Saturday, November 24, 2007

Happy Birthday, Boris Karloff

Yesterday--November 23--would have been the 120th birthday of the wonderful actor Boris Karloff.

Of course, he's best known for the part that gave him fame--Frankenstein's Monster. He played the Monster in three films, Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939). He was excellent all three times, making us sympathize with the Monster while still bringing across a sense of real menance.

But Karloff was great in all his films. I think his best performance is in a 1946 film titled Bedlam, in which he played the corrupt master of an 18th Century London insane asylum. He's the best part of one of the best movies ever--a story that manages to be spooky and intelligent at the same time. Like all the best horror movies of the 1930s and 1940s, it reminds us that it's possible to tell a scary story without grossing us out.

Karloff was also wonderful on dramatic radio. He guest-starred many times on the horror show The Inner Sanctum, where he was especially good in the episodes titled "Birdsong for a Murderer" and "The Wailing Wall." He was magnificent playing the villianous Uriah Heep in a Theater Guild on the Air adaptation of David Copperfield.

November 23 would also be the birthday of John Dehner. He's one of those character actors who would pop up in a zillion different TV shows and movies during the '50s & '60s, one of those guys you always recognize but can never name, but he really shined on old-time radio.

He was in the radio version of Gunsmoke nearly every week, always playing a different role. He might be anything from a uneducated mountain man to a rich cattle baron, but he would always be believable.

He played the lead in two old-time radio shows. He was Paladin in the radio version of Have Gun, Will Travel (which was a rare case of a show starting on television, then going to radio: it was usually the other way around), but his best show was Frontier Gentleman. In this, he played a reporter from the London Times who traveled the American West in the 1880s, looking for human interest stories. It was a classy, intelligent show with good scripts and good production values.

Karloff and Dehner. Two completely different actors who both contributed much of what is worthwhile to our popular culture. Karloff has been gone for four decades now and Dehner passed on 15 years ago, but the great stories they were a part of are still here for us to enjoy. Happy birthday to them both.

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