Boris Karloff had a thing for monsters. The actor, who died in 1969 at the age of 81, had not planned on making his name as the creature Dr. Frankenstein pieces together in his lab, ultimately giving one of horror’s most indelible figures its face and its soul. But later in his life, he reflected back on what films like Frankenstein had done for him. “[The character] was the best friend I ever had,” Karloff said. “He was the thing that made me, that lifted me from wherever I was to wherever I’ve gotten.”
Those Frankenstein pictures, the best of which came out in the 1930s, cemented his legacy. Even if he never did anything else as major again — and the sad truth was, he probably didn’t — Frankenstein’s monster would have been enough. After all, how many actors have the good fortune to be synonymous with a mythic pop-culture figure? But for a younger generation — and generations to come — Karloff is as associated with another popular character, even if viewers don’t necessarily make the connection. It’s a different kind of monster, but he’s equally as affecting as the Grinch. With both characters, he succeeded in making us fall in love with an outcast. He made us see their hearts.
It’s been 55 years since How the Grinch Stole Christmas! first debuted on CBS on December 18, 1966, part of a wave of 1960s animated Christmas specials that remain holiday staples, preceded by Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas. The show had been the brainchild of friends and creative collaborators Theodor Geisel and Chuck Jones. Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, had begun to cultivate a career in the early 1940s crafting children’s books when Hitler started overrunning Europe. “While Paris was being occupied by the clanking tanks of the Nazis and I was listening on my radio,” he once said, “I found that I could no longer keep my mind on drawing pictures of Horton the Elephant.”
Later tapped by the U.S. government to make patriotic cartoons for the war effort, Seuss met Jones, an animator, and the two men teamed up to work on cartoon shorts. They hit it off, and in the mid-1960s Jones, one of the architects behind the Looney Tunes characters, heard that A Charlie Brown Christmas was being developed and thought that his old buddy Seuss might have something similar for the season that could be ripe for adaptation.
In 1957, Seuss had published How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, which told the tale of the Grinch, who hates the happy denizens of the nearby town of Whoville and decides on Christmas Eve to swipe all their presents. The Grinch figures his actions will spoil their Christmas, but instead they wake up and sing carols, teaching him that the holidays are about love, not material possessions. Moved, the Grinch changes his ways, returns their gifts and is welcomed into the community.
Seuss had drawn from his own surliness around the holidays for inspiration for the main character. “I was brushing my teeth on the morning of the 26th of last December when I noted a very Grinch-ish countenance in the mirror,” he recalled. The image shocked him into acknowledging that “[s]omething had gone wrong with Christmas, I realized, or more likely with me. So I wrote the story about my sour friend, the Grinch, to see if I could rediscover something about Christmas that obviously I’d lost.”
When you think about the classic animated Christmas specials, they tend to have a main character who’s a lovable, goodhearted individual: Charlie Brown, Rudolph, Frosty the Snowman. The Grinch is an exception — he’s ostensibly the villain of the piece, dreaming of ruining Christmas for all the good little boys and girls of Whoville. But as with the book, the How the Grinch Stole Christmas! special sought to make its protagonist delightful company — sure, he’s bad, but he’s also pretty fun. As Jones was adapting Seuss’ book, he knew he needed to find the right voice for the Grinch, as well as the special’s narrator. He chose someone that might have seemed an odd pick for ostensibly a kids’ program.
By the mid-1960s, Karloff’s star had fallen some. Born in 1887 in England under the name William Henry Pratt, Karloff, who was the youngest of nine kids, had what sounded like an unhappy childhood. A friend of Karloff’s later told Cynthia Lindsay in her book Dear Boris: The Life of William Henry Pratt a.k.a. Boris Karloff, “He was very shy. … He was, I think, a very lonely little boy.” Moving to Canada in his early 20s, he changed his name to Boris Karloff and tried his hand at acting, eventually making his way to Hollywood. He started appearing in bit parts in films in the late 1910s, and little more than a decade later, he was approached about a movie based on a Mary Shelley novel, a cautionary tale about a scientist who tries to play god. Would he be interested in playing Victor Frankenstein’s monster? “I didn’t look a gift horse in the mouth,” Karloff said later. “I needed to eat and I took it.”
Initially, Bela Lugosi, who had risen to stardom thanks to playing another monster, Dracula, was considered for the role. But once Karloff got the part, he had to endure cumbersome makeup and a rushed shoot of about six weeks. As the monster, even though he supposedly had trouble seeing on set because of the thick wax put over his eyes, Karloff managed to be terrifying but also fragile, conveying the pain of being this stitched-together beast jolted to life, confused and terrified by the world around him. (In turn, the world isn’t too fond of this scary-looking creature roaming the countryside.) “He was inarticulate, helpless and tragic,” the soft-spoken Karloff said of Frankenstein’s monster, and because 1931’s Frankenstein was such a hit, he followed it up with a series of sequels, the most acclaimed being 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein.
In his influential book New Biographical Dictionary of Film, critic David Thomson praised the actor, writing, “Karloff presented a feeling creature, a vulnerable colossus, capable of destruction but touched by beauty. As such, Karfloff’s monster is an important forerunner of the madman hero.”
But although Karloff continued to work steadily in the decades to come, he would never again find the same visibility and success. Probably not surprisingly, he did a lot of B-movies and horror films, but he would also throw himself into narrating works by renowned authors like Richard Kipling. Ironically, it was those recordings which made Jones think Karloff could be perfect for How the Grinch Stole Christmas! “One of the most important things was my getting Boris Karloff,” Jones said, “because a lot of people didn’t know how wonderful a narrator he [was]. … He had this lovely, wonderful voice. Everybody thought of him as being a villain. And he was so dear when he read it. He really gave accent to each one and each note. The narrator was important there.”
Although Karloff was renowned for playing a gruesome monster, the funny thing was that the actor always received a lot of fan mail from children. “I’ve been working for years on horror films and I know that children love them,” he said. “It really isn’t horror to them, you know. It’s exciting adventure.”
How the Grinch Stole Christmas! is far from horror, but it’s a touch darker than the typical animated Christmas special. After all, it is about a malevolent creature who lives alone (save for his pet dog Max) in a cave perched high above Whoville, planning his crime spree. But Jones’ animation was never too scary, and Karloff’s voice (both in the narration and as the Grinch) had a regal bearing that made the whole thing feel sophisticated as opposed to anxiety-inducing. The character design was playful and inviting, and the special’s bright colors had a whimsical flair. But the show works primarily because of Karloff, who gives the narration a storybook quality, turning noticeably warmer as the Grinch starts to realize the true spirit of Christmas and his too-small heart finally begins to grow. Considering that Karloff was able to pull off such a hearty performance even though he suffered from emphysema, only had the use of one-half of one lung near his death and required oxygen to keep going, the easygoing command of his narration is even more impressive.
For years afterward, viewers thought Karloff also performed the central song, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” which made sense since the singer’s dark, booming voice sure sounded like the man who had portrayed Frankenstein’s monster. But that was actually Thurl Ravenscroft, probably best known as Tony the Tiger from Frosted Flakes commercials. Nonetheless, Karloff’s depiction of the Grinch helped popularize the character. (Jones later stated that, before the special, Seuss’ book sold about 5,000 copies a year, whereas after the special’s debut it sold 50,000 annually.) How the Grinch Stole Christmas was a hit, spurring CBS to make animated specials based on other Seuss books, including Horton Hears a Who! and The Cat in the Hat, turning the author into a household name in the process.
Eventually, feature-length live-action films were developed, probably the most famous being Jim Carrey’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which was the highest-grossing movie of 2000. But Carrey’s over-the-top antics as the grumpy Grinch only underlined how refined Karloff had been in his voice performance. The 1968 TV special was rather reserved and stately, which derived from Karloff’s unobtrusive style. By comparison, whether it’s Carrey’s film or Mike Myers’ The Cat in the Hat, the latter-day adaptations seemed geared to hyperactive children — they lacked the simple grace Karloff brought to the role and his respect for children in general. Notably, when Universal put out an animated movie in 2018, titled simply The Grinch, Benedict Cumberbatch was hired to do the voice, presumably to bring back a little bit of class that had been missing from Carrey’s version. Essentially, the studio was trying to recapture the richness of Karloff’s original.
But those recent remakes only amplified the casual mastery Karloff embodied, and 55 years later, How the Grinch Stole Christmas! remains a yuletide staple, even if most modern audiences don’t know that Frankenstein’s monster is at the center. Sadly, Karloff wasn’t able to enjoy for long the reception that the special received, dying a little over two years after How the Grinch Stole Christmas! first aired. Still, he won a Grammy for his performance, and his death from pneumonia occurred after finishing a film. That seemed fitting since was never happier than when he was acting.
“Ever since I first came really alive with my first taste of being an actor, I have always ‘died’ a little when not working,” Karloff once admitted. “I am never really alive unless I am at work, merely recharging for the next spell. To know that I was never to act again would be something akin to a death sentence for me.”
Eventually, Karloff did shuffle off this mortal coil, but perhaps it’s some small comfort that he gave the world not one but two indelible characters — and that every actor who comes after him in those roles will always be measured against him. It’s a form of immortality. Being forever branded as the actor who played Frankenstein’s monster, he swore he had no regrets. “Certainly I was typed. But what is typing?” Karloff asked. “It is a trademark, a means by which the public recognizes you. Actors work all their lives to achieve that. I got mine with just one picture. It was a blessing.”
One picture and an enduring animated Christmas special, I’d say.