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John Carradine: The Films

A look at the late horror star's work in and out of the genre.

By Dan Cziraky     December 28, 1999

Extraordinary character actor Carradine's 200-plus films are definitively catalogued for the first time in Weaver's exhaustively researched tome. It leads off with an introduction by director Jo Dante, recalling his experiences working with Carradine on THE HOWLING and an essay by Fred Olen Ray entitled 'The Sinister Gentleman,' in which the director shares memories of Carradine on SHOCK WAVES (1975) and several of Ray's own low-budget chillers, including THE TOMB (1985). In fact, Ray still possess unused footage of Carradine that he plans to use in upcoming, direct-to-video features. (He had also intended on writing a book of his own on Carradine, until he learned of Weaver's project.)

Mank, a noted film historian, provides a fascinating but too brief biography of the actor, who was born Richmond Reed Carradine in 1906 New York City. After a theatrical debut in 1925, using the name Peter Richmond, he arrived in Hollywood in 1927, and was employed by Cecil B. DeMille as a scenic designer--for just two weeks. Carradine became a fixture in early Hollywood, legendary for prowling the streets in black hat and cape, spouting Shakespeare at the drop of a hat and drawing portraits of the stars for a dollar. He garnered acclaim for a Los Angeles production of 'Richard III,' and was befriended by silent star John Barrymore. He made his film debut as a hillbilly in 1930's TOL'ABLE DAVID, and claimed to have turned down the part of the Monster in 'Frankenstein' (1931) because it was a non-speaking role.

He later appeared (briefly) with horror stars Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in 1934's THE BLACK CAT, and had bit roles in HEAVEN ON EARTH (1931), THIS DAY AND AGE (1933), THE INVISIBLE MAN (1933), and CLEOPATRA (1934). In 1935, he adopted the name John Carradine. He had small roles in that year's productions of LES MISERABLES and BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. Carradine's professional life was filled with ups and downs, and his personal life was just as tumultuous. By the time of his death in 1988, he had been married four times, fathered four sons (David, Keith, Robert, and Christopher), and was virtually penniless. He was afflicted with horrible arthritis, turning his hands into painful claws and his feet into deformed stumps. He had a cameo in 1986's PEGGY SUE GOT MARRIED (directed by Francis Coppola) and won a Daytime Emmy for the cable movie UMBRELLA JACK. His final film was 1988's BURIED ALIVE, filmed in South Africa. Many believed the long journey abroad caused his health to fail. He died in a pauper's hospital in Milan, Italy, on November 27, 1988.

Weaver lists the films by production dates, not release dates. In some of Carradine's later, poverty row productions, information was unreliable at best, as these were non-union films. It was in the 1950s that he started appearing in such dreck as DARK VENTURE and THE BLACK SLEEP, even while getting good supporting roles in such studio films as THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and AROUND THE WORLD IN EIGHTY DAYS. However, Carradine's poor business choices and troubled personal life soon lead to a downward spiral of increasingly bad movies, such as SUPERCHICK and SILENT NIGHT, BLOODY NIGHT, but this was after he'd already disgraced himself in 1966's BILLY THE KID VERSUS DRACULA.

Weaver's analyses are peppered with quotes from Carradine's co-stars, directors, film critics, and even Carradine's own comments (from various interviews and press releases). He also adds tidbits from the actor's life that influenced his film choices and performances. Most often, he took whatever work he could get, simply because he needed the money. In a way, his career mirrored Lugosi's, in that he became typecast, and often had to sell himself cheap. (This wasn't always the case: Lugosi was initially cast to reprise Dracula in 1945's 'House of Dracula,' and his salary was only $2,500 a week; when Carradine replaced him just before the start of production, his price was $4,500 a week.)

JOHN CARRADINE: THE FILMS also attempts to clear up some of the inaccuracies in his career, as well as some of his more bizarre 'cameos'--for instance, a large painting of Carradine as Dracula adorns the wall of aging horror host Roddy McDowall in 1985's 'Fright Night.' Overall, it's an interesting catalogue of the career of a genre veteran fondly remembered by most fans, which eventually included many of the filmmakers he worked with late in life.

Written by Tom Weaver. Introductions by Joe Dante and Fred Olen Ray. Biography by Gregory William Mank. McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers (Box 611, Jefferson, NC 28640, 1-800-253-2187, www.mcfarlandpub.com), September 1999, 408 pp., illustrated, $65.00.

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