier of Frankensteinia. And since I wasn't able to do it on Tuesday due to Ms. Horror Blogosphere duties (polls now open, by the way, please vote), I'm breaking the rules and doing a Thursday Top 10.

You're probably reading a lot of posts about Karloff's portrayal of the Frankenstein Monster in James Whale's 1931 masterpiece. And rightfully so, this being the week of Karloff's birthday, and that being his most deservedly famous movie role. It made his career, and stands as perhaps the single greatest pantomime performance in the history of cinema. Yet Karloff was a fine actor who did so much more in later years, and that is why I'm dedicating this list to the "best of the rest" of his legendary career...

10. Gruesome
For someone with his "unique" look, it was only natural for Karloff to play one of Dick Tracy's trademark rogue's gallery, which he finally did in Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947)--the fourth and final of RKO's Dick Tracy movie series (and generally considered to be the best). While not one of his finest movies, it's notable for the novelty of Karloff as a comic strip villain.

9. Prof. Morlant
The Ghoul (1933) is often referred to as the film that kicked off the British horror film tradition, and what better way to do so than with Karloff as a vengeful Egyptologist back from the dead. Amongst a stellar cast including Cedric Harwicke, Ernest "Dr. Pretorius" Thesiger and a young Ralph Richardson, Boris still stands out.

8. Dr. Fu-Manchu
Politically correct, shmolitically shmorrect. Karloff shines as the devious Mandarin mastermind in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932). Unlike Christopher Lee, who played the part several times in the 1960s for Hammer, this was Karloff's only appearance as the good doctor--Paramount's answer to the successful early 1930s MGM series starring Warner Oland.

7. Master George Sims
For the last of his Val Lewton trilogy, Bedlam (1946), Karloff plays the corrupt, sniveling director of the titular mental institution. By turns sadistic, manipulative and cowardly, he excels as the true highlight of one of Lewton's drier efforts. Plus, it's just very cool to see him stomping around in 18th century garb.

6. Dr. Gustav Niemann
The least known and appreciated of Karloff's parts for Universal's monster series, which is unfortunate. As the proverbial "mad scientist" in House of Frankenstein (1944), Karloff is deliciously evil, proving--more than a dozen years after kicking off the series in the role of the Monster--that he still had it. He also gets a kick-ass hunchback assistant in J. Carrol Naish.

5. The Grinch
You had to know it was coming, and no, this is not a mere sentimental favorite from childhood. Anyone who's seen Chuck Jones' immortal animated TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966) can vouch for just how remarkable Karloff is as the voice of the green guy. So much so, that Jim Carrey hamfistedly aped him in the abysmal 2000 live action adaptation.

4. Hjalmar Poelzig
With a name like that, he better be good--and Karloff is much more than that in The Black Cat (1934) arguably the greatest of his team-ups with fellow monster legend Bela Lugosi. Boris plays a sinister Satan-worshipper (with a very rad haircut, I might add)--quite a daring part which would soon become dicier territory thanks to the rise of the Hays Committee.

3. Imhotep/Ardath Bay
Karloff's "other" great Universal monster role, and you might be surprised that it's not my number one here. As excellent as he is in the dual starring role of The Mummy (1932), I would argue that this particular Uni effort is one of the studio's more overrated. In particular, there are two other Karloff roles I personally prefer. And they are...

2. Jonathan Brewster
This one's kind of tricky. The unforgettable role was written for Karloff, who played it on Broadway in 1941 to rave reviews. Preferring to support the stage production, however, he declined to play the part in the film version. He did, however, play it in three different TV versions in 1949, 1955 and 1962. I love this character, and rank it high based on the legendary word-of-mouth regarding Karloff's performance. Had I been fortunate enough to see it live, I would have easily placed it at number one.

1. Cabman John Gray
Having said that, the role I do choose for number one is this one, from the first of his Lewton films, The Body Snatcher. As I elaborated in my recent review of the movie, Karloff is simply awe-inspiring as the menacing John Gray. But this is no two-dimensional villain part--rather, it's a complex and nuanced performance which Karloff digs into with great gusto. For my money, this is his finest hour outside of his iconic role as the Monster in the first three Frankenstein pictures. Simply puy, it is classic Karloff.


Wings1295 said...

Great list! I would have put Cabman Gray at number one, too! Such a great character, brought to life by the one and only. Wonderful.

DLR said...

What about Byron Orlock, from Targets? Granted, not a villain, but easily a "top-5" role. And it includes Boris best rendition of the "Appontment in Samara" story.

Wayne Hipley said...

Great list, and I agree wholeheartedly with #1. There is an audio recording of "Arsenic and Old Lace" with Karloff floating around that was done with the Broadway cast for radio - it gives a great sense of what his performance must have been like. Two performances that I would probably have in my top ten are Gravelle from "Charlie Chan at the Opera" and John Ellman from "The Walking Dead."

Steve Miller said...

Great list! I would have replaced Gruesome with John Ellman from "The Walking Dead," but otherwise it's the list I might have made.

George said...

Who could quibble with this list? Well thought-out and original! I'd throw in Gen. Pherides from "Isle of the Dead," I suppose (though I don't really know what I'd eliminate here to substitute), and clicking on my name to see my own Blog-a-Thon contribution clearly reveals my bias :) Great list.

Caftan Woman said...

One wonders about Jonathan Brewster. Do you suppose the "Melbourne Method" is anything like "Burking"?

Vardulon said...

God list, but I was sad to see the twins he played in Black Room left off. I've always been a big fan of that one.

Vardulon said...

Yeah, that's right. I wrote 'god list'. Oy.

Gord Shriver said...

Interesting to see these picks. I would definitely put "Targets" and "The Black Room" (in which he plays three roles really--two brothers, then one of them pretending to be the other). Given how good some of his TV stuff was ("The Lark", for example), it's too bad he never got an Emmy nomination. I have the '62 version of "Arsenic" on VHS if you want to come over and see it.

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