Today is the birthday of one of the greatest character actors of all time, the epic, the colossal John Carradine (1906-1988). With his tall, cadaverous visage, his unearthly upright carriage and a voice that sounded as though it were coming from the lungs of an old oak tree, he was tailor made to play any number of evil magicians, strolling thespians, crazy preachers, undead monsters, and the sorts of cowboys who would shoot you in the back.
Originally a painter and a sculptor, he was hired by Cecil B. DeMille as a set designer. Luckily, just as he was washing out at the job he had originally been hired for (he couldn’t draw columns), DeMille overheard him spouting Hamlet’s soliloquy as he walked through the scene shop (that’s the kind of a dude he was) and hired him to act. He had lots of small (mostly uncredited) roles in just about all of Demille’s early talkies in the early 30s. Soon, he was cast in lots of other people’s films. By the 30s he is appearing in lots of films that are now considered classics, although still in bit roles, for the most part. The thing is, his appearance and voice are so distinctive that we can still spot him if only has one line, or even no lines at all.
A hot streak began around 1939. He got to play the villain Bob Ford in Jesse James (1939) and its sequel The Return of Frank James (1940), and John Ford gave him plum roles in Stage Coach (1939), Drums Along the Mohawk (1939) and The Grapes of Wrath (1940). But already by the mid 40s he began to be associated with shlocky horror films, reportedly to finance his touring classical theatre company. Some of it was for big studios, like Universal, as when he replaced Bela Lugosi as Dracula in House of Frankenstein (1944) and House of Dracula (1945), and played the title role in Blue Beard (1944). But some of it was low budget stuff, like Monogram Pictures’ Return of the Apeman (1944), co-starring Lugosi and George Zucco. Unfortunately it’s the latter film that would presage a lot of the work Carradine would be doing in the future.
In the 50s, like most actors he got a lot of work in television, and he would get the occasional plum role, like his part as Aaron in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1956). I often have thought of his appearance as the undertaker in 1976’s The Shootist (John Wayne’s last film) as the period to his career. But, no, no, no. Carradine kept going. And going. And going. Some of it is more schlock, like The Bees and Vampire Hookers (both 1978). And some of it is better schlock, like The Howling (1981). And one of his last pictures Peggy Sue Got Married (1986) ain’t too bad at all.
And, like the undead character that he will always be, he continues to walk the earth in the forms of Keith and Robert Carradine, Martha Plimpton, and others. (Sadly, David passed away a few years ago in circumstances you’ll have to investigate for yourself if you don’t already know).
For more on John Carradine, read my post about his work in classic horror here.