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From the current Autumn 2018 Issue

The strange magic of JOHN CARRADINE


By Stone Wallace


According to famed director Cecil B. DeMille, John Carradine possessed the best voice in Hollywood. So said John Carradine, anyway.

While Carradine was prone to exaggeration, there is little reason to dispute this claim. He spoke with a rich, pronounced baritone, likely honed from his love of Shakespeare, whose sonnets and soliloquies he delivered not only from the stage but also anytime the mood struck him. His impromptu oratories earned him the nickname “The Bard of the Boulevard.”

That said, it was hardly anomalous to find John Carradine stretching the truth; he once claimed that he had appeared in more movies than any other actor — by his own count, well over 400. (In fact, the final tally on his movie career was approximately 225 — still an impressive number.) There is the famous story about the night that Carradine — after many potent libations — insisted that he was Christ and attempted to prove it by walking across the Garden of Allah swimming pool. Suffice to say, he was not successful.

He was involved in some of the greatest movies Hollywood ever produced (Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, The Ten Commandments); at the same time, he may hold the record for appearing in the most terrible films (Hillbillys in a Haunted House, Vampire Hookers, Psycho a Go Go... and on and on and on). “I did them for one reason,” he explained, “money.”

Yet while the quality of his movies varied wildly, Carradine always delivered entertaining performances, even when his performance was over-the-top. Indeed, there were many films in which Carradine’s performance was the only thing that made these movies worth watching.

A man of many interests, the man born Richman Reed Carradine was born in the bohemian neighborhood of New York’s Greenwich Village on February 5, 1906. His father was a correspondent for the Associated Press; his mother was a surgeon and his grandfather Beverly Carradine was a leading evangelist for the holiness movement.

Carradine’s father died from tuberculosis when his son was only two. His mother married a man named Peck, who, according to Carradine, beat him daily just on general principle. Carradine ran away after his early schooling was complete, later attending Philadelphia’s Graphic Arts Institute, where he studied sculpture.

Carradine took to wandering as a teenager, supporting himself by painting portraits, at times earning as much as $10 to $15 a day. Even so, according to his son David, young John’s destiny was already set. “My dad told me that he saw a production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice when he was 11 years old,” David recalled, “and decided right then what he wanted to do with his life.” Surrendering to his love of the theater, Carradine made his stage debut in 1925, appearing in a New Orleans production of Camille.

Eventually Carradine made his way to Hollywood where, grandly bedecked in a red-lined satin cape and wearing a wide-brimmed hat, he would stroll the streets, reciting Shakespeare. The often-penniless would-be actor would stand outside restaurants employing his most woeful expression, which inspired sympathetic patrons to send out orders of food for the starving young man.

His fortunes improved when he was befriended by John Barrymore and found work as a set designer for director Cecil B. DeMille. Although that particular employment did not pan out (Carradine’s designs did not match the director’s visions), DeMille was impressed with Carradine’s resonant diction and hired him for voice work. He was heard in several DeMille productions, including 1932’s The Sign of the Cross.

Carradine claimed to have appeared in seventy films prior his first on-screen billing (using the name Peter Richmond) in 1930’s Tol’able David. He also insisted that he had auditioned for the title role of the 1931 production of Dracula and turned down the title role in Frankenstein. “I never regretted refusing the role of the Monster and Karloff never ceased to regret it,” the actor was quoted as saying. It should be noted that there is no record that any of these claims are true. One thing that is true is that the actor adopted the stage name “John Carradine” in 1935, and changed his name legally two years later.

During this period, the actor appeared uncredited in twenty films, including the early horror titles The Invisible Man, The Black Cat and The Bride of Frankenstein, where, as one of a pair of huntsmen, Carradine stumbles upon and disrupts the idyll enjoyed by the Monster and a blind hermit. He received far-down-the-cast-list recognition in 1935’s Les Miserables and Cardinal Richelieu but these credits were the exception rather than the rule.

Carradine continued to labor in small roles until 1936, when director John Ford cast him in The Prisoner of Shark Island. As the sadistic Sgt. Rankin, Carradine makes life miserable for Samuel Mudd (Warner Baxter), the doctor who was imprisoned for treating the injuries of presidential assassin John Wilkes Booth. Carradine was so memorable in the part that he became a member of Ford’s stock company, appearing in ten films for the director over a three-decade period.

The success of Shark Island threatened to type Carradine as one of the screen’s most hissable villains. He played another cruel prison guard in Ford’s 1937 disaster epic The Hurricane; in 1939’s Jesse James, he played what many people consider his most despicable character — the cowardly Robert Ford, who shot Tyrone Power’s titular outlaw in the back. (He received a well-deserved comeuppance the next year — courtesy of Henry Fonda — in the sequel The Return of Frank James.)

Tall, lean, with a slightly cadaverous countenance, Carradine perfectly exemplified the man audiences loved to hate. His movie villainy was so effective that he once rode in a parade and was booed for several blocks by spectators. Carradine even shot scenes for the Shirley Temple film Captain January but his character was considered so frightening that the role was cut from the movie.

Carradine did play his share of cinematic bad guys, but his versatility shone through in other, more sympathetic roles. He was the Southern gentleman and Civil War veteran Hatfield in John Ford’s Stagecoach, the gaunt ex-preacher Jim Casy in Ford’s The Grapes of Wrath, the intellectual matador El Nacional in 1941’s Blood and Sand and the role Carradine considered his most satisfying, that of Long Jack in the 1937 seafaring classic Captains Courageous. Although initially portrayed as a heel, Long Jack redeems himself toward the end of the picture when he presents young Freddie Bartholomew with a shaving razor.

By the end of the 1930s, Carradine was under contract to 20th Century-Fox for $1,750 a week. Commercially and artistically, it was the peak of his movie career. His contract with Fox expired in 1942, after completing work on the Milton Berle mystery-comedy Whispering Ghosts.

Rather than signing another long-term studio deal, the actor decided to freelance, upping his price to $2,500 per week. One of his most memorable (and nasty) roles was as the Nazi Reinhart Heydrich (aka “the Hangman”) in 1943’s Hitler’s Madmen. The film was produced by lower echelon studio PRC but acquired by MGM at the request of studio head Louis B. Mayer.

From there, Carradine went to Universal, where he began a long association with the horror genre. His first role was in 1943’s Captive Wild Woman; as mad scientist Dr. Sigmund Walters, he transforms a circus gorilla into Acquanetta (aka “Paula the Ape Woman”). There was another mad doctor role in The Invisible Man’s Revenge, a villainous high priest in The Mummy’s Ghost and, most memorably, two stints as Count Dracula — the role he reportedly turned down a decade earlier — in House of Frankenstein and 1945’s House of Dracula.

While these Universal films were “B” productions, they retained a certain class that was lacking in the films Carradine made for poverty row outfits like Monogram and Banner Productions; films with provocative titles like Revenge of the Zombies, Voodoo Man and Return of the Ape Man. One exception was PRC’s Bluebeard, which starred Carradine as an artist who murders his art models. It was one of the few horror films he made that was well-received by the critics and by the actor himself.

If such career choices seem horrifying or at least baffling, the fact is that Carradine wanted the money to launch his dream project, a Shakespearean repertory company. “If this goes over,” Carradine promised, “I’m through with Hollywood forever.”

While the troupe enjoyed success during the 1940s, allowing Carradine to play Hamlet and Macbeth (and to stage productions of Othello and The Merchant of Venice), supporting the company was an expensive proposition. In addition, Carradine’s personal life had taken a hit as he divorced his first wife, which forced him to make child support payments for his two sons. (Carradine married four times and had four sons.)

To maintain his lifestyle and keep some control over his mounting debts, Carradine was now asking $3,500 weekly for his film services. In addition, he supplemented his income by lending his distinctive vocal talents to the top radio shows of the day. He was heard on movie anthologies like Lux Radio Theatre and Screen Guild Players and tested his knowledge on the highbrow quiz program Information Please. He even made a foray into comedy as a guest on The Martin and Lewis Show.

During the 1950s, Carradine’s film work alternated between class productions and schlock. In the former category, he offered able support in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments and John Ford’s The Last Hurrah, while finding time to appear in such cinematic chum as The Unearthly and The Black Sleep. The latter film saw him playing one of scientist Basil Rathbone’s unsuccessful “medical subjects”: a staff-wielding, wild-eyed maniac named Borg.

As his film career declined, Carradine freely entered the medium of television. Most of his guest appearances on shows such as The Rifleman, Twilight Zone, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour and The Red Skelton Show (where Carradine was allowed to showcase his comedic side) stood in marked contrast to the junk he was being offered in feature films. Money remained his key motivation; as son Keith explained, “Everybody thinks he had money and loved making all those horror movies. But he was doing them because he had to feed children.”

To make matters worse, Carradine was sued by his agent for back commissions and forced to file for bankruptcy, stating assets of only $250 against liabilities of $23,021. Given that grim financial picture, perhaps the talented classically trained actor can be forgiven for such forgettable fare as Curse of the Stone Hand, The Wizard of Mars and House of the Black Death.

That’s not to say everything during this time was low-budget trash. Carradine continued his association with John Ford, playing small supporting roles in 1962’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and 1964’s Cheyenne Autumn. He also enjoyed success on Broadway, making his musical theatre debut as Marcus Lycus in the original Broadway production of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. (Co-star Zero Mostel won a Tony Award.)

Carradine had name recognition (especially in the horror genre), but his participation came at a bargain price. By the time he appeared as both the host and player in 1967’s abysmal Gallery of Horror, his salary had dropped to $300 for the whole shoot! His pay increased from time to time but there was always a substantial fluctuation; for example, he received $5,000 as a sea captain in 1977’s Shock Waves, yet earned only $500 later that year for Satan’s Cheerleaders.

As the 1980s began, times were genuinely tough for the once-renowned character actor. His career had reached such a lowly state that his agent was quick to sell Carradine’s services for virtually any offer. His health had also taken a drastic downturn, as he began to suffer from severe rheumatoid arthritis, which not only crippled him but left his hands and feet twisted and deformed. Still, either out of a deep-seated desire to keep active or forced by financial necessity, Carradine continued to act both on stage and in movies until the end of his life.

One film that could have been special was 1984’s House of The Long Shadows. Inspired by George M. Cohan’s play Seven Keys to Baldpate, it’s the story of a novelist who rents a house in which he will write a novel, but finds the place houses all manner of eccentrics. The film marked the first time Carradine had shared the screen with fellow horror veterans Vincent Price, Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing. Despite this star power, House was a promising concept that fell flat by saddling these genre icons with a familiar, recycled plot.

There were still a few surprises, however: Despite his declining health, Carradine used his distinctive voice for the animated films The Secret of NIMH and Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. He won a Daytime Emmy Award in 1985 for his performance in “Umbrella Jack,” playing an eccentric old man who lives by the railroad tracks. And there was one more “class” movie when Francis Ford Coppola — who considered Carradine to be the best screen Dracula — gave him a small but important part in the 1986 comedy Peggy Sue Got Married.

There are conflicting accounts as to the events surrounding the actor’s death. One story has it that Carradine was on a stopover in Milan from his final film shoot (another abysmal piece of celluloid called Buried Alive) when he decided to climb the 348 steps to the Duomo Cathedral tower. After completing the task and admiring the view, he suffered a heart attack and collapsed. Admitted to the pauper’s ward of a Milan hospital, John Carradine passed away on November 27, 1988 at the age of 82. Carradine’s son David has disputed this story, telling friends that his father’s death was actually the result of malnutrition and the fact that his agent — who was accompanying him in Milan — did not seek medical attention fast enough.

So much of John Carradine’s life had bordered on the bizarre that perhaps it is fitting that no less could be said about his passing. According to David, he was displeased with the expression the morticians had put on his father’s corpse (“a demonic, artificial grin”) and used his own hands to re-sculpt his features to make the face resemble the man that he knew.

John Carradine once said that he never encouraged his sons to follow him into show business (he didn’t discourage them either), but that is what each of his boys did. David, of course, starred on the television series Kung Fu. Keith became the only Carradine to receive an Academy Award, winning Best Original Song honors for “I’m Easy,” which he performed in the 1975 movie Nashville. Robert has enjoyed a steady film and television career, starring in the 1984 movie Revenge of the Nerds and its sequel and playing Hilary Duff’s father on the series Lizzie McGuire. Stepson Bruce has acted infrequently, appearing with half-brother David in two episodes of Kung Fu.

As for their Dad… well, John Carradine never truly became a “star.” Today, he is best remembered as an accomplished supporting player who appeared in some genuine motion picture classics. Conversely, he has legions of fans who prefer to recall his presence in horror movies. Regardless of the films he is remembered for, John Carradine left an indelible and lasting impression on the history of cinema — the good, the bad and the ugly.

Carradine summed up his approach to acting — indeed, to life — when he declared, “I am a ham… and the ham in an actor is what makes him interesting.”

And John Carradine was always interesting.

Tune in to Those Were the Days on October 27 to hear John Carradine on radio.


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