This post is part of the massive Boris Karloff blogathon conjured up by Pierre at Frankensteinia.
This week's Boris Karloff blogathon takes a look at one of the more intriguing and versatile actors in memory. He was a prolific actor too: by the time he moved up to that great silver screen in the sky in 1969 he spent nearly sixty of his eighty-one years acting on stage, screen, broadcast on television and radio. His Hollywood career began in the silent period circa 1919, but he didn't achieve star-level notoriety until he played The Monster in James Whale's version of Frankenstein (1931). In that role Karloff not only established a horror genre trademark for his talents, but he helped rip Mary Shelley's tragic undead creature from literature to establish him forever in the popular imagination as an icon of the cinema.
Karloff's original conception of the monster was more or less mute (Shelley's version is rather articulate) which seems a bit ironic considering the actor developed one of the more unusual vocal styles. His voice, like dry ice wrapped in cotton, and famous lisping delivery would become icons of horror. It might just be my favorite aspect of his talent. He probably used it to greatest effect in The Mummy (1932) where it suits his character's decrepit countenance perfectly. And if imitation is the sincerest form of flattery then what do we make of Russell Steiner's parody of Karloff's voice in the opening scene of Night of the Living Dead (1968), Bobby Pickett's singing on Monster Mash, or the slurring Karloffian mode all narrators drop into pretty much anytime something spooky is advertised around Hallowe'en?
However, there's more to Karloff's voice talent than the ability to evoke frightful fun and gloomy doom. Recently, while watching a DVD of animated shorts and features by filmmaker, painter, sculptor Jiri Trnka I discovered another side of the actor's vocal ability and thought I'd share it for the blogathon as yet another indication of his versatility. The Emperor's Nightingale (1951) is a stop motion animated feature based on a story by Hans Christian Andersen originally released in Czechoslovakia in 1949. Two years later an English-language version was released in the U.S. that features narration by Karloff. I was surprised when I saw his name appear in the opening credits and wasn't exactly sure what to expect. In the picture, an ill and lonely child dreams about the toys in his room coming to life. He dreams he is the emperor of China, isolated and trapped in a court dominated by rigid routine symbolized by the crashing of cymbals. He hears a tale of a wonderful creature with a magical song, the nightingale. He commands his ministers to find the bird and bring her back to court. When they do the nightingale's song becomes the means by which the little emperor, and the little boy too, eventually discovers freedom.
Given the eerie power of Karloff's tombstone voice it is remarkable that his narration fits this children's picture like a velvet glove. To be honest his delivery works best in a death-dream sequence but, whether that's because he was more comfortable in such familiar haunted territory or because I just hear it that way due to my own expectations is anybody's guess. I wonder, was this the first time he branched out beyond the graveyard and allowed a more kindly persona to be heard in a motion picture? He would later perfect a sympathetic storytelling ability through recordings for children and, famously, in the television special How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966). In that animated telling of Dr. Seuss's yuletide tale, Karloff's affectionate lispy reading appeals to the child in all of us --at least to anyone whose heart isn't two sizes too small.