After the Silents: The Walking Dead (1936)

Boris Karloff is, of course, best known for his monstrous roles in films like Frankenstein and The Mummy. While his big break came in the talkies, Karloff was quite active in silent films as well. The Walking Dead came along after Karloff had found fame playing assorted creepy characters. While not his most famous film, it contains one of his best performances.

But I am getting ahead of myself.

Michael Curtiz directs little psychological thriller (it is often mislabeled as horror) and employs the services of Karloff as the dead man who walks again, “Latin” lover Ricardo Cortez is a smirking villain and forgotten silent leading man Kenneth Harlan as a minor baddie.

I will be covering Mr. Cortez and Mr. Curtiz in another review so I would like to just focus on Karloff and Harlan this time around.

Film Review

As I said before, this is not really a horror film. Yes, I know it is called The Walking Dead and it stars Boris Karloff but I would describe this film as a revenge thriller with a sci-fi touch.

The story involves a gang of rich men who run a corrupt city from the shadows; Ricardo Cortez plays the ringleader. When a judge dares to convict one of their own (the fellow getting time is Kenneth Harlan), they conspire to murder him and blame the death on a patsy. The victim is Boris Karloff, a pianist who has just served ten years for manslaughter, unfairly sentenced by the very judge who is marked for death.

Everything goes as planned. The judge is murdered, Karloff is framed and the only witnesses who can clear him are too intimidated to speak. Karloff is convicted and electrocuted.

Karloff is alive!
Karloff is alive!

We can’t end with the bad guys getting away! Something must be done and something is done. Karloff is restored to life thanks to the experiments of a friendly local scientist (Edmund Gwenn). This turn of events naturally terrifies the conspirators. Things really get scary, though, when one-by-one they meet with fatal accidents.

Boris Karloff is flawless in the lead. There’s no other word for it. The part calls for a performance that is both sensitive and highly emotional and Karloff delivers. As a live man, he is afraid to die and horrified that he will be killed for a crime he did not convict. Once he is restored to life, he is filled emotion but it is not anger or a desire for revenge. He is supernaturally calm, for the most part. Instead, he is consumed with his desire to know why he had to die. However, his mission is a melancholy one. Karloff beautifully plays the part of a gentle soul who sorrowfully investigates his own death. The only time he gives way to darker emotions is when he sees his killers for the first time. A holy fury seems to consume him. It’s electrifying.

Ricardo Cortez conspires to re-kill Boris Karloff.
Ricardo Cortez conspires to re-kill Boris Karloff.

The movie is fast-paced and exciting with just enough chills to keep things interesting. Really, the only fault I can really point out is the tepid romance between Warren Hull and Marguerite Churchill. In fact, the romance is so nondescript that the film itself seems to forget about it by the third act. Marguerite becomes fixated with protecting Karloff and pretty much spends the rest of the film chasing after him as he confronts his murderers.

Overall, though, The Walking Dead is a powerful little film that really showcases Boris Karloff’s gifts as an actor. It is well worth seeking out, especially if you have only seen Karloff in his makeup-heavy monster roles. (Those are wonderful too but variety is the spice of life!)

Boris Karloff

Boris Karloff is one of the most successful late bloomers in Hollywood history. He started in motion pictures in 1919 at the age of 31 and did not hit the big time until he was cast as Frankenstein’s monster in 1931.

His career in the talkies has been well-documented but his roles in silent pictures have been virtually forgotten. Let’s take a look and see how Karloff was able to hone his craft in the world of pantomime.

It is well known that Karloff was born William Pratt in London, England. He began a stage career after emigrating to Canada in 1909. Success was elusive and in 1919, he found himself working as an extra in the movies.

Karloff, by all accounts an incredibly nice man, had a talent for projecting sinister grimaces at the camera. This skill ensured him work as a henchmen but rarely as a major villain. His filmography for the twenties swung back and forth between Arab roles and banditos with a few notable exceptions.

One role that stands out is his part as the Mesmerist in The Bells, a 1926 thriller starring Lionel Barrymore as a murderer consumed by guilt. The dark subject matter and presentation would, of course, be the sort of thing that Karloff would build his career on.

In “The Bells”

While Karloff does not play the tortured protagonist, his character is quite memorable nonetheless. Clearly inspired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, Karloff is a top hat-wearing mindreader who threatens to expose Barrymore’s murderous deeds. Karloff creeps about and glares in a most menacing manner. He makes the most of his small role and steals scenes right out from under his talented co-stars. (Read my review of the film here)

Unfortunately, not much came of this foray into creepiness and Karloff was back to playing exotic baddies for the remainder of the silent era. I have to admit, though, it is a ton of fun to have a Boris hunt while watching silent movies. His distinct appearance makes him unmistakable and it is always fun to find him lurking in the background of movies like His Majesty the American, Two Arabian Knights and Old Ironsides.

While fame came along in the talkies, Karloff’s hard work in silent film is always appreciated. The decade of practice in the art of pantomime surely helped him make his monster more poignant in Frankenstein, his death more terrifying in the silent film-inspired flashback sequence in The Mummy and his fate all the more heartbreaking in The Walking Dead.

Now let’s look at a career that was the complete opposite of Mr. Karloff’s: An actor who started had top billing in the silent era but who faded in the talkies.

Kenneth Harlan

kenneth harlan
Kenneth Harlan at the height of his popularity.

In spite of an impressive resume of famous titles, Kenneth Harlan has been forgotten by all but the most dedicated of silent film fans. A popular leading man in the 1920’s, Harlan was reduced to “B” pictures and serials by the 1930’s. Harlan played the lead in only one sound picture before sliding into supporting and character parts. The causes of his decline in popularity are mysterious. He was only 35 when sound completely took over and his voice was fine. Perhaps his personal affairs were seen as too tangled for stardom (he married eight times and his marriage to Marie Prevost involved enough scandal to earn him a spot on Jack Warner’s blacklist). In any event, Harlan’s sound career was enough to pay the bills and allow him to retire in 1943.

Kenneth Harlan came from an acting family and was an experienced stage performer when he started his Hollywood career in 1911. He debuted as Constance Talmadge’s leading man in Betsy’s Burglar.

Kenneth Harlan in The Walking Dead.
Kenneth Harlan in The Walking Dead.

He played the hero to Lon Chaney’s villain in 1920’s The Penalty (in which Mr. Chaney conspires to steal Mr. Harlan’s legs. Yes, his legs.), supported Constance Talmadge and Harrison Ford in The Primitive Lover, broke Anna May Wong’s heart in The Toll of the Sea, and starred in the second screen adaptation of The Virginian.

Harlan made a successful talkie transition but his popularity was not great enough to win him starring roles in major productions. He became a fixture of westerns and serials and never regained his star status.

Unlike other silent stars, Harlan has not enjoyed a revival in popularity. This may be due to the fact that, at least in most of the films available to modern viewers, Harlan is playing second fiddle to a much more colorful lead. Lon Chaney, Constance Talmadge and Anna Way Wong were not to be trifled with when it came to stealing scenes.

In any case, Kenneth Harlan is yet another forgotten silent star who made the jump to talkies, albeit leaving that star status behind.


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