Skelton Knaggs: A Skelton Key

Cue the aging film geek blog confession, annnd action…this goes back to some Saturday at the dawn of the ‘70s, when Philly’s then-prevalent local TV horror host was airing Universal’s monster-rally opus House of Dracula (1945). Myself, I’d been a sucker for Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man since my first Aurora model comic book ad; but, watching the film with my big sister, we were both finding the maximum entertainment value to come from one small but way eccentric performance amid the supporting cast. Being a Universal horror movie, having a frightened gaggle of European villagers was a given; and, of course, that mob’s going to have the one fear-monger whose brother/aunt/piano tutor was victimized by the monster. Here, though, the actor in question was a compellingly ugly, popeyed little guy, pockmarked skin drawn tight over his cheekbones, offering the character’s proclamations of doom with a reedy, singsong delivery and an over-the top ethereal air.

At that tender age, I wasn’t in the routine habit of mentally cataloguing character actors…but that effort made an impression. So much so that years down the road—as the hours spent watching before-my-time cinema mounted up—I’d remember the House of Dracula guy on every fortuitous encounter with one of his screen performances, and would thereafter be able to place an equally-distinctive name to the face. On that note, we’ll segue from Pop-pop’s war stories and proceed with this tip of the FanFare fedora to the life and works of one Skelton Knaggs.

While the name sounds like some old-school Hollywood publicist’s Dickensian fancy, this memorable performer was in fact born Skelton Barnaby Knaggs on June 27, 1911 in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England. Research didn’t reveal when in his youth he settled on the stage, but he was doubtless serious about it; he was twenty-five when he enrolled in London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, and within two years was working regularly on the East End from the contemporary to classics. He’d get his first film role in the 1936 Constance Bennett starrer Everything is Thunder, and make another half-dozen London projects from quota quickies to Alexander Korda’s Rembrandt and Michael Powell’s The Spy in Black.

By the end of the decade, Knaggs came across the pond in furtherance of his career, making his American screen debut in the 1939 cheapie shocker Torture Ship, playing of the sprung convicts that ethically-challenged behavioral researcher Irving Pichel subjects to surgical rehab on his floating “hospital.” Over the early ‘40s, he’d rack up a few more screen gigs, and make a 1942 Broadway debut in “Heart of a City.” His next—and last—New York stage assignment came two years later under James Whale’s direction in “Hand in Glove.”  Some attributed the play’s short run as a result of apprehensive audience response to Knaggs’ disturbing read on his role as a mentally deficient murder suspect.

Knaggs returned to the west coast in the interim, and landed the assignment that proved to be the best fit for his peculiar talents: RKO’s The Ghost Ship (1943), one of the short-on-budget, long-on-aesthetic value and genuine shocks chillers engineered by storied producer Val Lewton. The scenario concerned a young seaman (Russell Wade) newly signed on as third officer to a cargo freighter mastered by an avuncular and seemingly benign captain (Richard Dix). As the voyage progresses, however, the officer slowly learns that the skipper harbors certain delusions regarding his mastery of his crewmen’s fates, and may not be above spilling blood to make a point. Knaggs was cast here in the key role of a mute Finnish sailor, who, thanks to some strategically-placed inner monologue voice-overs, served as the Greek chorus throughout the course of the unsettling proceedings.

Unfortunately, Knaggs’ most substantive opportunity in Hollywood would become his least seen for generations. It wasn’t long after The Ghost Ship opened that a pair of screenwriters accused RKO of lifting the story from their unsolicited submission; Lewton opted to litigate rather than settle, and lost. The Ghost Ship was immediately pulled from circulation and stayed that way for some fifty years, long denying the film its due as critical appreciation began to ripen for the remainder of the producer’s RKO output. Lewton would employ Knaggs again, to lesser effect in smaller capacities, as a soon-dispatched plague victim in Isle of the Dead (1945) and an effete manservant in Bedlam (1946).

Knaggs’ career course was pretty well set by that juncture, as he also would figure in further Famous Monsters of Filmland fodder from Universal (The Invisible Man’s Revenge [1944] and, of course, the aforementioned House of Dracula), Fox (The Lodger [1944]) and MGM (The Picture of Dorian Gray [1945]).  He’d also prove a fit for any number of “B” mystery franchises, including Universal’s Sherlock Holmes (Terror By Night [1946]), RKO’s Dick Tracy (every bit the grotesque Chester Gould heavy come to life in Dick Tracy vs. Cueball [1946] and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome [1947]), and Columbia’s Crime Doctor (Just Before Dawn [1946]).  A snippet of Knaggs’ efforts as an assassin from the fortuitously-PD Terror by Night follows here:

There’d be some higher-profile projects on his resume over those years—None but the Lonely Heart, Night and Day, A Scandal in Paris, Forever Amber, The Paleface—but Skelton was destined to be defined by his second feature workload. He returned to his homeland in the late ’40s to marry the former Thelma Crenshaw, and segued into the ‘50s with the Bowery Boys comedy Master Minds and the Columbia serial Captain Video, Master of the Stratosphere.  He’d stay busy with notables like Million Dollar Mermaid, Blackbeard the Pirate, and Casanova’s Big Night, along with gigs for the emerging TV medium, including series appearances on Dick Tracy, Boston Blackie and others.

Unfortunately, Knaggs reportedly had his issues with alcoholism, and they would ultimately compromise more than his career; he was just shy of his forty-fourth birthday when he died of cirrhosis of the liver on May 1, 1955. His last performance—in the Fritz Lang-helmed Stewart Granger swashbuckler Moonflight—was released posthumously.

  • Quasiblu

    excellent article, thank you…i’ll check out some of his films.

  • Mr. Ed

    Ditto for me with Quasiblu (above).
    I have always been a fan of the horror/sci-fi genre, particularly from the 30’s to the 50’s. Your article’s mention of Mr. Knagg’s films has only further lengthened my list of DVDs to be added to my library.

  • Gary

    Great article… you always amaze me with the bio’s of the characters. These are the actors/actresses that make the plot work.

    How about some of the female “who are they”. always good reading… Thanks again.

  • Wild Bill

    I remember him from many movies I have seen, but never knew his name. In my library there is a volume titled “The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Movie Character Actors” written by David Quinlan, c. 1985 that I use to identify actors from older movies (although IMDB.COM has become more of a go-to reference). Mr. Knaggs is not listed in this book, thanks for the name and the bio.

  • Gary Vidmar

    An excellent read – thanks – Fellini would have have loved Knaggs!

  • Martin Stumacher

    I remember seeing Skelton Knaggs in the Dick Tracy series among others. He was part of a company of actors at Universal that made them the last word in the Horror/Sci genre. Great character actor.

  • Watt Hyer

    Thanks for the article. Knaggs has always been one of my favorites, too. Ghost Ship is STILL on my “to see” list.

  • Bill M.

    I can recall seeing this fellow in a number of films during my past 60 plus years as a moviegoer & TV viewer (mostly without the cokebottle specs). I believe that was him in a TV episode starring Lawrence Harvey (possibly by Rod Serling) titled: “The Earwig”. And wasn’t he one of the pirates in “Treasure Island” with Robert Newton as Long John Silver?

  • sally stark

    Thank you so much for giving Skelton Knaggs his “Propers”! A true and classic “Character” who scared the stew out of me until I saw him in his Lewton roles.

    The man was great.

  • Dana Thompson

    Another great actor that is not frequently remembered, Clive Owen (Dr. Frankenstein) and of course one of my favorites, Dwight Frye (Renfield in Dracula), he was a great theater actor before going to Hollywood where they quickly typecast him, but I love him