Camp David

CAMP DAVID NOVEMBER 2011: REFLECTIONS ON DEMILLE BY JOHN CARRADINE

By • Nov 22nd, 2011 •

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In the late 80’s the archivist and author John Kobal began in earnest to create a large coffee table book to honor the films of Cecil B De Mille. He chose to call it DEMILLE AND HIS ARTISTS. John had the full cooperation of the DeMille estate and the surviving heirs of De Mille himself. John was allowed to do his research in the DeMille home in Los Angeles and at the time had acquired a treasure trove of costumes and props from all of DeMilles greatist films. During this time he employed me to do research along with Mark Wanamaker, so the two of us would trade off doing whatever John felt was needed to make this book the definitive study of one of Hollywood’s most outlandish yet respected producer-directors. John was always amused at my devotion to the artisans of the Horror genre, whether it was spending the day with Robert Florey to discuss MURDERS IN THE RUE MORGUE or working on my cable interview show THE SINISTER IMAGE. It was during this period, when I was taping shows with Vincent Price and Cameron Mitchell as well as directors as varied as Waris Hussien and Russ Meyer, that John asked me to interview John Carradine on his early days working for De Mille. I had planned to tape a SINSTER IMAGE show with Carradine to follow the one I had just taped with Vincent Price.

John at that time was living near Santa Barbara in the smaller community of Monticeto, we had already taped an audio interview in preparation for his Sinister Image appearance, so it was relatively easy to persude Carradine to talk about his early days as an actor in Hollywood just before he established himself in films like John Ford’s STAGECOACH. This interview has been a long time in seeing the light of day, as John Kobal died before his cherished project could be completed. This Camp David is dedicated to the memory of both John Carradine and especially for John Kobal, who made Hollywood all the more special by being such a champion of its glamour.

John Carradine’s interview was conducted in his home on November 10th, 1984.

DAVID DEL VALLE: Your first encounter with Cecil B. DeMille was SIGN OF THE CROSS.

JOHN CARRADINE: Yes. Well, I’d heard that he was about to do it and I lived just across the street almost from Paramount Studios. I went over there to the casting office and they sent me to wardrobe to put on what was called an Class-A costume. And I went on the set and the assistant brought me to DeMille, who looked at me and said, “Your face is too narrow. The camera wouldn’t record anything from your face.” But I did a bit in the film. I don’t think I even had any dialogue. And that was my first meeting with DeMille.

DDV: Then thee was CLEOPATRA.

JC: And then I was in CLEOPATRA, and I saw DeMille do something in that…no, that was THE CRUSADES. I worked on THE CRUSIDES too.

DDV: Did you have a speaking part in THE CRUSADES?

JC: Very briefly. He never let me do very much because he said my face was too narrow. In THE CRUSADES I saw him do an extraordinary thing. He had a scene of men in Gothic armor under which were suits of chain mail, all of which together weighed about 115 pounds. They were on a fighting tower which was truncated, wider at the bottom than it was at the top. When the bottom was against the castle wall, the top was about twelve feet away. And he wanted his stunt men in their Gothic armor to leap from the top of the fighting tower to the castle wall, and no one would try it. DeMille put on the armor and did it himself, and he was then over fifty years of age. I saw him do it.

DDV: What kind of man was he?

JC: A lot of actors hated his guts. I didn’t. He had no compunction about criticizing people who didn’t know their business. He never directed actors. He directed the camera. He just hired the best actors there were and let them do their job. I never saw him tell an actor how to read a line. Never. On the other hand, he hated homosexuals. And there was an unfortunate Englishman who had a speech to read, and I’ve forgotten what picture it was, but his voice had a lisp, and DeMille fired him. But he was brought back because DeMille’s top assistant explained to him that this poor guy was using, for the first time, his whole set of false teeth.

DDV: So he just had a lisp from the false teeth?

JC: He had a lisp from his false teeth, which didn’t fit very well. And the dentist found out that they had to make two little indentions right in there otherwise you have a whistle or a lisp. DeMille was a martinet in some ways.

DDV: Did he also know that you were an artist and a sculptor?

JC: I did an heroic bust of him. I can show you a picture of it.

DDV: Oh, I’d love to see it. What year was that?

JC: Oh, let me think. I was living in Livingston Court, which is just off Van Ness Boulevard in Hollywood, which isn’t far from Paramount Studio. DeMille never posed for me. I just sat on the set and sketched him, and then took it home. I’d spend the night half on studying dialogue and half working on the bust. And he paid me $750. for a bronze, which didn’t pay for the molding, only for the bronze. He never got it, though, because my landlord was a Fin by the name of Svend Holm and he had hooked the studio on the basis of his acquaintanceship with Jack London. The front of the building was covered by a huge mural of Jack London, and on the top was a handrail with a fish net stretched over it, the top of which was a schooner head that belonged to Jack London. Holm came into my studio and destroyed the bust, which was still in clay. By the time I got back it was in a million pieces. I said to myself, “Well, there goes my career with DeMille.” But not so. When I had the guts to inform him of the situation, he didn’t bat an eye and didn’t ask for his $750. back.

DDV: What was his relationship between case and crew up until THE TEN COMMANDMENTS?

JC: Let me tell you a story that truly sums up DeMille, both as a man and as a director. We were nearly finished with THE TEN COMMANDMENTS and there was but one really important scene that remained to be shot, involving a number of extras going through the desert. DeMille always worked with at least ten yes-men at his side at all times, including his cameraman, whose name for the life of me I can’t remember [Loyal Griggs]. Well, DeMille decided to shoot the sequence from the top of a very steep hill. It was obvious to most of us on the crew that he wasn’t well. His appearance was ashen. Well, as they marched halfway up the hill, DeMille grabbed arm of his cameraman and collapsed, sinking to the ground. He lay there for almost twenty minutes. As people went to find a doctor, DeMille collected himself and looked up at his cameraman and said, “Let’s go. I want to finish this Goddamn shot.” It was the last piece of film that DeMille ever directed. And that, for me, summed up the essence of the man, who always finished what he started.

DDV: Was that the last time you saw him?

JC: Absolutely. And it’s the way I want to remember him.

DDV: How would you compare and contrast the working methods of DeMille with someone like John Ford?

JC: Well it’s quite simple. I never saw DeMille give an actor direction. However, John Ford would take as much time as he felt was necessary to coax an actor into a performance. You must remember that John Ford was a theatre man and an artist. I don’t think anyone would consider De Mille anything other than a brilliant showman.

DDV: I suppose John Ford enjoyed your Shakespearian acting style as DeMille enjoyed your work as a painter and sculptor.

JC: No, no. Totally the reverse. DeMille would have never hired me if he hadn’t been fascinated with my somewhat startling Shakespearian highs and lows. I had very little dialogue in THE CRUSADES, but every single word was accentuated or it was done over. Whereas all Ford was fascinated with was trying to make me squint, which is the reason I have the mannerism, which is so noticeable in all my work with him. He would literally position the lights so that they would go right into my face, and many times I couldn’t see without my now well-known scowl. That I owe to John Ford.

DDV: How would you describe John Ford as a man as compared to DeMille?

JC: They were quite dissimilar, but Mr. Ford, like any other man, was not without his flaws. And he could be, on occasion, very petty. I remember quite well doing one film, I think it was DRUMS ALONG THE MOHAWK. Ford had a habit of always having as a treat for his cast and crew a large campfire every night complete with musicians and a lavish buffet. And this tradition was part of every Ford set. Now during the filming, one of the script girls, or somebody, I can’t remember who, pissed John off in no uncertain terms. Well now, instead of reprimanding the girl, there was no campfire or entertainment for the whole crew that evening, and no explanation was given then nor to my knowledge ever was. That was the way he expressed his displeasure.

DDV: Did you ever hear of a special meeting of the Screen Director’s Guild to oust Joe Mankiewicz as President, when John Ford stood up and said, “I don’t like you C.B, I admire you, but I don’t like you.”?

JCC: No. Where did you hear that? There was no public feud with Ford or DeMille that I ever heard of. And as you know, I’ve been in Hollywood more than most.

DDV: Did you ever discuss Ford With DeMille?

JCC (laughing): Good God, man! That’s like asking a woman her age. Of course not. Mr. DeMille never mentioned or expressed any admiration for any other film director on the set, which as I’ve told you before is the only recollection I have. I will tell you one last and rather funny story about John Ford. As you may or may not know, John Ford lived up above the Hollywood Bowl. This was in the early forties. And unlike it is today, you could walk onto the stage at any time, day or night. Barrymore was coaching me to learn to project for an upcoming Shakespearian play. So on his advice I would sneak into the Hollywood Bowl and boom out, “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I!” which was my favorite soliloquy from Hamlet. I did this till the wee hours for at least three days, and on the fourth night, I had just begun when a squad of police cars enveloped the Bowl. I made a run for it in the forest area up above. Now several days later, I was on a set and Mr. Ford saw me. He walked over and without saying so much as hello, he said, “Well, I’m glad you’re not in jail, cause I’m the one that called the police. You see, you son of a bitch, I need my rest as much as you need your rehearsal time. And it might interest you to know your projection is just fine. You have a director’s approval.”

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2 Responses »

  1. Great read, Big Dave. John did a million movies and stated that JESSE JAMES MEETS FRANKENSTEIN’S DAUGHTER was the biggest piece of crap he was ever involved with… a jovial statement considering his roster. I loved Mr. Carradine and feel this is one of my favorite pieces you’ve unleashed on the public. What a great job, Dave! I’ll print it and keep it in my files.

    -Bryan Layne

  2. John will always be my favorite actor of the Carradine family. I can watch him in anything. And his voice is magnificent. I write “is” because film keeps the past in the present.

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