Brides and Broads: Karloff’s Leading Ladies

Throughout his career, Karloff shared the spotlight with many a silver-screened siren – usually with them recoiling in terror from him. Karloff 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 – be they shrieking in terror at his approach, or strangely drawn to his undoubted yet dark charisma. Whilst most actresses in horror films during the 30s and 40s were reduced to screaming and fainting - some equiped themselves well and managed to rise above questionable material to create feisty heroines who could more than hold their own against the villain/monster. And of course, some just screamed and fainted a lot - but they did it so well they get a mention too.

Here are some of the actresses who shared more 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. An English character actress with a lengthy career in theatre and TV, Lanchester really made a name for herself as the bride in Bride of Frankenstein – the role for which she will no doubt be best remembered. Which I’m sure you’ll agree, is no bad thing at all. Surviving events in the first film, Henry Frankenstein returns and teams up with raging queen Dr Septimus Pretorius to create a mate for his Monster. The unforgettable sight of Lanchester as the shock-haired Bride has become one of the most iconic images in horror cinema. Despite the fact that she was created to be a mate for the Monster, Bride has no such intentions and rejects him outright, hissing and screaming at him. The Monster, more than a little upset over this hostility, sheds a tear and pulls a lever that ultimately destroys the laboratory, himself and his aloof Bride... Well, at least until the sequel, Son of Frankenstein. Which is markedly Brideless.

Karloff and Johann in The Mummy
Zita Johann. A Broadway actress, Romanian born Zita Johann made her first film appearance in D.W. Griffith’s 1931 film The Struggle. Zita was much more comfortable on stage than on screen, and after a paltry seven films, she quit cinema. Johann effortlessly commanded attention in her duel role as Helen Grosvenor / Princess Anck-es-en-Amon in Karl Freund’s The Mummy. Her exotic and alluring beauty was the perfect foil for Karloff’s morose and heavy-hearted Imhotep / Ardath Bey. When an archaeologist inadvertently resurrects Ancient Egyptian priest Imhotep, the bandaged one shuffles off in search of his ancient lover Princess Anck-es-en-Amon – who has been reincarnated as the delectable Helen Grosvenor. Karloff and Johann portray the doomed lovers earnestly, ensuring The Mummy is one of the most tragic, if insidiously creepy love stories to grace the silver screen. 

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 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. A radiant, fiercely intelligent and witty character, Nell Bowen was one of Lewton’s typically strong, self-assured female characters. No one else in the film stands up to Karloff’s sadistic apothecary general Master George Sims – head of Bedlam asylum – as much as Bowen. And what does she get for her trouble? A stint in Bedlam as one of Sims’s guests. Winning over the other inmates with her compassion and self-sacrificing nature, Bowen soon has it in her power to stand up to Sims one last time… 

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, albeit much more leisurely, 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 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’ Femm family. A series of bizarre incidents throughout the night place the lives of all staying in the house at risk. As Morgan, an alcoholic mute butler, Karloff is sufficiently leery and menacing – running amok and threatening poor Gloria Stuart. And with her being a typical early 1930’s horror ‘heroine’, all she does is scream and faint. But she does it so well!

Karloff's Monster advances upon Mae Clarke in Frankenstein...
 Mae Clarke. Beginning her career as a dancer, Mae Clarke would eventually go on to star in films such as Waterloo Bridge – a pre-code film in which she played a woman forced by circumstances into a life of prostitution – and The Public Enemy with James Cagney. This film boasts the famous and often parodied scene, in which Cagney takes a slice of grapefruit and smooches it into poor Clarke’s face before going out and picking up Jean Harlow. The lug! It was as Elizabeth facing off the Monster in James Whale’s Frankenstein that Clarke landed her most famous role. The sight of Karloff bearing down on her on her wedding night is still quite chilling to this day. And as a Scream Queen in 1930s horror cinema, what does Clarke do? Scream and faint! Like Gloria Stuart though, she does it so well.

Marian Marsh marries into deadly secrets in The Black Room
Marian Marsh. After signing with Warner Bros and changing her name to Marian Marsh, Violet Ethelred Krauth landed her most revered role in Archie Mayo’s Svengali – opposite John Barrymore. After this film’s success Marsh was reteamed with Barrymore for The Mad Genius, before travelling to Europe to continue her acting work. Returning to the States and signing with Columbia, Marsh starred opposite Karloff in the 1935 mystery-horror film The Black Room. Karloff delivers one of his most subtle yet complex performances in a duel role as doomed twins Anton and Gregor Bergmann – victims of a dark prophecy spelling out their self-inflicted demises. Marsh is the love interest of the ‘good twin’ Anton, and her scenes with Karloff become interesting as she suspects Anton has been murdered and is being impersonated by his evil twin Gregor.

Frances Drake
Frances Drake. No, not the famous English Sea Captain and second-in-command of the English fleet against the Spanish Armada, but the demure and pretty actress famous for portraying Eponine in Les Misérables (1935). Drake appeared in the classic Mad Love – with Peter Lorre – before taking a role in The Invisible Ray – with Karloff and Bela Lugosi – in which she portrays the wife of kerr-azy scientist Karloff. As Dr Judh, Karloff finds a meteor but is poisoned by the radiation and begins to lose his mind whilst glowing prettily in the dark. The Uncanny One gives an uncharacteristically over-the-top performance as the ill-fated scientist, which somehow manages to enhance his character's increasingly off-balanced state of mind. Drake equips herself well as Judh’s blousy wife – who unlike most other 1930’s ‘Scream Queens’ doesn’t take to screaming and fainting every five minutes.

Ellen Drew in the shadowy confines of Isle of the Dead
Ellen Drew. Former Beauty Queen, Ellen Drew began acting for Paramount in 1938. In 1944 she moved to RKO, and amongst other titles, starred in the Val Lewton produced/Mark Robson directed Isle of the Dead. 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 die one by one, a young woman is accused of being a vorvolaka - a sort of vampire - who the other characters become increasingly wary of. As the accused, Thea must put up with superstitious accusations from local peasant women and death threats from the increasingly deranged Pherides. Karloff gives another subtle and assured performance to rival that of (in this writer’s humble opinion) his best performance in The Body Snatcher. Drew is another of Lewton’s positive female characters who eventually proves her innocence – but not until she and Karloff have confronted each other several times, in a film seeped with quiet menace and doomful foreboding.

Marjorie Reynolds
Marjorie Reynolds. Reynold’s was a child actress in silent films. Her first ‘talkie’ was Murder in Greenwich Village (1937). She appeared onscreen several times with Karloff in the William Nigh directed ‘Mr Wong’ films in which Karloff played the titular Wong, a San Francisco based detective. Reynold’s portrayed perky and determined reporter Roberta 'Bobbie' Logan – who hires Karloff to track down a ruthless killer and help her get the scoop. Luckily Karloff’s finely tuned performance and subtle nuances ensure he doesn’t come across as offensive – what with him being a white actor playing an Asian character and all. Reynold’s starred in three of the six Wong films, and her hardboiled, screwball-esque sparring with Grant Withers, who plays Captain Street, provided much appreciated relief from all the trench-coated, sleeve-gunned, poison-gassed shenanigans.

Irene Ware recoils in horror in The Raven
Irene Ware. As Jean Thatcher in the 1935 The Raven, Irene Ware starred alongside not just Boris Karloff, but also Bela Lugosi. In the same film! Lugosi plays Dr Vollin, a Poe obsessed surgeon who professes his love to Ware, only to be turned down, even after he performs an operation that saves her life after a horrid car crash. Vollin encounters Bateman (Karloff) who is on the run from the police and wants a new face. Vollin deliberately botches the operation, leaving Bateman with a hideously disfigured face. He agrees to re-do the surgery if Bateman will help him get revenge on the Thatcher’s for preventing him from being with Jean. Whilst Karloff and Lugosi were often portrayed as ‘bitter rivals’, during the filming of The Raven they actively united to recruit for the newly founded Screen Actors Guild in which Karloff played a significant role. The film itself didn’t do very well, as 1935 audiences had problems with the films themes of torture, disfigurement and sadism. Oh my! However, Lugosi’s performance has been praised and often regarded as one of his best. Ware does her best with the material, however in the presence of Karloff and Lugosi, no one really has a chance in this flick… She flirts, screams and faints. And then participates in some interpretive dancing later on in skimpy clothes – very risqué for the time you know.


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.
James 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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