Ask me to name three stars of black-and-white movies, and the first names that come to my mind are Katherine Hepburn, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. I will eventually be posting reviews of Hepburn films, but I had not intended to write about Karloff or Lugosi in this forum as I have already covered their work in The Boris Karloff Collection, The Bela Lugosi Collection, and The Universal Horror Archive.
[UPDATE (July 2010): Since writing that paragraph, most of the posts from the Lugosi and Karloff blogs have been replicated in "Shades of Gray," for ease of reference.]
However, the Franksteinia blog is serving as a hub this week for the Boris Karloff Blogathon, an event that is proving to be a fabulous source of views and reviews on one of the horror genres greatest figures. I wanted to call attention to the blogathon (in case anyone out there is checking out these posts)... and that, in turn, inspired me to take the opportunity to highlight some films where Boris Karloff is playing very different characters than he is famous for.
To any fan of classic movies and to most Americans over 45, the name "Boris Karloff" evokes images of monsters, creepy bad guys, and shadowy, fog-draped cemeteries. However, Karloff's career spanned many genres and while he admittedly mostly played creepy bad guys, he did occassionally break from that character. Here are three examples of such roles--three films I think everyone who has ever admired Karloff should see. They are "Night Key" (Universal, 1937), where Karloff plays a grandfatherly inventor whose momentary desire for revenge gets him caught up in the schemes of a bunch of gangsters; "Mr. Wong, Detective" (Monogram, 1938), where he takes a turn as a mild-mannered Chinese-American private investigator; and "Lured," ("Hunt Stromberg, 1947) where he plays a part like one he wouldn't play again until he dressed in drag on an episode of "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E."
Night Key (1937)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Hobart Cavanaugh, Jean Rogers, Warren Hull, Samuel S. Hinds, Alan Baxter and Ward Bond
Director: Lloyd Corrigan
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars
After being cheated out his latest security system by his former business partner, Steve Ranger (Hinds), inventor and security expert Dave Mallory (Karloff) sets out to gain revenge and force the crooked business man to change the deal to a fair one. Together with a petty thief (Cavanaugh), Mallory sets about using another invention--the Night Key--to override the alarm system he created and cause harmless mischief in places protected by it. But, before Mallory manages to embarrass Ranger into submission, a ruthless gangster (Baxter) learn of his device and forces him to assist them in a major heist.
"Night Key" is a fun, fast-paced 1930s techno-thriller--it's like a "Firewall" or "Mission Impossible II" of its day, only with humor replacing the violence and a script written by someone who actually knew how to write and properly develop characters in a very short space. Of course, it also helps that the film features a fabulous cast, with everyone being perfect in their parts and everyone giving top-of-the-line performances.
Boris Karloff is particularly fun in this film, as he plays a character of a sort that he hardly ever got to play: A fundamentally nice person who is as kindhearted as Karloff reportedly was in real life. (Although one assumes that Karloff was not as naive and scatterbrained as the grandfatherly Dave Mallory is.)
Thanks to good direction and even better acting, the film provides many moments of touching comedy (such as the scene where Mallory and his criminal associate have fun opening every umbrella in an umbrella store) and intense excitement (such as when Mallory devises a way to escape the clutches of the gangsters who have kidnapped him and are holding his daughter for ransom). Everything in the film works perfectly, except for a rather pointless romance between Mallory's daughter and a security guard. However, this is such a minor part of the overall movie that it hardly has an impact.
Mr. Wong, Detective (1938)
Starring: Boris Karloff, Grant Withers, John St. Polis, Maxine Jennings, Lucien Prival and Evelyn Brent
Director: William Nigh
Rating: Eight of Ten Stars
When a powerful captain of industry is found dead inside his locked office moments after police detective Sam Street (Withers) saw him standing at the window, renowned private James Lee Wong (Karloff) joins forces with the homicide squad to interpret the only clues found at the scene--tiny fragments of delicate glass. When Dayton's business partners start dying under equally mysterious circumstances, and sinister agents of foreign powers start appearing in the shadows, Wong and Street have to race against time to prevent more murders, including, possibly, their own.
"Mr. Wong, Detective" is a fast-paced, well-scripted, complex mystery with lots of twists, turns, and misdirections. The array of suspects and the way suspicion moves on and off them, the way motives come into focus and blur again, the clever way the murder weapon is triggered, and the way Wong ultimately unmasks the very clever murderer, all add up to a mystery movie that deserves more attention than it gets.
Another element that adds to the film's quality is the acting. Boris Karloff is excellent as Wong, playing a more subdued and refined character than in just about any other role he played before or after, with the way Wong sarcastically offers stereotypical "Oriental humbleness" to the face of the bad guys adding flavor to the character and comedy to the film. Grant Withers as Street is likewise excellent in his part, shining particularly brightly in the scenes with Maxine Jennings, who brings effective comic relief to the picture as his feisty girlfriend, Myra. The supporting cast and co-stars also all turn in top-quality performances.
"Mr. Wong, Detective" is a film well worth the time a fan of 1930s mysteries should devote to watching it.
Lured (aka "Personal Column") (1947)
Starring: Lucille Ball, Charles Coburn, George Sanders, George Zucco, Cedrick Hardwicke, and Boris Karloff
Director: Douglas Sirk
Rating: Seven of Ten Stars
Scotland Yard's Inspector Temple (Coburn) hires sharp-eyed, sharp-witted, and sharp-tongued down-and-out American actress Sandra Carpenter (Ball) to serve as a lure for a serial killer who has been prowling through London's shadows, murdering young women he contacts through personal ads. With her Scotland Yard "guardian angel" Barrett (Zucco) watching over her, she undertakes the dangerous task of drawing out the insane killer.
"Lured" is a well-done, light-touch police procedural thriller (with touches of romance and melodrama along the way) that features an all-star cast of 1940s B-movie actors (and a respected stage actor thrown in for good measure), all of whom deliver great performances.
The dialogue is snappy, the tense moments genuinely tense, the funny moments genuinely funny, and the many red herrings tasty. Boris Karloff's character serves as the oddest and funniest fish of them all--and it's not a spoiler to say that he isn't the serial killer. Yes, it's the sort of part he often plays, but not here, and it will be obvious to viewers almost immediately. (Some might say he's WORSE than a serial killer here... he plays an eccentric fashion designer!)
I think this is a film that will be enjoyed by anyone who likes classic mystery movies. I also think that fans of Lucille Ball will enjoy seeing her in her pre-screwball comedy days. (Speaking of comedy, George Zucco's scenes with Ball are always amusing, as Sandra repeatedly inadvertently helps Barrett solve the crossword puzzles he's constantly working on with stray comments.)