Born 112 years ago today, “John Carradine [1906-1988], the historical figure, looms larger than the man himself. He is remembered as one of cinema’s greatest character actors and the patriarch of an acting dynasty that rivals that of the legendary Barrymores. He was both a prince and a rascal. Hollywood abounds in fanciful stories (some exaggerated, some not) of Carradine’s antics. He was colorful and dramatic. He had a sweeping, majestic personality and an extraordinary voice that somehow managed to make the worst dialogue sound good. He commanded attention and got it. He was an actor.” So wrote genre filmmaker Fred Olen Ray in a foreword tribute to Tom Weaver and Gregory William Mank’s 1999 reference book John Carradine: The Films. Across nearly six decades of stage, screen and media performances, Carradine’s face and voice made a unique imprint in pantheon and poverty-row projects alike, so much so that whether or not one was a genre buff or an all-inclusive cineaste, this pantheon player was unavoidably and positively encountered in both substantial roles that dominated and supporting parts whose fleeting moments reliably stood out. Twilight Time aficionados have already enjoyed the pleasure of his company in the sold-out releases Drums Along the Mohawk (1939), Man Hunt and Swamp Water (both 1941), and The Egyptian (1954) from the Twentieth Century Fox library, in which he worked for directors John Ford, Fritz Lang, Jean Renoir and Michael Curtiz; that’s movie history in a nutshell.
The label also offers two free-spirited summer 1972 movies to which the then-65-year-old veteran brought barnstorming dash and a knowing twinkle to juicy ensemble parts for future directing powerhouses on the rise. Assuming a lordly manner and a honey-dripped Southern drawl, he played the haughty, union-busting railroad magnate H. Buckram Sartoris, who becomes the nemesis of the wildcat title heroine of Boxcar Bertha (1972), produced by the prolific Roger Corman and directed on Arkansas locations – and a tight shooting schedule and budget – by the new-to-Hollywood Martin Scorsese. This sexy, high-energy, underdog period action picture, better appreciated now than it was at the time – initially regarded as a downmarket, exploitation riff on the artier Bonnie and Clyde (1967), toplined Barbara Hershey and Carradine’s son David as train bandit gang members/labor activists who become a thorn in the side of Carradine pere and his fellow fat cats, and offers a marvelous sequence in which the younger Carradine gets to crash his father’s society soiree, setting up a symbolic generational confrontation that’s a treat to watch. (He even gets to quote scripture and utter the cinematically immortal line “That’s a joke, son.”) Two months later, the menacing star of so many good/bad horror films was back in his element, as the one-time sex researcher-turned-demented scientist (of course!) Dr. Bernardo in perhaps the wackiest segment of Woody Allen’s delicious sketch compilation Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*but Were Afraid to Ask) (1972). “My friend, I’m making discoveries you wouldn’t dream of,” he boasts to unsuspecting secluded laboratory visitors Allen and Heather Graham. “It was I who first discovered how to make a man impotent by hiding his hat. I was the first one to explain the connection between excessive masturbation and entering politics.” It was pure ham on wry, lovingly built on decades of movie-love affection, delivered by Carradine with a mad, lip-licking zeal and fashioned as a love letter to his legion of fans, among whom writer-director Allen obviously numbered himself, and culminated in the unleashing of one of the movie’s most memorable visuals, a rampaging giant breast. The terrorizing tit may have loomed large, but no larger than the lasting screen legacy of the mighty Carradine. Both TT hi-def Blu-rays of Boxcar Bertha (50% off) and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*but Were Afraid to Ask) (33% off) are now price-reduced as part of our current limited-time MGM Titles Promotion through February 28.