This February 5th marks the 99th birthday of the late, great character actor John Carradine, and a day worth celebrating for cinephiles of every stripe. With a resume that includes at least 250 film appearances (Carradine himself boasted a tally closer to 500), his unmistakable presence is impossible to avoid if one goes trolling through the history of American cinema.
Carradine’s onscreen debut was the small role of “Buzzard” in a 1930 remake of the hillbilly meller “Tol’able David,” and in a career that spanned six decades portrayed rednecks, cowboys, hobos, mad scientists, priests, pirates, Nazis, railroad tycoons and more. Following his death in 1988, previously shot footage of Carradine continued to “star” in new titles for several years. Carradine performed as Count Dracula, Ebenezer Scrooge and Abraham Lincoln, plus he shot Jesse James in the back. He played second banana to Elvis Presley and Jerry Lewis and logged thousands of hours in live theatre performing the classics of Shakespeare.
A busy, working actor, he was cast by directors from every strata of show business; John Ford and Al Adamson, Nicholas Ray and Ted V. Mikels, Douglas Sirk and David L. Hewitt. Carradine may not have been proud of rent-paying gigs in sleazy exploitation flicks like “Sex Kittens Go to College,” “Vampire Hookers” or “Satan’s Mistress.” Still, for fans of such ignoble masterpieces, an appearance from Carradine can redeem nearly any monstrosity (unfortunately, there was nothing he could do for “Myra Breckenridge”).
Carradine was a highly theatrical screen personality, a tall, reedy man with the wit of a rogue and an eccentric personality. He had skill enough to breathe life into the simplest of characters, or he could ham it up with the ripest bombast. Even when walking through an uninspiring role with an industry-standard minimum of professionalism, he could lend the dullest exposition a whiff of class with his tremendously deep, sonorous voice, which rumbled out of his chest with the carriage of royalty.
Actually, it’s quite likely that Carradine’s best performances were never caught on camera. His true love was the stage, and for many years he directed and starred in his own traveling Shakespearean troupe, an endeavor funded with well-paying roles for low-budget producers. Carradine was well versed in the words of the Bard, so no doubt his very best work was as Hamlet or Othello, at the peak of his powers before a live audience.
It would be impossible to adequately cover Mr. Carradine’s accomplishments in this brief space. Those with the yen to delve deeper into his filmography are encouraged to seek out Tom Weaver’s comprehensive book “John Carradine: The Films” (published by McFarland Press). For the casually curious, raise a glass to one of Hollywood’s most distinguished character actors by checking out one of the following titles, ten personal favorites of mine, which are each blessed with a classic John Carradine performance.
BLUEBEARD (1944): John Carradine is at his best as the star of this moody Edgar Ulmer-directed crime thriller. He’s the sinister painter and puppeteer Gaston, a dashing figure to the young ladies, but also possessed of a cold, reptilian cruelty in the face of his own perverted lust. The beautiful girls who model for his paintings are later found floating in the river, strangled to death, but Carradine is too cool to be caught.
STAGECOACH (1939): This landmark John Ford western features an all-star cast, but Carradine stands out amongst the ensemble, perfectly unctuous in a slippery, multi-layered performance. He’s the mysterious gambler, a fallen Southern gentleman who takes a sudden shine to the pregnant wife of a wounded cavalryman. Carradine plays the cardsharp as a man suspended between impulses both noble and sinister, with intentions that are sometimes pure but always misguided.
SATAN’S CHEERLEADERS (1977): Widely acknowledged as one of the best films ever made, this boneheaded jiggle-horror-comedy is made even better by a John Carradine cameo. He’s a roadside hobo who meets a crew of oversexed cheerleaders with car trouble. The saucy teens flaunt their curves at the sun-baked trash picker, leaving him to mutter, “Nobody listens to me, I’m just a crazy old bum.” He gets the last laugh later, when a bumbling gang of small-town devil-worshippers abducts the girls for use in a sexy (PG-rated) satanic ritual.
THE WIZARD OF MARS (1964): In the title role, Carradine appears only as a hazy floating hologram, meaning he probably filmed the whole thing in one afternoon with minimal sweat. It’s a colorful, if yawnful, tale of a mission to Mars gone awry. Four American astronauts (including a ladynaut named Dorothy) wander the red planet’s desolate surface, eventually stumbling upon a yellow brick road leading to an abandoned cavern. Carradine is the disembodied soul of an ancient civilization, and he lays some truth on the earthlings.
THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940): A bona fide classic, John Ford’s adaptation of the Steinbeck novel is nearly as powerful as its source material. Carradine is the Preacher Casy, who loses his religion and is later made martyr to the cause of Oklahoma migrant workers. “Maybe there ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue,” he says, “there’s just what people does.” It’s easily his most textured, sensitive screen performance and a must for all.
THE BEST OF SEX AND VIOLENCE (1981): Lightning Video released this quickie compilation of exploitation trailers for films like “Dr. Black and Mr. Hyde,” “I Spit on Your Grave,” and “Tanya’s Island.” Carradine is our host, cracking the corniest of one-liners with the bemused smile of someone reading his lines for the first time off cue cards. Sons Keith and David join him between Rudy Ray Moore trailers, asking to borrow the family car; it’s a warm moment in an otherwise cynical production.
OF HUMAN HEARTS (1938): Jimmy Stewart is the star of this civil war melodrama, but the plot turns on Carradine’s performance as a stern Abraham Lincoln. The president summons battlefield doctor Stewart to the White House and scolds him for never writing home to his poor mother. Threatened with court-martial, the ungrateful son tearfully writes to his sainted mama as President Lincoln sneers at this callow youth, quoting Shakespearean verse to express his disappointment.
BILLY THE KID VERSUS DRACULA (1966): With this William Beaudine brainteaser, Carradine gives his ripest performance as Vlad Tepes, flamboyantly stomping through the Old West with satin cape and garish goatee and waging war against reformed outlaw Billy the Kid. Yeah, it’s stupid, but in all the right ways. Contrary to rumors, this was not based on a true story; in reality, Billy the Kid and Dracula got along very well, although they rarely saw each other socially.
VAMPIRE MEN OF THE LOST PLANET (1970): Al Adamson added hasty footage to a bizarre Filipino monster movie for this goofy treasure, which played drive-ins and TV spook shows under other titles like “Blood Creatures from the Prehistoric Planet” and “Horror of the Blood Monsters.” Carradine plays a brilliant scientist with a decidedly cranky disposition; when his space expedition crash-lands on a mysterious planet, the old coot won’t even leave the capsule. The set-bound Carradine spends the film alone, barking out orders over a walkie-talkie while his younger cohorts wander the California desert and pretend to interact with spliced-in dinosaurs and cavemen.
THE SHOOTIST (1976): John Wayne’s final role was poignantly prophetic, a cancer-ridden gunslinger trying to meet death with dignity and leave the world with his pride intact. John Carradine is in peak form as the undertaker who offers to bury the Duke free of charge for the privilege of displaying his famous corpse to the public for profit. As the man who embalms John Wayne in his very last picture, Carradine is entitled to some recognition for putting the final nail in the coffin of the traditional Western.