Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A review of "John Carradine, The Films"

By Doug Gibson

There is a anecdote, in "John Carradine, The Films," that perfectly sums up the helter-skelter career -- and life -- of the late actor John Carradine, a man who would take virtually any role, so long as the check would cash. As producer-actor Tony Cardoza relates to author Tom Weaver, he and his associate, Coleman Francis, were traveling down the Hollywood Freeway when they noticed Carradine, in a convertible sports car. Coleman, spotting an opportunity, yelled for Carradine's attention, asking him if he'd discuss acting in a movie they were going to shoot.

Carradine suggested they pull over and go to a diner. At the restaurant, a deal -- for $600 advance money -- was hatched and Carradine subsequently had a small part in "Night Train to Mundo Fine," a hideously bad film that bored the few who saw it then, and later was played for laughs on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Incredibly, for what I'm sure was a few hundred dollars more, Carradine warbled the film's title song. That placed him in the same schlock legendary status as fellow horror actor, Lon Chaney Jr., who sang the theme song to "Spider Baby." (a much better film)

The year "Night Train ...." was released, Carradine also acted in "Munster Go Home," for big studio Universal, "Billy the Kid Versus Dracula," for a tiny studio, and in "The Emperor's New Clothes," an early Bob Clark film shot in Florida that appears to be lost.

But that was a typical year for Carradine, always short of money, grabbing a few thousand wherever he could but still popular enough to to get cast in the occasional big-studio film. "John Carradine, The Films," from McFarland Press, (here) was published more than a decade ago but it remains the definitive work on the melodramatic hard-drinking thespian who traversed through Hollywood, and many other shooting locations, for almost 60 years. Weaver's book is fantastic, a true labor of love, since the odds are probably slim he's made a lot of money off this extensive research. He provides magazine-quality features and recaps of Carradine's hundreds of films. And he's enough of a sleuth to ferret out information on Carradine's most obscure films, the cheapo westerns ("Cain's Cutthroats," "Five Bloody Graves" ...) that are poor imitations of "The Wild Bunch", the south-of-the-border Mexican thrillers --  including a yet-to-be-marked cult classic with Basil Rathbone -- that have yet to be dubbed into English, and not-released, or plain lost crap, such as "... Emperor's New Clothes."

Carradine merits this attention from Weaver, as well as tribute essays from contributors Joe Dante and Fred Olen Ray, both directors who worked with Carradine, who never retiring, died in 1988 at age 82. Despite the poor quality of many of his films, Carradine's participation, however slight, marks them as films worthy of note. Virtually every director, or other film crew member, that Weaver managed to contact offers only praise for Carradine, his work ethic, as well as his candor, and even bluntness. The elderly actor, battling crippling arthritis and trying to keep a fee of $1,000 a day from the cheap-set independents that always sought him out, would carefully learn his lines, deliver them well, and then leave the film, unaware of the entire plot and likely never seeing the completed film.

As many interviewees relate, while on the set, Carradine would regale actors and crew members with anecdotes and tales of his half-century of experiences as a prominent actor. "Great stories told by a master raconteur," is how Dante put it. Dante, by the way, directed one of the better late films that Carradine acted in, "The Howling." Another great story collected in Weaver's book is how Carradine, spending a few days on the set of "Shock Waves," a slightly above-average 1970s horror tale about zombie Nazis, put himself in danger by allowing five shots of his "dead body" in the ocean to be filmed in a pool. On the fifth take, as Fred Olen Ray relates, Carradine's head collided with a wooden dinghy strategically placed over his body. He was quickly rescued, and Carradine, about 70 at the time, collected his $8,000 check and was off to a new film. One can only repeat -- what a trouper. Years later, Olen Ray noted that Carradine claimed no remembrance of the film.

As the reader may have guessed by now, I find Carradine's later acting years more fascinating. There were fewer big-budget films -- two exceptions were "The Shootist" and "Peggy Sue Got Married" -- but the countless films, with titles such as "Shock Waves" or "Vampire Hookers" or Hillbillys in a Haunted House" or "Beast of the Yellow Night," or "Doctor Dracula" ... and so on, the recaps and memories paint a fascinating portrait of a hard-driven old actor, alone despite his several marriages and well-known actor sons, indefatigably pressing forward, knowing he alone had the power to earn the money needed to pay alimony, feed his body, quench his alcoholic thirst, and find warm places to sleep.

Carradine's acting career began in earnest in 1930, when he lodged a small part in the sound remake of the silent classic "Tolable David." He claims he was tested by Universal for the Frankenstein monster role. Carradine's salad days in Hollywwod were the late 1930s and early 1940s, when he was a contract player for 20th Century Fox. He was in "Stagecoach," "Cleopatra," several well-regarded films about the James boys, played Mormon enforcer Porter Rockwell in the big-budget "Brigham Young," and is perhaps best known for his role as the radical, irascible preacher in the classic "The Grapes of Wrath."

One gets the impression that Carradine would have shucked his career in films on a moment's notice if he could have made it big on the stage. He tried, particularly with his second wife, actress Sonia Sorel, to start acting companies. The legends of Carradine, usually in his cups, quoting Shakespeare on Hollywood streets are true. However, there never was enough money to leave films, and money became more scarce after he was dropped as a contract player. One of his best films, however, "Bluebeard," was filmed at ultra-cheap PRC studios in the mid-1940s. It helped that the director was the great Edgar Ulmer, a friend who was also on the outs with the big studios.

Factor in an ugly divorce, an unwise second marriage, constant carousing with the bottle, and alimony and support problems that led to infrequent jail stays, and Carradine's final 40-plus years were basically a sprint of frequent films that were the means to stay ahead, however precariously, of the many bills he was faced with. In the mid-1940s, Universal flirted with Carradine, using him as Dracula in two monster-fests, but the horror craze died at that time. As mentioned, Carradine would take just about any role offered. In two films, "Voodoo Man" and "The Black Sleep," he's almost hilariously cast against type, playing a moron in the first and a mutated, insane theologian in the latter. No role was too offbeat for this character actor.

As Weaver relates, Carradine's career was so significant because some of his performances are iconic. He can be the eccentric preacher, later mixing this persona with a western bounty hunter role. He was Dracula, with an interpretation that is still debated against Bela Lugosi's. He was a mad scientist in several productions -- usually with Jerry Warren and other cheapo producers -- with the fill-in movie role of narrator/scientist, usually spouting scientific babble to pad up chopped-up older films.

Film historian Gregory Mank provides a 50-plus page small biography of Carradine. It's fascinating, with much of its focus on the actor's dysfunctional personal life, his wives and his relationship with his children. The biography, as well as Weaver's research, leaves many questions about Carradine's relationships with his wives, his sons, as well as his agents. In fact, as good as Weaver's book is, and it is a must-read for film fans, it underscores the need for a serious, in-depth scholarly biography of John Carradine. He needs what Bela Lugosi has -- a biographer with the talents of an Arthur Lennig to probe his interesting life.

End Notes: According to Weaver, Carradine liked to call "Billy the Kid Versus Dracula" his worst film. It wasn't. My guess is he was struck by the ridiculous title, and plot. In later years, Carradine was fond of telling people that he had long forgot about some of the films he had been in. No doubt most of those were of the level of his Al Adamson, Jerry Warren films. Late in his career/life, director Olen Ray took advantage of a day shooting Carradine to film scenes that were intended for several films. As a result, some of Carradine's "films" were released after his death. Some of my favorite Carradine films, besides "Grapes of Wrath" and "Bluebird," are "The Unearthly," for his mad scientist role, "Billy the Kid Versus Dracula," for his sheer hamminess, "The Wizard of Mars,' for its sheer lunacy and Carradine as the "Wizard," and "Cain's Cutthroats," an otherwise nasty low-budget revenge western where Carradine tears up the scenery as a Bible-quoting preacher/bounty hunter who collects his criminals heads as evidence he got them. If respect Weaver a lot and appreciate his work in film history and criticism. If I have one minor quibble with him, it's that Weaver often looks at cult films and/or low-budget films with a conventional critic's eye. As my co-blogger Steve D. Stones says, many of these films are malformed little puppies with a curious charm that one needs to watch often enough to love. The harsh criticism of a good Universal film, "House of Dracula," is a tad disconcerting, and even the grime heaped on a films such as "The Wizard of Mars" seems unfair. After all, Carradine is dealing with American General Films here, one step below even PRC and Banner Films of the 1940s. I recall something I once read in the now-defunct Cult Movies magazine, where Lugosi's Monogram efforts were compared to "Michelangelo working with a crayon." With that mindset, the films can become very rewarding and the same applies to Carradine, even if he's Dracula battling Billy the Kid.

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