If Secret History sounds a bit melodramatic, that’s solely because the facts of Boris Karloff’s life are the stuff of melodrama.
Born William Henry Pratt in 1887, into a family of English Civil Servants, his Mother died when he was three and his Father abandoned the family. The youngest of nine children, he was raised by his older siblings. Shunning the prospect of following his family into a career in the Civil Service, he left university without graduating in 1909. He emigrated to Canada where he became an itinerant stage actor, often forced to supplement his meager income by manual labor. He also reinvented himself as Boris Karloff to conceal his connection to his family in Britain.
Eventually making his way to Hollywood, he found work in silent films, mostly bit and supporting parts, appearing in over 70 films before his breakthrough role in Frankenstein rocketed him to international stardom at the age of 43. He went on to a career spanning four decades up until his death at the age of 81 in 1968. Along the way he acquired the public image of the quintessential English gentleman and a figure beloved by children for his performance as Captain Hook on Broadway in Peter Pan and as the narrator and voice of the Grinch in the animated TV special How the Grinch Stole Christmas.
This was the story as presented during his lifetime and as I and countless other fans of his during the latter days of his career knew it. One tailor made for the publicity machine of the old Hollywood Studio system. The narrative of the family black sheep breaking with convention and stodgy English respectability to find fame and fortune in the US. One which allowed him to draw a discreet curtain across his family background, ostensibly to shield them from the embarrassment of having produced something so disreputable as a professional actor. One guaranteed to tickle the vanity of a film going public that loved to see themselves as inhabiting the land of opportunity and dreams realized through persistence and hard work.
So effective was the casting of Karloff as the Englishman par excellence that decades after his death he was held up as a glaring example of the Movie industry’s penchant for yellow face and red face, due to his playing non white characters such as Fu Manchu, Mr. Wong and native Americans in films such as Unconquered and Tap Roots.
There’s a supreme irony in this reading though. One that speaks in an even more incisive and profound way to the white racism that was accepted as a fact of life in the Great Britain and Hollywood of Karloff’s day.
That being that by the prevailing standards at the time of his birth, Boris Karloff would not have been considered white.
By providing a romanticized story of a young, aspiring actor rebelling against family traditions and expectations, Karloff obscured the fact that his parents, Edward John Pratt, Jr. and Eliza Sarah Millard, were both of Anglo-Indian descent.
Edward John Pratt, Jr. was an Anglo-Indian, from a British father and Indian mother, while Karloff's mother also had some Indian ancestry, thus Karloff had a relatively dark complexion that differed from his peers at the time. His mother's maternal aunt was Anna Leonowens, whose tales about life in the royal court of Siam (now Thailand) were the basis of the musical The King and I.
According to Karloff’s daughter Sara, he seldom spoke of his childhood but she had the impression that it wasn’t a particularly happy time for him. While his ancestry was no secret within the family, he would deflect remarks about his deep tan by outsiders with casual references to his passion for gardening or otherwise laboring outdoors. He never, as far as can be determined, spoke about it publicly.
Perhaps the only way we might intuit how his mixed race background effected him as a child is by considering how “Hindoos” were viewed in late Victorian Britain. Popular perceptions at that time were molded by the necessity of justifying British Imperial rule over the Indian subcontinent. To this end the opinions of James Mill in his History of British India came to predominate.
In the chapter titled General Reflections in "Of the Hindus", Mill wrote "under the glosing exterior of the Hindu, lies a general disposition to deceit and perfidy". According to Mill, "the same insincerity, mendacity, and perfidy; the same indifference to the feelings of others; the same prostitution and venality" were the conspicuous characteristics of both the Hindoos and the Muslims. The Muslims, however, were perfuse, when possessed of wealth, and devoted to pleasure; the Hindoos almost always penurious and ascetic; and "in truth, the Hindoo like the eunuch, excels in the qualities of a slave". Furthermore, similar to the Chinese, the Hindoos were "dissembling, treacherous, mendacious, to an excess which surpasses even the usual measure of uncultivated society". Both the Chinese and the Hindoos were "disposed to excessive exaggeration with regard to everything relating to themselves". Both were "cowardly and unfeeling". Both were "in the highest degree conceited of themselves, and full of affected contempt for others". And both were "in physical sense, disgustingly unclean in their persons and houses".
This is exactly the sort of vile stuff that we’d expect from a racist apologist for empire but can we be certain that such vicious bigotry might have impacted a respectably assimilated family such as Karloff’s?
To gain some inkling perhaps we should consult the case of George Ernest Thompson Edalji. In 1906, a scant 3 years before Karloff departed England, it became a notorious cause celebre attracting the avid attention of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle who saw it as an outrageous and bigoted injustice.
Doyle was also a fervent advocate of justice and personally investigated two closed cases, which led to two men being exonerated of the crimes of which they were accused. The first case, in 1906, involved a shy half-British, half-Indian lawyer named George Edalji who had allegedly penned threatening letters and mutilated animals in Great Wyrley. Police were set on Edalji's conviction, even though the mutilations continued after their suspect was jailed. Apart from helping George Edalji, Doyle's work helped establish a way to correct other miscarriages of justice, as it was partially as a result of this case that the Court of Criminal Appeal was established in 1907.
Whatever else might be said, it strains credulity to imagine Karloff would have been unaware of these events. As a young man of similar background, with no desire to follow his siblings into a respectable profession, it seems likely it would have influenced his decision to strike out for Canada and an entirely new life.
It’s also gives one cause to wonder just how much the stultifying effects of racism may affected his desire to pursue a profession where one's face and identity could shift with the scenery.
Then there is the seductive thought that his early life experience may well have informed what is generally considered to be his greatest triumph as an actor. His portrayal of Frankenstein’s creation. A new born creature outcast and hated for his difference. Confused and driven to violence by the abuse heaped on him by “normal” humans.
This is a speculation that can never be confirmed but one which is rendered compelling by the incredible pathos and intensity of his performance. Something that the passage of a near century has done nothing to lessen.
Yet even with this triumph Karloff couldn’t avoid being ensnared in the racism that permeated the Hollywood of the 1930s. Only a year later he appeared in The Mask of Fu Manchu, a movie that indulged in some of the most revolting “yellow peril” racism ever committed to film. The only charitable thing that can be said about it is that it is an exception to his overall career. When he came to play the character of the Detective Mr. Wong several years later, he broke ground by not resorting to the pidgin dialect and pseudo Confucian quips that marred the Charlie Chan films.
Is it possible that he was attempting to make amends for his earlier caricature? Again that’s a question that can’t really be answered.
What is certain is that Karloff’s recasting as the epitome of the English gentleman, and the consequent concealment of his mixed race status, allowed him a success that the racism of the time would have otherwise rendered unlikely. To confirm this one need only consider that the career of Merle Oberon provides another case in point.
Likewise the fate of his fellow horror star Bela Lugosi illustrates that the racism of that time was not simply Eurocentric but profoundly Anglocentric. Lugosi’s Hungarian, central European “otherness” condemned him to a downward spiral of stereotypical “exotic”, boogie man roles. This despite the fact that, unlike Karloff, he had arrived in Hollywood having already achieved stardom in Europe and on Broadway.
Karloff would later refer to this bigotry obliquely when he cited Lugosi’s pronounced Hungarian accent as the primary cause of his professional decline.
It ought to go without saying that this was a tragic and absurd state of affairs. Of course, given the dominance of vicious regimes of white supremacy both in the US and via the global imperialism of Britain, France. etc., it could hardly be surprising. This was a time when the States of the Jim Crow South could effectively dictate popular depictions of race in films through local censorship boards. The film pairings of Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Shirley Temple being a notorious example:
Robinson and Temple became the first interracial dance partners in Hollywood history. The scene was controversial for its time, and was cut out in the south along with all other scenes showing the two making physical contact. Temple and Robinson appeared in four films together: The Little Colonel, The Littlest Rebel, Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm and Just Around the Corner.
Confronted by Jim Crow on the one hand and de facto racism elsewhere, Hollywood usually chose to pander.
It would be easy at this remove to sit in judgement of Karloff and others who were confronted by such virulent bigotry. Easy to accuse them of capitulating to racism. Not so easy, however, to argue that we would be better off without their contributions. Make no mistake, whether we are talking about Karloff, Oberon, Robinson or Hattie McDaniel, the cinematic gifts their talents bequeathed to us would never have seen the light of day without the cruel compromises that were forced upon them.
What we can and ought to do is recognize the full dimensions of their achievements and the magnitude of the forces that contended against them.
Only by doing so can we fully appreciate the measure of their accomplishment, both personal and professional, as well as the lessons they provide for us in the present.