Thursday, November 26, 2009

Boris Karloff Blogathon, Day 4: “Lights out…everybody!”

One of my favorite sequences in Targets (1968), the celebrated cult film classic that stars Boris Karloff as a actor/horror icon who decides to quit the movie business when he feels his “old-fashioned” horror can’t compete with the terror that runs rampant in modern society, occurs when his character, Byron Orlok, is preparing for an appearance at a drive-in scheduled for later that evening for the release of his latest film, directed by wunderkind Sammy Michaels (Peter Bogdanovich, the director of Targets). He’s in his hotel room with Michaels and his assistant Jenny (Nancy Hsueh), and is painfully bored with a series of questions being asked by local disc jockey Kip “The Hip” Larkin (Sandy Baron)—inquiries submitted by Larkin’s listeners that touch on such inane subjects as “Do you like working in motion pictures?”

Annoyed by all this, Orlok expresses his displeasure to Michaels, who suggests that the horror movie veteran use his time at the appearance to tell a ghost story…which he proceeds to do (the story is a shortened version of W. Somerset Maugham’s Appointment in Samarra):

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, I'd like to leave you with a little story to think about as you drive home... through the darkness...once upon a time, many, many years ago, a rich merchant in Baghdad sent his servant to the marketplace to buy provisions... and after a while the servant came back, white-faced and trembling, and said, “Master, when I was in the marketplace, I was jostled by a woman in the crowd, and I turned to look, and I saw that it was Death that jostled me. And she looked at me and made a threatening gesture. Oh, master, please, lend me your horse that I may ride away from this city and escape my fate. I will ride to Samarra and Death will not find me there.” So the merchant loaned him the horse and the servant mounted it, and dug his spurs into its flank, and as fast as the horse could gallop he rode towards Samarra. Then the merchant went to the market-place and he saw Death standing in the crowd and he said to her, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?'” And Death said, '”I made no threatening gesture—that was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him here in Baghdad, for I have an appointment with him tonight... in Samarra.”

Karloff’s mesmerizing delivery of this tale—in which the camera moves in for a close-up of his face in a nearly fluid take (Bogdanovich later lamented his intention was to do it in one take but he was forced to do a small edit)—is just one of the many reasons why I adore the film, a movie that I’ve often referred to as my personal favorite among Boris’ voluminous output. It’s a testament to his incredible talent; how he keeps the audience spellbound with just the hypnotizingly sinister tone of his voice. As great a film actor as Karloff was, he also did outstanding work on radio—he was a frequent performer on the medium’s best-remembered horror shows like Inner Sanctum Mysteries, Lights Out and Creeps by Night. His dramatic chops won him roles on The NBC University Theatre and The Theatre Guild on the Air. His ability to poke fun at his “horror image” insured that he be invited to josh and joke with the likes of Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy, Eddie Cantor, Fred Allen, Jack Benny, Ed Gardner (Duffy’s Tavern), Bing Crosby, Jimmy Durante and Al Jolson. He was even invited to appear on the panel of radio’s most literate quiz program, Information Please—including a memorable May 17, 1943 broadcast in which he performs the Frankenstein monster growl!

I had originally intended for this post to document some of the highlights of Boris Karloff’s radio career for Frankensteinia’s Boris Karloff Blogathon this week—but time and deadlines sort of crept up on me and it appears I’m not going to be able to compose as thorough an essay as I planned. But back in October 2004, I did post an entry on one of Boris’ most memorable performances: a tour-de-force turn in the classic Lights Out tale, “Cat Wife.” Here’s what I originally wrote:

“To true monster mavens,” writes Gerald Nachman in Raised on Radio, “the definitive horror show was Lights Out, whose name played on—indeed, gleefully exploited—the unseen aspects of radio by asking listeners to hear the show in total darkness…” I may have already stated on this blog that Lights Out is my all-time favorite of the old-time radio horror show offerings; it beats out the better-known Inner Sanctum Mysteries only because Sanctum has a tendency to come off as overripe camp at times (though this is not to suggest that Lights Out was free of the taint of goofy melodramatics as well), and because Sanctum’s horror stories always seemed to have a “rational” clarification for their goings-on. On Lights Out—to paraphrase Vic & Sade—“stuff happened,” with very little explanation for what supernaturally took place—it always seemed to land smack-dab in the middle of “What the…?” territory.

I kicked off a month of Lights Out programs with an April 6, 1938 broadcast of “Cat Wife,” one of the best-remembered shows written by writer-director-producer Arch Oboler. “Wife” was actually the second show put on by Oboler, originally broadcast June 17, 1936, and it was often repeated throughout the series’ run. This particular program stars actor Boris Karloff, who made special trips to Chicago to perform on the series (he was also a frequent player on Inner Sanctum), as a long-suffering husband married to an out-and-out tramp who embraces vulgarity with open arms. Karloff's presence on this broadcast has to do with the program observing its fourth anniversary; anyway, husband Karloff has run her equally obnoxious friends out of their home, and the two of them begin to quarrel violently:

LINDA: Why do you think I married you?

JOHN: I thought you loved me…

LINDA: I married you because I was sick of working in a two-bit barbershop…because I was sick of living in a hall bedroom wearing bargain sale dresses—I wanted dough, and plenty of it, all I could get! You were the best chance to get it that came my way…

JOHN (weeping) No, no, Linda…you did love me…you must have loved me!

LINDA: I loved you about as much as that canary up there loves his cage…I told myself I’d stay with you for a year…divorce you, stick ya for plenty of alimony and then get out!

JOHN: But we’ve been married five years…

LINDA: Yeah! Five years! Because you fooled me, that’s why…

JOHN: I fooled you…?

LINDA: Yeah! Hah! You started to make a lot of money…more money than I ever thought you could make… (Laughing) So you’re giving me the air, hah?

JOHN: No, no, Linda…I love you! I’ll always love you—I didn’t mean what I said!

LINDA: Well, I did…

JOHN (pathetically): Oh Linda, don’t leave me…you’re no good, I know you’re no good but heaven help me I love you…I’ll never love anybody else…

LINDA: Get out of my way!

JOHN: No, no!!! I won’t let you go! You’ve got to stay…

LINDA: Keep your hands off me!!!

JOHN (angrily): You’re no good…you’ve cost me my self-respect…but you’ll stay with me…you’ll stay with me or I’ll cut you off without a cent! (Linda starts to laugh uncontrollably) You won’t get a dime! Not a dime! (She continues to laugh) Stop that! Stop laughing!

LINDA (still laughing): Oh, you sap…you fat-headed sap!

JOHN: Stop that!!!

(She stops…)

LINDA: So you’re going to cut me off without a cent, are you? Oh ho, you fool…I’ve got everything that belongs to you now…you hear me? Everything!!!

JOHN (barely above a whisper): What are you talking about? What are you saying?

LINDA: This house…it’s in my name, isn’t it? The car…it’s in my name, isn’t it?

JOHN: I know, but…oh no, you…you wouldn’t!!!

LINDA: Oh, wouldn’t I? Well, listen to this, my darling husband…I cleaned out the bank account yesterday…


LINDA: …every cent! I won’t be in the street—you will! Now this is my house, get your things and get out of here!!!

JOHN (boiling point): I’ll…I’ll kill you!!!

LINDA: No! Stop!!!

JOHN: I’ll kill you!!!

LINDA: Don’t you come near me; let me go…let me go!!! (she screams)

JOHN: Agggghhhh!!! Ohhhh…

LINDA: You won’t touch me again; I’ll tear your eyes out!!!

JOHN: You…you cat!!!

LINDA: Get out of my way!!!

JOHN: That’s what you are…a cat!!! A big, white, heartless cat!!! You think like one, you screech like one, you claw like one!!! (Linda begins laughing again) You even look like one!!!

Now, to be frank, there are other words to describe Linda—but from what I understand, the NBC censors kind of frowned on that language back in those days. So, while his potentially profane vocabulary has its arms tied around its back, John repeatedly calls Linda a cat, until wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am…she completely metamorphoses into a human-sized feline. (This is the point in the story where the listener starts saying “What the…?”)

But that’s what makes this story so great and great to listen to…Oboler never bothers to explain why the missus is now a five-foot cat and able to bathe herself. Some eggheaded friend of Karloff babbles something to the effect of: “She was hysterical, John…and the suggestion that she was a cat caught her in an unguarded moment and resulted in a temporary neurosis…” and then you say, “Hey, textbook boy—she’s a friggin’ cat, ferchrissake!” There’s an awful lot of tongue-in-cheek humor in this tale as well—my favorite is when Karloff places an order with the milkman for six bottles of milk and six bottles of cream. “Cat Wife” is a must-listen-to show for any Lights Out novice.

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