I'd forgotten that Karloff often appeared so sweet--child-like, innocent--in film, at least when he was older. Younger (and by that, I mean mid-forties and early fifties), he was frequently vulnerable, as well as impassioned and complex, especially when still, as lessor actors hammed and sawed the air around him. His acting style was simultaneously minimalist and brazenly theatrical, in a 19th-century, oratorical way (cf., Paul Robeson, who I don't believe was ever minimalist). It's a wonderful balance--frequently tipped one way or the other-which I can't yet parse. Karloff had a lot of stage experience before doing film, but little or no formal training. You can see the experience-without-training in the way he slurs beats--kind of how Sinatra slurs phrases, perhaps--in ways that can be interesting, but don't quite match the story being told. He would have been served well by more snap in his choices. But, on the other hand, there's a wonderful, wonderful truth in his ability to dive into an action. The actor does not hold back, apparently regardless of how deeply ludicrous the material might be.
I unexpectedly found myself humbled by watching him last night in a cheesy Roger Corman film, THE TERROR, with Jack Nicholson. The film is a straight-up gothic ghost story, set around a French Baron's castle in the mid 1700s. The actors have dialects ranging from southern California, Brooklyn, NY, and mid-Atlantic, so the dialogue is even more ridiculous in their mouths than it would have been on the page. Nicholson--who has no dialect tools--convinces through minimalism of gesture and physical movement. Karloff--who appears to have been in his seventies--throws himself into the part with great emotional and physical gusto, which was obviously physically demanding. He does not hold himself above the material, but treats it as if he were doing Lear (he did no Shakespeare anywhere in his career, as far as I can tell.) He does this for a cheap Corman flick. He pours himself into trash as if he could redeem it--and, by damned, frequently does. Watching him was like watching the lone brilliant, if untrained actor in an otherwise dreadful community theater production, who reminds you of what "honor" and "faithfulness" mean.