On This Day in 1948: Boris Karloff Gets Himself In and Out of a “Beastly Silly Wheeze of a hole!”

“Hole!” said Mr. Polly, and then for a change, and with greatly increased emphasis: “‘Ole!” He paused, and then broke out with one of his private and peculiar idioms: “Oh! Beastly Silly Wheeze of a hole!” —H. G. Wells, The History of Mr. Polly (1909)

Well, we’ve all been there, I guess; call it a rut, a depression, or down in the dumps. A hole by any other name is just as deep. To look on while someone you love is stuck in one can make you as miserable as dwelling there yourself; it seems difficult to find a way out either way. One could throw a book, I suppose, in lieu of a rope. Light enough to be hit by without sustaining injury, but profound enough to make what you might call an impact, The History of Mr. Polly is just the right volume to toss. While not exactly a guide to better living without chemistry, it sure is comforting—a friendly reminder to anyone who is deeply dissatisfied with the “hole” of life that it is possible to get out or on with it somehow.

In Mr. Polly’s case, getting out involves a botched suicide attempt, arson and insurance fraud, an unreliable pistol, a pair of stolen trousers, and the fortuitous departure of an abject scoundrel. I didn’t suggest there’s an easy way out, and neither does the author, H. G. Wells.

Middle-aged, mismatched, and miserable, Mr. Polly has very nearly gone crackers; but he learns, at last, that a change of luck or pace is not beyond his own powers. On this day, 17 October, in 1948, Boris Karloff assumed the role of the man in the proverbial ditch, seizing the rare opportunity to step onto the stage for a noteworthy stab at reinvention.

Karloff could probably identify with Wells’s antihero, considering that the actor had been in the beastly hole of typecasting for far too long and was, after a string of horror movies, in danger of becoming a mere caricature. The Grinch of box office calculations had absconded with his thespian options.

The NBC University Theater, a radio program that featured adaptations of literary works of fiction and provided brief lectures between the acts, gave the soft-spoken Londoner an opportunity to take off the Halloween costume he’d been dealt by Hollywood’s costume department and put on the mask of comedy instead.

Some three years later, when Anthony Pelissier’s motion picture adaptation of the novel opened in New York City, the audience was faced with a Mr. Polly who had the features and figure of John Mills; but on radio, it was Karloff who inhabited the role in a moving study of malady conquered and hope restored.

Let’s assume life is a broadcast studio. Consider the possibilities. Grab that microphone, my friend. I’ll be listening.

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