Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon, Day 3: “If it can happen to the gerenuk, it can happen to you.”

No one can deny the enormous impact that Boris Karloff made on the silver screen throughout his amazing career—but I believe that not mentioning his many memorable appearances on the small screen would be giving him short shrift as well. In fact, Karloff was one of the earliest performers to be attracted to the new medium—at a time when others in the industry considered TV to be a threat—by headlining a short-lived horror anthology series in 1949 on ABC-TV entitled Starring Boris Karloff. The actor continued to make occasional forays into TV, usually as the host of horror anthologies like The Veil (1958) and Out of This World (1962), (though he also played the titular role in the 1954 syndicated series Colonel March of Scotland Yard) and what would probably become the apex of his TV career, Thriller (1960-62)…which I hope to have an essay on later this week. But for the time being (and in keeping with this week's Boris Karloff Blogathon, hosted by Frankensteinia), I’ve spent the past couple of days gorging on Boris’ guest shots…a few of which I’ve written mini-reviews about below.

Suspense: “A Night at an Inn” (04/26/49) – This is the earliest Karloff guest appearance I have in my collection of TV shows; an offbeat little production (from the live days of TV’s Golden Age) that stars Boris as the leader of a gang of sailors/jewel thieves hiding out at a small country inn (appropriately titled Ye Last Hope). Boris and company (Anthony Ross, Jack Manning, Barry Macollum) daringly swiped a precious ruby from the forehead of a sacred idol while stationed in India, and a team of assassins have trailed them to their lodgings to seek revenge.

Inn” is a real curio, available on a fascinating DVD collection entitled Suspense: The Lost Episodes, Volume 1—and was an installment of the TV series adapted from radio’s long-running “outstanding theater of chills.” The production values are quite primitive, and yet I think the episode is most effective (primarily due to Boris’ participation); the ending of the half-hour is particularly spine-tingling. Karloff would revisit Suspense on five other occasions (including “The Yellow Scarf” [06/07/49] and “The Black Prophet” [03/17/53], which I have on DVD didn’t get to watch due to a tight deadline, and “The Monkey’s Paw” [05/17/49], which unfortunately does not seem to have survived), which is interesting when you consider he made only one appearance on the radio version (a January 25, 1945 broadcast entitled “Drury’s Bones”).

The Gale Storm Show (Oh! Susanna): “It’s Murder, My Dear” (01/31/59) – The social director of the S.S. Ocean Queen, Susanna Pomeroy (Gale Storm), and her pal Esmeralda “Nugey” Nugent (ZaSu Pitts) have been forbidden to step off the ship by Captain Simon P. Huxley (Roy Roberts) because he’s convinced Nugey has come down with a case of measles (it’s not all that serious, though—she breaks out in rash whenever she’s nervous). This puts the kibosh on the two ladies’ plans to visit the Hal Roach Studios but—this being a sitcom and all—they soon find a way to sneak off the ship and cause mayhem on the studio lot. They meet up with actor Boris Karloff (who’s shooting an episode of his series The Veil) and while watching him work, witness his exact double shoot him in the shoulder with a rifle high above the soundstage. The double turns out to be Geoffrey Haines, an aspiring actor who can’t get work because of his resemblance to the star. Haines locks up Susanna, Nugey, Karloff and a nurse in the studio infirmary so that he can take Boris’ place and although the authorities eventually arrive to ring down the curtain on the would-be actor, Haines is satisfied knowing he got to play one big scene that earned him kudos from the director (Frank “Sam Drucker” Cady) and crew.

Yes, it’s a sitcom plot so old it’s been carved on stone tablets—but the presence of Karloff in this above-average Susanna outing (a benign sitcom that won’t make anyone forget I Love Lucy any too soon) makes for entertaining comedy; I particularly enjoyed the moment when Susanna and Nugey meet the actor (outside of Lake Laurel & Hardy!), with Susanna asking "Are you are a Boris Karloff fan, too?" and Boris’ response: "I have to be—my wife insists." A particularly interesting thing about this episode is that it often blurs the line between sitcom and reality; a studio guard (Tom Kennedy) informs Susanna and Nugey that The Gale Storm Show is shooting on stage one, and the two women even spot ZaSu Pitts driving around on the lot (Nugey: "My mother used to take me to see her in silent pictures."). Boris is also unafraid to poke a little fun at his image (“"Why would anyone want to shoot me? My old pictures weren't that bad...or were they?") and I couldn’t help but think that when his double laments “There’s only room for one Boris Karloff” he should have offered his services to Columbia when they were making The Black Room (1935).

Route 66: “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing” (10/26/62) – Tod Stiles (Martin Milner) and Buz Murdock breeze into a motel just outside of Chicago, having landed positions at the O’Hare Inn as “junior executives in charge of convention liaison.” (I never ceased to be amazed, by the way, at how easily these two guys managed to find employment—they could have taught The Fugitive’s Richard Kimble [David Janssen] a thing or two.) Buz is placed in charge of forty—count ‘em—forty female executives, while Tod is asked to be an expediter for a small group known as The Preservation of Gerenuks. The Gerenuks, in fact, are a trio of horror movie icons—Boris Karloff, Peter Lorre and Lon Chaney, Jr.—who have gathered with their business manager (Martita Hunt) to discuss of a television show on which they’re working. Karloff, in a foreshadowing of the character he would play in Peter Bogdanovich’s Targets (1968), argues that the antiquated horror of the past simply will not play in today’s society, while Lorre and Chaney maintain they still have what it takes to raise a goose bump or two. Tod and Lorre work together to prove his point by having Chaney disguise himself as the Wolf Man and terrorize the secretarial contingent (admittedly, this bit with the women fainting dead away at Chaney’s getup is a tad sexist, viewed through twenty-first century eyes), and in the end, Karloff is sold.

Originally presented as a Halloween episode, “Lizard’s Leg” remains one of the best-remembered installments of the classic Route 66 series, and seeing the three actors interact together is not unlike a hot fudge sundae; most of the fun comes from seeing the reactions of the individuals in the hotel to the “unholy three” (told by a desk clerk that he looks a little like Peter Lorre, Lorre—signing in as “Mr. Retep”—responds: “That’s very insulting, isn’t it?”)…witness Milner’s reaction to seeing Karloff after his character has finished examining a coffin requested for a meeting by Lorre. What ultimately makes “Lizard’s Leg” so pleasurable is that the three men are clearly enjoying themselves by gently mocking their personas (why else would Karloff have agreed to don the Frankenstein monster make-up again after vowing never to do it again?): Boris is his charming, cultured self; Peter the conniver; and Lon doesn’t stray too far from his “Lennie” characterization in Of Mice and Men (1939). Laugh-out-loud moment: Lorre addresses Karloff as “Boris baby.”

The Wild Wild West: “The Night of the Golden Cobra” (09/23/66) – Secret Service agents James T. West (Robert Conrad) and Artemus Gordon (Ross Martin) find themselves investigating strange occurrences in Pawnee territory—West and Pawnee administrator Colonel Stanton Mayo (Simon Scott), in fact, are taken captive by a maharajah (Boris Karloff) who refers to himself as “Mr. Singh” and who tells West he has been made his guest because he wants Jim to “tutor” his three would-be-assassin sons in the fine art of fighting. Singh’s daughter Vada (Audrey Dalton) attempts to help West escape her father’s clutches, but ultimately our hero must face down Singh who, as it turns out, has designs on snatching the land away from the Pawnees because of an “ocean of oil” that’s been discovered (black gold…Texas tea) on the property…and Col. Mayo (not to be confused with Colonel Mustard) is in cahoots with Singh as well!

Fondly remembered by fans as “James Bond in the saddle,” Wild Wild West continues to be a beloved (if a bit gimmicky) cult series in which the paper-thin plots were mere window dressing for wacky villains, anachronistic weapons and inventions…and the entertaining by-play between stars Conrad and Martin. Karloff’s guest appearance (sadly, his only one since Singh snuffs it at episode’s end) fits like a glove here; he’s perfectly in-tune with West’s tongue-in-cheek proceedings and his dark complexion (a result of his East Indian heritage) allows him to play Singh quite convincingly.

I Spy: “Mainly on the Plains” (02/22/67) – The proliferation of so many espionage adventure series in the 1960s (a phenomenon of the James Bond craze) formed the ideal background for Boris Karloff’s many guest appearances on television; in the 1966-67 TV season alone he could seen on The Wild Wild West (see above) and The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. (in a September 27, 1966 episode entitled “The Mother Muffin Affair”—in which he plays the villain…in drag). This I Spy appearance completed the hat trick; Boris is Don Ernesto Silvando, an eccentric scientist who’s convinced he’s Don Quixote, the literary creation of Miguel de Cervantes. This mindset of Silvando’s serves as an endless sort of amusement for American secret agents Kelly Robinson (Robert Culp) and Alexander Scott (Bill Cosby), who have signed on to protect Silvando on a driving trip to Madrid. Silvando, as it turns out, has a formula in his head that will make most modern-day missile systems obsolete…and he’s been targeted for assassination by foreign spies.

Again, the clue to enjoying I Spy was not in the hefty plots but the hilarious interplay between stars Culp and Cosby, whose characters of Robinson and Scott were never meant to be taken too seriously—both men, in fact, treated their secret agent jobs as just another nine-to-five time clock drudge. “Plains” is great because you can definitely see that both Culp and Cosby have a genuine affection for Karloff, whom they pretty much allow to take the ball and run with it (a similar affection can be detected with actors Martin Milner and George Maharis in the Route 66 “Lizard’s Leg and Owlet’s Wing” episode). My favorite moment in “Plains” occurs when Don Ernesto releases six men from the back of a van, encouraging their freedom—which makes Kelly and Scottie curious as to who those men were. Kelly washes off some of the mud clinging to the passenger-side door and reads “Policia De La Mancha” as the notation:

KELLY: What does that say? And don’t lie…

SCOTTIE: In my neighborhood, he’s known as The Man…

Boris Karloff enlivened many a television series through his guest appearances, and I’m only sorry I wasn’t able to include The Girl From U.N.C.L.E. and The Name of the Game guest shots because I do not have them as yet in the dusty Thrilling Days of Yesteryear archives. The good news is that with the exception of his Gale Storm Show appearance, all of the other shows reviewed are available for purchase on DVD (the Route 66 episode is present and accounted for on Route 66: The Complete Third Season, released in an exclusive edition at a Best Buy nearest you). Grab ‘em while you can—and tell them Boris sent you!

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rockfish said...

Terrific to know! I remember the Wild Wild West episode and was thoroughly disappointed that Boris bit it in the end... Would have loved to seen him plugged into a Batman villian, and i bet there's a story that was worked on with that in mind...

Anonymous said...

"I never ceased to be amazed, by the way, at how easily these two guys managed to find employment—they could have taught The Fugitive’s Richard Kimble [David Janssen] a thing or two."

I love that. I used to wonder the same thing.

This was such a great post, thank you. I had no idea Boris was such a great sitcom guest.

Gord Shriver said...

Great to see Boris' often notable TV work mentioned, having seen a great deal of it myself. His performance in "The Lark" for Hallmark was excellent (when on Broadway doing it, he got a Tony nomination) and yes, he's poignant in "I Spy". His Jonathan Brewster in the 1962 version of "Arsenic and Old Lace" is a treat to watch. He's very funny on "The Dinah Shore" and "Entertainers" shows, and we see what a great flair and timing he had for comedy.