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When Boris Karloff sailed for England in March 1933 to star as an Egyptologist cursed with life after death in the Gaumont British Picture Corporation's The Ghoul, he was returning to his homeland for the first time in twenty-four years. He was also fleeing Hollywood. A founding member of the nascent Screen Actor's Guild, Karloff had flatly refused the title role in The Invisible Man (1933) when home studio Universal balked at raising his weekly salary from $750 to $1,000, as promised. Arriving in Southampton aboard the S.S. Paris on Friday the 17th, Karloff was greeted warmly by the press and mobbed when stepping out for an evening of theatre in the West End. (Polite to a fault, the British press corps waited until Karloff had seen the play before peppering him with questions.) Karloff was also reunited with three of his brothers, all veterans of the British diplomatic service a family vocation to which Karloff had turned his back when he sailed for Canada in 1900 to become an actor. Karloff's belated success in America as the star of Universal's Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932) and The Mummy (1932) had inspired Gaumont director of production Michael Balcon to invite the actor back to England, with the hope that Karloff might bring a little of that old black magic to British cinemas.
The Gaumont British Picture Corporation was a subsidiary of the French-founded, London-based Gaumont (founded in 1912 by inventor Lon Gaumont). By 1922, the company was entirely British-owned and by 1927 had acquired Gainsborough Pictures in Islington. A founding partner of Gainsborough (formerly Victory Motion Pictures), Michael Balcon was put in charge of both studios, assigning the prestige pictures to Gaumont and low budget popular fare to Gainsborough. Curiously, it was under the Gaumont brand that Balcon produced The Ghoul, only the second British film to deal with horrific themes. Balcon had ties to the German ber-studio UFA, to which he had sent a young Alfred Hitchcock in 1925 to learn techniques associated with German Expressionism. (One of Hitchcock's first work-study assignments was to tear down the forest set of Fritz Lang's Die Nibelungen, 1924.) Balcon had hired Hitchcock as a scenarist and assistant to director Graham Cutts on the 1923 melodrama Woman to Woman and later produced Hitchcock's Jack the Ripper thriller The Lodger (1927), as well as The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) and The 39 Steps (1935). Over the next fifty years, Hitchcock would establish himself as cinema's "Master of Suspense" while Balcon enjoyed an equally long and distinguished career as one of Great Britain's greatest producers.
The Ghoul was based on a 1928 novel by the team of Frank King and Leonard J. Hines. With Balcon producing, shooting commenced at Lime Grove Studios in the West London suburb of Shepherd's Bush. Balcon entrusted direction of the project to an American, Thomas Hayes Hunter. D. W. Griffiths' successor as house director at Biograph Studios, the Philadelphia-born Hunter came to England in 1927 and had just finished a trio of Edgar Wallace mysteries, adapted by the late mystery writer's son, Bryan Edgar Wallace. Balcon rounded out his production team with German migrs invited from Berlin.
Director of photography Gnther Krampf had served as a cameraman on the set of F. W. Murnau's Nosferatu (1922) and shot G. W. Pabst's Pandora's Box (1929). Krampf had rather a hard time of it in Great Britain, where mise-en-scne and lighting were perfunctory at best, but his work on The Ghoul gives it a deliciously macabre feel. Art director Alfred Junge had got his start at UFA working under Paul Leni on the portmanteau picture Waxworks (1924) and he would go on to design several pictures for Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger. Although little is remembered of makeup man Heinrich Heitfeld, his ghastly applications for Karloff were largely responsible for keeping The Ghoul's memory alive during the forty years that the film was considered lost.
In contrast to its Germanic influences is The Ghoul's veddy British supporting cast. The cadaverous but mordantly funny Ernest Thesiger steals the show as Karloff's clubfooted manservant. Thesiger had appeared opposite Karloff in The Old Dark House and would pair with him again in The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) two years later. Made up to look far older than his forty years is Cedric Hardwicke, as Karloff's lawyer. Hardwicke would also enjoy a long working vacation in America from 1935, making the States his permanent residence from 1948 until his death in 1964. A discovery of George Arliss and an important leading man in England before World War II, Anthony Bushell emerged from military service as a major and often played military men in later life including the obstinate Colonel Breen in the BBC's TV adaptation of Nigel Kneale's Quatermass and the Pit (1958). Before she died at the ripe old age of 103, The Ghoul's excitable chatterbox Kathleen Harrison enjoyed a long career playing cooks, chambermaids and charwomen most memorably opposite Alistair Sim in Scrooge (US: A Christmas Carol, 1951). Cast as a nettlesome vicar, Ralph Richardson made The Ghoul his film debut. A distinguished stage actor, Richardson also popped up memorably in a number of cult films as a post-apocalyptic despot in Things to Come (1936), the gatekeeper to Hell in Tales from the Crypt (1972) and the Supreme Being in Time Bandits (1981).
When Karloff returned to Hollywood in June of 1933, his weekly salary was duly raised to $1,250 and an agreement was inked with Universal allowing him to work at other studios. The actor expanded his range to include a British soldier carried away by religious mania while serving in Mesopotamia in John Ford's The Lost Patrol (1934) at RKO and a titled Prussian anti-Semite bedeviling George Arliss and family in The House of Rothschild (1934) for United Artists. Karloff the Uncanny returned to Universal City in time to play a Satanic architect in Edgar G. Ulmer's The Black Cat (1934). Having very little to do with the Edgar Allan Poe story on which it was ostensibly based, the film was nevertheless genuinely creepy and is historically noteworthy for being the first pairing of Karloff with his rival in menace at Universal, Bela Lugosi. The Black Cat wrapped on March 17, 1934, exactly one year to the day after Karloff stepped ashore at Southampton to begin filming The Ghoul.
by Richard Harland Smith
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