– Professor Billings (Boris Karloff), The Boogie Man Will Get You
In 1941, Boris Karloff became a Broadway sensation in the hit play Arsenic and Old Lace. He played the gangster Jonathan Brewster, a man who keeps getting mistaken for the actor Boris Karloff. After 18 months on the stage, Karloff would return to Hollywood for his only film role during the more than three year period he was in New York. During the summer break in 1942, Karloff hoped to capitalize on his success with a comedic role in The Boogie Man Will Get You (1942).
Karloff and Peter Lorre had become friends in the 1930s and nearly worked together in Son of Frankenstein (1939). Lorre was Universal’s first choice to play Frankenstein’s son but the role eventually went to Basil Rathbone on the insistence of director Rowland V. Lee. Karloff and Lorre did work together in the musical comedy You’ll Find Out but, in my opinion, their best on-screen performance together came in this 1942 flick. While Karloff is playing another mad scientist in what would be his last film for Columbia Pictures under his contract at the time, the character of Professor Nathanial Billings is played for laughs in this horror comedy. The writers were clearly trying to capitalize on the success of Arsenic and Old Lace by mixing comedy and horror with dead bodies and eccentric characters.
Professor Billings is attempting to create a race of supermen for the war effort in the basement of his run-down tavern. Unsuspecting door-to-door salesmen find themselves easy victims in the odd contraption. Along with the eccentric professor there is his housekeeper Amelia Jones (Maude Eburne), who acts like a chicken late at night, and caretaker Ebenezer (George McKay), who is overprotective of his pigs. The professor sells the tavern to the young and eager Winnie Layden (Miss Jeff Donnell, her real name was Jean Marie with “Jeff” being a rather odd nickname based on the Mutt and Jeff comic strip). Despite her ex-husband Bill (Larry Parks) being against the sale, it goes through courtesy of Dr. Lorentz (Peter Lorre), the local sheriff, justice of the peace and real estate agent, amongst other duties. Add in some odd supporting characters and a random screaming ghost, you have all the ingredients for a fun little comedy.
The Boogie Man Will Get You received mixed reactions and often gets overlooked. I have very fond memories of discovering the movie one random Sunday afternoon sometime in the late 70s/early 80s. Then, it would be many years before I would be able to revisit the film again. It was never commercially released on VHS and, while I never saw it, it was occasionally aired on television but had become a very rare film. Finally, Sony Pictures released it on DVD in 2006 as part of the Icons of Horror Collection: Boris Karloff box set. It’s also currently available on YouTube.
I highly recommend The Boogie Man Will Get You. It’s guaranteed to make you laugh and gives you a great opportunity to see Karloff and Lorre doing what they do so well. After the production wrapped, Karloff rejoined Arsenic and Old Lace for a 66-week national tour. Sadly, he never brought the Jonathan Brewster character to life on the big screen. In early 1944, he would return to Hollywood as a prestigious Technicolor production was awaiting him in The Climax (1944).