John Carradine appeared in many of Universal’s classic monster movies from the 1930s and 1940s. He played Dracula in HOUSE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1944) and in HOUSE OF DRACULA (1945), and he played prominent supporting roles in such chillers as THE MUMMY’S GHOST (1944) and THE INVISIBLE MAN’S REVENGE (1944), as well as appearing in a whole host of others, with some of these roles uncredited, like his brief moment in THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) as one of the men who discovers the Monster (Boris Karloff) in the home of the blind man.
And while Carradine did eventually achieve the same fame as his notable co-stars Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, and Lon Chaney Jr., he did so mainly as a character actor rather than as the lead. Even as his long and varied career continued onto the next generation of horror stars, where he co-starred with the likes of Vincent Price, Christopher Lee, and Peter Cushing, he still rarely played the lead role.
Over a career which spanned six decades, Carradine amassed an amazing 354 screen credits. On both TV and in the movies, he was everywhere from the 1930s through the 1980s. But it was a rarity to find Carradine in a lead role.
One time that he did get the opportunity to play a starring role and carry a movie on his own is with today’s film, BLUEBEARD (1944).
In BLUEBEARD, John Carradine plays Gaston Morel, a Parisian puppeteer, who seems friendly and harmless enough, but in reality, he’s the infamous Bluebeard serial killer stalking the streets of Paris, violently strangling young women to death. As I said, it’s a rare treat to see Carradine in a lead role. Here as the haunted and tortured Bluebeard, he’s never been scarier! It’s a terrific performance by Carradine. In fact, he considered it his favorite.
BLUEBEARD was directed by Edgar G. Ulmer, the man who directed the classic Boris Karloff/Bela Lugosi thriller, THE BLACK CAT (1934). Like with THE BLACK CAT, there are plenty of innovative camera angles and shots, and also like the Karloff/Lugosi masterpiece, nearly the entire film has background music playing throughout.
Better yet, the murders are chilling and frightening, a testament to how one can create fear without showing graphic scenes of violence.
The screenplay by Pierre Gendron, based on a story by Arnold Lipp and Werner H. Furst, tells the story of puppeteer Gaston Morel who hires women to work with him, paints their portraits, and when he tires of them, he strangles them to death. He then gets rid of the paintings by having a private dealer sell them to buyers who only display them privately, keeping Gaston’s connection to the murders out of the public eye. This private dealer has no issue with Gaston being a murderer, as long as he makes money off the paintings. It’s a lurid plot with modern day overtones, as the way Morel manipulates and then harms women, eventually murdering them, as well as the way his fellow male art dealer dismisses the murders as if these women don’t matter, is symbolic of modern day male predators.
After his latest murder, Gaston meets artist Lucille Lutien (Jean Parker) who like other women, is fascinated with the puppeteer and agrees to design some new puppets for him. Hot on Gaston’s trail is Inspector Jacques Lefevre (Nils Asther) who finally catches a break when by chance he happens to see one of the paintings of the murder victims. He then focuses his investigation on trying to learn the identity of the artist.
BLUEBEARD is an atmospheric, gritty, and genuinely frightening thriller that in spite of its low budget really packs a punch. It’s also a golden opportunity to catch John Carradine in a starring role. He’s excellent as the conflicted puppeteer Gaston Morel. He’s also damned scary!
It’s a shame Carradine didn’t play more leads like this, although he appeared in so many movies in so many supporting roles he certainly made his mark in the movies and for horror fans, his name is up there with the greats like Karloff, Lugosi, Chaney, Price, Lee, and Cushing. And rightly so.
But those guys pretty much always had starring roles. Carradine achieved the same success primarily as a character actor.
Maybe it was because I watched it late at night. Or maybe it’s the fine work of John Carradine and director Edgar G. Ulmer. All I know is, when it was over, I was creeped out way more than I expected. For a black and white 1940s horror movie to get under my skin like that, that’s saying something.
So check out BLUEBEARD. With his terrific performance as Gaston Morel, John Carradine will get under your skin too. In fact, you may even notice your neck starting to feel a bit sore…