Brides and Broads: Karloff’s Leading Ladies

Throughout his career, Karloff shared the silver-screen spotlight with many great actresses – often with them recoiling in terror from him! He never really got to play the ‘romantic lead’ but there is no denying the chemistry he shared with some of the actresses he worked with. Karloff came to prominence in the early 30s with his role in horror classic, Frankenstein. Sadly, many roles for women in horror films during the 30s and 40s often only required actresses to scream and faint - some roles however, provided the opportunity for women to play complex characters who found themselves in complex, dark and fantastical stories quite unlike those in any other genre.

Here are some of the great actresses who shared some memorable moments with Karloff ‘The Uncanny.’ Don't forget to check out Frankensteinia: The Frankenstein Blog for more Karloff related wonderment...


"She's alive! Alive!"

Elsa Lanchester. A British character actress with a lengthy career in theatre and TV, Lanchester really made a name for herself as the titular Bride in Bride of Frankenstein – the role for which she is no doubt best remembered. Having apparently survived the fiery climax of the first film, Henry Frankenstein returns and teams up with Dr Septimus Pretorius to create a companion for his Monster. Lanchester appears in the opening of the film as Mary Shelley, who when congratulated by Percy Bysshe Shelley and Lord Byron for her ghastly tale of the resurrected dead, reveals she has more to tell, and the film begins proper. However, it is the unforgettable sight of Lanchester as the shock-haired Bride later on in the film that has become one of the most iconic images in horror cinema. Despite only appearing onscreen for a few moments, the Bride is an immensely memorable creation and she has left a lasting impact on the landscape of horror. Lanchester's striking look is one thing, but her performance as the Bride is often underappreciated - her piercing gaze, unusual body movements and vehement hissing (apparently modeled on the hissing of swans) combine to ensure her presence is a truly commanding one. She effortlessly matches Karloff in the ability to imbue her monstrous character with a strange pathos and tragic allure, and all without uttering a single line of dialogue.

Karloff and Johann in The Mummy

Zita Johann. A Broadway actress, Romanian born Zita Johann made her first film appearance in 'father of cinema' D.W. Griffith’s 1931 film The Struggle before starring in Karl Freund’s classic chiller, The Mummy. When an archaeologist inadvertently resurrects Ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep (Karloff), the bandaged one shuffles off in search of his ancient love, Princess Anck-es-en-Amon (Johann), who has been reincarnated as Helen Grosvenor (Johann again). With her expressive performance, poise and soulful charisma, Johann effortlessly commands attention in her duel role. She portrays Helen as a strangely timeless individual: while not completely at odds with the contemporary society in which she lives, she does not really seem to be completely part of it either. Perfect for a character who discovers she is the reincarnation of an ancient princess and the former love of Karloff’s morose and heavy-hearted Imhotep/Ardath Bey. Helen eventually realises the only way to defeat Imhotep is to embrace her past and open herself up to the mystical forces of her ancestral past. Praying to the goddess Isis enables her to break the spell and destroy Imhotep. The earnest approach of Karloff and Johann renders The Mummy a tragic, if insidiously creepy, silver-screened love story. According to her obituary in The Independent, Johann, a self-confessed mystic, had a ritualistic, spiritual approach to the roles she played, revealing "To me, the theatre was related to the spirit. Before every performance I sat alone in my dressing-room, said my prayers, died unto myself and became my character." 

Anna Lee stars with Karloff in Bedlam

Anna Lee. Squaring up to Karloff in no less than two films, English actress Anna Lee appeared with the Uncanny One in Bedlam and The Man Who Changed his Mind, as well as starring in a host of other films including The Sound of Music, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? and John Ford’s Fort Apache. It was as Nell Bowen in Mark Robson directed/Val Lewton produced Bedlam that Lee really shone though. Resilient, socially minded and fiercely intelligent, not to mention witty, Nell Bowen was one of Lewton’s typically strong, self-assured female characters, and it is Lee who really brings her alive with a strong, spirited performance. The protégé of an aristocrat, Nell is horrified by the treatment of the inmates at 'Bedlam' - St. Mary's of Bethlehem Asylum. She invokes the wrath of the head of Bedlam, sadistic apothecary general Master George Sims (Karloff), when she publically rebukes and humiliates him and then seeks to have him removed from his position. No one else in the film but Nell stands up to Sims or questions his cruel treatment of his inmates. And what does she get for her trouble? A stint in Bedlam as one of Sims' 'guests'. Much to Sims' chagrin however, Nell wins over the other inmates with her compassion and selflessness, and soon sets about instigating positive changes to their living conditions. She eventually establishes a true sense of community within the walls of the asylum, and before long, she finds the strength and determination within herself to stand up to Sims one last time.  


Irene Ware recoils in horror in The Raven

Irene Ware. Crowned Miss America in 1926, Irene Ware later signed a contract with Fox and appeared in various films before starring in The Raven with not only Boris Karloff, but Bela Lugosi too. In the same film! She plays Jean Thatcher, a young woman injured in a car crash and nursed back to health by retired, Edgar Allan Poe-obsessed surgeon, Dr Vollins (Lugosi). The two become friends, but when her father discovers Vollins has fallen in love with her, he rebukes the surgeon, who hatches a dastardly plan for revenge. Karloff plays Bateman, a murderer on the run from the police who desperately wants to reform and begin a new life but is drawn into Vollins’ diabolical scheme after a deliberately botched surgery leaves him hideously disfigured. Cue much Poe-inspired mayhem! The film didn’t do very well upon release, as 1935 audiences had problems with the themes of torture, disfigurement and sadism. Oh my! Lugosi, Karloff and Ware are all great, but unfortunately Ware’s initially feisty character is reduced to an imperilled damsel in distress. She does a grand job with the material, however in the presence of Karloff and Lugosi, no one really has a chance in this flick…


Gloria Stuart fends off a ghoulish Karloff in The Old Dark House...

Gloria Stuart. One of the very few still-living actresses from Hollywood’s ‘Golden Era’, Gloria Stuart still works in film today – and even garnered an Oscar nomination at the age of 87 for her part in James Cameron’s Titanic. Stuart appeared alongside Karloff in James Whale’s morbidly humorous and thoroughly entertaining thriller, The Old Dark House. A horrid storm forces several travellers in deepest, darkest Wales to seek shelter at a too-gloomy mansion belonging to the rather strange and reclusive Femm family. A series of bizarre incidents throughout the night place the lives of all staying in the house in mortal peril. As Morgan, an alcoholic mute butler, Karloff is sufficiently aggressive and menacing – running amok and constantly threatening Gloria Stuart, who plays one of the reluctant guests seeking shelter from the storm. And with this being one of those aforementioned, typically early 1930’s horror film female roles, all the script really gives Stuart to do is scream and run away, but she enters into the raucous spirit of the film with knowing gusto and like the rest of the cast, she seems to be having an absolute ball while doing so.

Ellen Drew in the shadowy confines of Isle of the Dead

Ellen Drew. Ellen Drew began acting for Paramount in 1938. In 1944 she moved to RKO, and starred in the Val Lewton produced/Mark Robson directed Isle of the Dead, a film seeped with quiet menace and doomful foreboding. Set on an isolated island during the Balkan War of 1912-1913, the film focuses on the plight of a group of people – including Karloff as the tortured army General Nikolas Pherides - who are quarantined on the island when a plague breaks out. As they succumb to the plague one by one, local nurse Thea (Drew) is increasingly ostracised, accused of being a vorvolaka - a vampire - and the other characters, fuelled by desperation and superstition, eventually become wary of her. Thea, ever patient and level-headed in the midst of mounting hysteria, must put up with superstitious accusations from the locals and death threats from the increasingly deranged Pherides. When cataleptic Mrs. St. Aubyn (Katherine Emery) appears to have died, Thea is the only one who protests when the others insist on interring her. The moments when she tries, very rationally, to convince the others that St. Aubyn has merely fallen into a state of catalepsy, and her pleas are dismissed, are darkly unsettling. Thea is another of Lewton’s complex female characters, and Drew delivers an assured, subtle performance. She eventually proves she is not a vorvolaka – but only after she and Karloff have confronted each other in several quietly intense scenes.

Catherine Lacey and Karloff in The Sorcerers

Catherine Lacey. A British actress of the stage and screen, Lacey made her film debut in 1938 in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lady Vanishes. She also had memorable roles in 1960s British creepers like The Shadow of the Cat and The Mummy's Shroud before starring alongside Karloff in Michael Reeves’ penultimate film, The Sorcerers. She and Karloff play Marcus and Estelle Monserrat, an elderly couple who practice hypnotism and invent a device that enables them to control the mind of a young man in order to feel the sensations of his experiences. It isn’t long before Estelle, drunk on power and obsessed with experiencing new things, begins to indulge her increasingly perverse desires, including murder. Karloff imbues Dr Monserrat with a quiet dignity as he helplessly watches Estelle spiral deeper into her increasingly dark and diabolical fantasies. Estelle begins to care less about the consequences of her selfish actions, but Lacey ensures we still feel sympathy for her, conveying all the desperation of someone who wants nothing more than to relive her youth. All too aware of her limited time and ailing body, she longs to feel young, to be desired, experience pleasure and escape into a world of new sensations, albeit through someone else, and with dire consequences. The scenes between Lacey and Karloff are basically confined to one small room, but their performances and the shifting dynamics of their characters ensure these scenes crackle with intensity.

Comments

Matthew Coniam said…
Irene Ware's my favourite... closely followed by Gloria Stuart...
Anonymous said…
I'm fond of Irene Ware's character. She's the only person in the movie who bothers to be nice to poor old Bateman...
iain said…
"Else Lancaster" ?????
NononoNO. An egregious misspelling, surprisingly so, appearing as it does on your erudite site.
It's ELSA LANCHESTER, please!
James Gracey said…
No dear. Profound apologies! Thanks for bringing that typo to my attention, Iain. Can't imagine how I let that slip by... :)

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