Boris Karloff — Through Horror Came Happiness (1936) 🇺🇸
Boris Karloff, on the screen, lives in a world of horror — but his friends know him, off-screen as the most contented man in Hollywood.
by John Kent
Boris Karloff told me, “I have everything in the world I ever wanted. I’m the happiest man in Hollywood!”
Sitting in the sun-drenched patio of his lovely Spanish home, facing his beautiful wife, while his quaint Bedlington terriers raced back and forth over the velvety lawns of his three-acre estate, the man who has brought nightmare to countless movie-goers smiled with deep satisfaction.
“One reason for happiness,” he said seriously, “is that my lucky break — my chance to play ‘The Monster’ — came at a time when I had almost given up hoping...”
Few of his friends in Hollywood — the James Cagneys, the Jimmie Gleasons, the Robert Armstrongs, and a host of others — know the story of the suffering Boris Karloff endured before movie fame burst upon him.
“It was amazing,” he told me, and even after several years of success, his voice was filled with very human wonder. “It came like a bolt out of the blue. And perhaps my happiness now is more complete because I went through my worst times right here in Hollywood.
“Most actors, you know, come out here with contracts from New York. They have gone through their hard-ships back East, and, once in Hollywood, everything is easy for them. But I can remember standing outside little one-arm restaurants along Hollywood Boulevard and wishing I had an extra dime — for a couple of dough-nuts to go with my coffee.
“I can’t stop in at the Brown Derby, now, without passing one of those little one-arm joints — and remembering!”
Karloff waited twenty years for his success, years in which he worked as a day laborer, as a truck driver, a cement worker, member of a pick and shovel gang. He knows what it is to have lived, for one terrible week, on four cents a day. He can remember nights spent on park benches, huddling under newspapers to keep warm.
He came to Hollywood ten years before he “got lucky,” in his own phrase. He served for a while as an extra. His burning dark eyes, his strongly shaped face and great, gaunt shoulders became “atmosphere” in the background of countless silent pictures.
Gradually, by sheer force of personality, he rose from the ranks of extras and became a bit player. He was known as a “French-Canadian type.” He lived in a little house in Laurel Canyon, near Hollywood, a favorite place for struggling artists and writers, where small, unpretentious houses cling to the sides of the barren hills.
Every day he would walk down from the hills to Hollywood Boulevard where he saw his agent — “usually,” he told me, “a thoroughly futile trip.”
For as the years passed his “bit” parts were becoming fewer and fewer. Too much failure was breaking the man’s spirit. “Among my friends,” he said, “were many men in my own predicament. For some of them Success waited too long. When it came, their spirits were broken....”
“Always in the back of my mind was the thought that I could return to the stage, if worst came to worst. If I failed completely in Hollywood — -and it’ seemed then that I had failed — I could eke out a living in stock companies, where my years of early experience on the stage would have value.
“Suddenly I realized, with a shock of horrible emptiness, that the stage didn’t exist any more. Vaudeville was dying with the popularity of movies. Stock companies were few and far between. Touring companies no longer played the little towns throughout the country. The bulwark that I’d counted on had been swept away! I had nothing left.”
His voice shook a little as he told me, “I used to wake up at night in a cold sweat of fear, realizing that there was no place in the world for me. For a while I turned to laboring jobs. I drove a truck, and I worked for a cement company. But I realized that I wasn’t growing any younger— and soon I wouldn’t have the strength and stamina to take such jobs.”
He longed, too, to return to England and the home he had left so many years before. It was bitterly ironical, that he had given up luxury and wealthy, influential friends in order to pursue that burning ambition for a career on the stage.
“I hadn’t been home in many years,” he said — and his tone expressed the loyalty to his native land that is a strong part of his character. “But I couldn’t go back then, broke, a failure. I couldn’t creep back like a whipped dog, with my tail between my legs.”
Then, with a magic only Hollywood knows, the picture changed. An opportunity to play in Criminal Code on the stage in Los Angeles. Producers in the audience. Small gangster roles in several pictures. Then “The Monster” in Frankenstein, and world-wide fame.
“I’m happy, now, that it came when it did,” Karloff says. “If you get your break when you’re young, you take it for granted — expect it to go on forever. And the rude awakening comes at the wrong end of your life.
“Mine came at a time when a man can best appreciate it and take advantage of it.”
As if to make up for his years of hardship and suffering, life suddenly gave Karloff everything he desired. He was even assigned to make a picture in England, and his agent told him, “You’ve got to be in London in eight days.”
“Can you imagine that?” Karloff asked me. “Only a little while ago I’d been wondering if I could scrape together enough for the boat trip. Now I was paid to return — in triumph!”
Another reason for happiness is his perfect marriage. His wife is the former Dorothy Stine, a girl with whom he fell in love several years before success.
They met in a little library in Hollywood where he used to go because it was the only place where he could rest —free of charge — in pleasant surroundings. She was the librarian, and she became interested in the tall, dark stranger who chose the same books she loved. Gradually they became friends.
“She was the first person in Hollywood who talked kindly to me, who seemed to take a real interest in me,” Karloff told an old friend, who is an acquaintance of mine.
Now he can pour into the lap of this woman who had faith in him everything she desires — not the jewels, furs, and expensive clothes another girl might choose. For Dorothy’s, tastes are as simple and wholesome as his own.
He has given her their beautiful home. She adores the dogs, the rare Bedlingtons which Karloff raises himself. She plays on the tennis court every day. Boris himself prefers to garden. From sun-up until sunset, on the days when he is not making pictures, he can be found in an old pair of corduroy trousers and a faded shirt, digging into the soil.
“I’ve always loved acting,” he told me once, “and you can’t ask for much more than to be fairly successful at the thing you enjoy. It enables me to have and to do the things I want — to work in my garden, to play cricket, to own good books, good dogs and a good home....”
Right now he’s happy because the critics have called The Invisible Ray, his recent picture, the finest “horror” story that has ever been filmed. “It is difficult to find strong, plausible pictures when you do my type of character,” he admits, “and the success of 'The Invisible Ray' seems to give me a new lease on life.”
The recently published list of stars who are most popular at the box-office gave Karloff a high place — another reason for happiness. And he is at present doing a film for Gaumont-British in London — a location that amounts to a vacation for him.
Perhaps you can understand now why his friends call him “the happiest man in Hollywood!”
The screen’s leading exponent of macabre roles spends most of his time, between pictures, working in his garden.
Bottom: Mr. and Mrs. Karloff with one of their Bedlington terriers, a champion of many kennel shows.
Source: Movie Classic Magazine, July 1936