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February 08, 2006

Man and Monster

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A recent article in the New York Times evoked a warm feeling of childhood nostalgia for me with an unlikely actor's name: Boris Karloff. For most people, Karloff is the dangerous yet vulnerable monster of the classic horror film, Frankenstein (1931), which celebrates its seventy fifth birthday this year. His strongest association for me, however, is as the narrator in a recording of Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf that I often listened to as a child. The friendly ghoulishness of Karloff's voice, with its animation (his imitation of the dialogue between bird and duck is particularly entertaining) tempered by gentle, English inflections, and morbid undercurrents, brings an added layer of menace, excitement and camaraderie to Prokofiev's didactic variation (written to introduce children to the orchestra) on an old Russian story of a disobedient boy's encounter with a wolf in the big, green meadow.

The NYT story inspired me to do some internet surfing for information about Karloff, which turned up an unexpected and fascinating, as well as sometimes inconsistent, biographical portrait.  All biographies agree that Karloff was born as William Henry Pratt in England in 1887. He emigrated to Canada in 1909, and adopted Boris Karloff as a stage name. After spending a period of time in low-paid theatrical touring, Karloff managed to make his way to Hollywood and silent film work, which was followed by a long career in talkies playing monsters, villains, mad scientists, executioners, etc. His IMDB Biography includes a number of interesting bits of trivia. Two items, in particular, caught my eye: that his great-aunt was Anna Leonowens, the nineteenth-century Englishwoman whose sensational memoir of her time in what is now Thailand, "Anna and the King," became the basis for the musical "The King and I"; also, the assertion that he had East Indian heritage through his mother's side of the family.

The excellent Wikipedia entry for Karloff, among other sites, adds the information that his father, Edward John Pratt Jr, was the Deputy Commissioner of Customs, Salt and Opium, Northern Division Indian Salt Revenue Service-- a title that seems to me to capture much about the British Empire. The Wikipedia entry repeats the information that his "dark looks" came from "East Indian" heritage on his mother's side, adding that he often claimed Russian ancestry to explain his exotic looks, which may help explain why some sites insist Karloff was a family name.  His official website, maintained by his daughter, Sarah, provides a family tree, which shows that Karloff's heritage was Indian, not East Indian, and through his father, or perhaps both sides of the family. The Salt and Opium commissioner was the child of Edward Pratt, Sr. and an "Unidentified Indian Woman."  A well-researched item about Anna Leonowens (another interesting, as well as rather shifty, figure) and her book by some angry Thai students helps resolve the discrepancy, by pointing out that Anna and her sister Eliza, Karloff's grandmother, were also Eurasian, though Leonowens scrupulously worked to hide her Indian ancestry, to better establish her credentials as a civilized, English observer of "barbarous" subjects.

None of the accounts of Karloff that appear in conjunction with the current retrospectives mention his mixed heritage. Instead, they generally cast Karloff as a misplaced English gentleman (which, it would seem, is how he wished to be seen, and may have seen himself), the child of civil servants who could never reconcile themselves to his acting career (almost certainly false, since it appears from his family tree that several other family members were involved in the theater).  Beyond the fascination of the way in which one man's story can capture such a broad sweep of historic phenomena, there are a number of interesting analytic points to be drawn from all this: the symbiotic role of Hollywood and popular culture in casting dark features as both exotic and "monstrous," the peculiar way in which Americans indiscriminately perceive any English accent as both genteel (thank God we haven't adopted the class-discriminating accent palate of the English!) and sinister, the boundary territories of class and race, and classism and racism, created by European imperial history; and the odd place of Eastern Europeans and Central Asians in this schema, which caused Karloff to aim to "partially pass" as a Slav. Unfortunately, I'm too sleepy to tease these out right now. I invite others to do so, though. In the meantime, I highly recommend Karloff's version of Peter and the Wolf. It's good stuff.


Very interesting. I always thought that Boris Karloff was taller than 5'11".

Another famous Hollywood actor whose south Asian ancestry is less in dispute was the beautiful Merle Oberon. She had a Ceylonese (Sri Lankan) mother and a British (Irish?) father. When she came to England and subsequently to Hollywood, her mother traveled with her. Oberon chose to introduce her mother as her maid in order to keep her mixed heritage (a career killer) under the wraps.

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