Thursday, March 15, 2012

KARLOFF'S LIFE ANNIVERSARY

As with many monster-loving kids growing up in the fifties and sixties, my favorite actor was Boris Karloff. He was an icon to several generations; a regular on screens both large and small. His instantly recognizable voice was imitated by every impressionist and comic in the country (most famously by Bobby Pickett on “The Monster Mash”). Because his fame transcended monster film fandom, Karloff often appeared in periodicals other than FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. It is on one of those magazines that I saw my favorite picture of him.

Over forty years after first seeing it, the cover of LIFE magazine from March 15, 1968, still fascinates and enthralls me. Against a pitch-black background is the face of the 80 year old Boris Karloff, illuminated by 150 candles burning in front of him. His face is tilted slightly downward, eyes looking intently at the reader from below steel-grey eyebrows and a furrowed forehead. The eyes have an air of mystery about them, stern and penetrating, but not threatening. The sternness of the eyes is tempered by Karloff’s mouth, the corners of which are turned slightly upward in a wan smile. The look, perhaps, of a grandfather who has caught a youngster with his hand in the cookie jar, wanting to scold the scofflaw while simultaneously stifling a grin.


Cover of the March 15, 1968 issue of  LIFE magazine,
without the machine-applied subscription address label
so commonly seen on copies for sale today.

The caption explains it all, “Boris Karloff at 80 celebrates an old friend’s birthday.” The magazine commemorates the 150th anniversary of Mary Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN with an article entitled, The Horrible Truth About Frankenstein.

The story is a landmark, as it is probably the first exposure the general reading public had to the details of FRANKENSTEIN’s genesis. Many people at the time were only vaguely aware of the story-telling contest that led to Mary Shelley’s masterpiece, but few knew the salacious details. Samuel Rosenberg, a self-described “literary detective” and contributor to LIFE, explains how a late-night viewing of THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN triggered a series of questions in his mind about the historical—the “real”—Mary Shelley and the true origins of her famous creation. Rosenberg “re-constructed, from more than 30 biographical sources,” the events and motives of the participants in the fateful “enchanted summer” of 1816 in Switzerland, which led to the writing of two horror classics: Shelley’s FRANKENSTEIN and Polidori’s THE VAMPYRE.

When I begged my parents to shell out the 35 cents for the magazine, I had expected a story of Karloff and the Monster. What I got was an eye-opening history lesson in radical politics, sex, betrayal, scandal, literary history, and more sex. Rosenberg leads the reader through Mary Shelley’s life, starting with her parents, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Godwin, both famous radicals. Wollstonecraft died within days of giving birth to her daughter, and it seems that William blamed the child for the death of her mother. To be close to her dead mother, young Mary would read books in the graveyard. From there, we read of Percy Shelley’s seduction of the teen-aged Mary, their “elopement” (Shelley was still married at the time.) and their travels and exploits with friends and lovers alike.

Rosenberg provides biographical accounts of Percy Shelley, Lord Byron, Mary’s half-sister Claire, John Polidori, and their various spouses, ex-spouses, and lovers, paying particular attention to their scandals and sexual escapades. Looking back on the story, I have a hard time believing LIFE included the many details of homosexuality, partner-swapping, ménage a trois, infidelity, and so on. The sexual revolution was in full force in 1968, of course, but LIFE was an establishment bastion! I was not quite thirteen at the time and the article made me MUCH more interested in 19th century writing than I had been up till then.

But the main thrust of Rosenberg’s article is not the sexual adventurism of the historical figures, it is FRANKENSTEIN. He leads us through Byron’s suggestion that each member of the group summering in Switzerland in 1816 devise a ghost story. Mary Shelley had some trouble conceiving of an idea for two days, but after an “excited discussion” of the Prometheus myth between Percy Shelley and Lord Byron, she “saw the pale student of unhallowed arts beside the thing he had put together. I saw the hideous phantasm of a man stretched out and then, on the working of some powerful engine, show signs of life and stir with an uneasy, half-vital motion.” That was in June 1816; she began writing the story shortly thereafter. The first edition of FRANKENSTEIN; or THE MODERN PROMETHEUS, was (anonymously) published two years later, in 1818. Shelley's authorship did not become widely known until the French edition of 1823.

Rosenberg analyzes the plot and characters of the novel and delves into its possible autobiographical and psychological underpinnings. These have provided material for many subsequent analysts, both popular and academic. No other study that I have read tells the tale in as fascinating and readable a way as this one, however.

LIFE magazine was a widely-read and hugely popular, over-sized (13 ½” X 10 ¼”), weekly general-interest photo-journalism publication. Together with its competitors, LOOK and the SATURDAY EVENING POST, it provided news of politics, current events, and culture to millions of readers each week for decades. Its circulation peaked at 13.5 million copies. The power and influence of the magazine may be measured in part by the fact that several world leaders like Harry Truman and Winston Churchill serialized their memoirs in it.

Each week LIFE offered a wide-ranging list of contents. The issue with Karloff on the cover contained stories about black athletes boycotting the upcoming Olympics, a Mafia boss, Bill Cosby, Peter Sellers’ movie THE PARTY, and a Senate filibuster.

For monster magazine fans, the magazine played a pivotal role in the launch of FAMOUS MONSTERS OF FILMLAND. Shortly after James Warren’s first FM paste-up was rejected by multiple distributors, LIFE’s November 11, 1957 issue featured a two-page story about the expanding science-fiction/horror film fad. It contained photos from current AIP, UA, and Allied Artists horror films. Upon seeing this article, Kable News Company had a change of heart and decided to distribute FM. And thus, history was made!

But no matter how fascinating the Frankenstein article is, and how varied and interesting the contents are, I will cling to this issue of LIFE for the cover. Whenever a conversation turns to Boris Karloff, this is the first image that springs to my mind. Sadly, the great actor died eleven months after the magazine appeared. Thankfully, his memory and legacy live on.

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