Saturday, January 7, 2023

Jack Carson: What a Character

(This post is part of the 11th Annual What a Character! Blogathon hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken and Freckled, and Paula's Cinema Club)

Like most character actors, Jack Carson was best known for playing a specific type of character, in his case affable fools who were often supporting characters in films. What set him apart from other character actors is that he played lead roles in several films. What is more, while he is best known for his comedic roles in films ranging from Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) to The Good Humor Man (1949), he also played supporting roles in such dramas as Mildred Pierce (1945) and A Star is Born (1954).

Jack Carson was born on October 27 1910 in Carman, Manitoba, Canada. His family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin when he was only about four years old. His older brother was character actor Bob Carson, who appeared in a number of movies and television shows. Jack Carson became interested in acting when he attended Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. In fact, it would be a production at a college that would lead directly to his career. He was playing Hercules and stumbled, nearly taking most of the set. It occurred to one of his friends at the college, Dave Willock, that Jack Carson's sheer size (he stood 6' 2") and his physicality would make for a good vaudeville act. The two then formed the comedy team of Willock and Carson, and proved to be a huge success on the vaudeville circuit. The team would eventually part ways, although Dave Willock and Jack Carson would work together again. Dave Willock was one of the writers on Jack Carson's radio program The Jack Carson Show, and also played the recurring role of Jack Carson's nephew Tugwell on the show. Dave Willock went onto his own career as a character actor, appearing in several films, working with Cliff Arquette (playing his character Charley Weaver) on the radio show Dave and Charley, and playing the title character's father on the sitcom Margie.

Jack Carson would move from vaudeville to radio, first appearing as one half of Willock and Carson on  Kraft Music Hall when Bing Crosby in 1938. He hosted The Camel Comedy Caravan from 1942 to 1943 before starring on The Jack Carson Show from 1943 to 1949. The Jack Carson Show was much like The Jack Benny Program, insofar as it blended the variety show and sitcom formats. Jack Carson played himself, with the show focused on his home life as a star. From 1947 to 1948 he starred on the radio show The Sealcrest Village Store.

Jack Carson actually appeared on film before he began his radio career, playing a bit part in You Only Live Once in 1937. Even so, his appearances on radio certainly helped his movie career. Initially signed to RKO, he found himself cast largely in bit parts in such films as Bringing Up Baby (1938) and Destry Rides Again (1939). It was after he signed with Warner Bros. that his career really began to take off. Indeed, in The Strawberry Blonde (1941) he played a role somewhat different from the affable buffoons for which he would become most familiar. He played Hugo Barnstead, a somewhat dishonest braggart who serves as the rival of the lead character Biff Grimes (played by James Cagney). He played a somewhat similar role in Love Crazy (1941), champion archer Ward Willoughby. He may well have been even less likeable as Leo Powell, the loud mouthed, egoistical trumpeter who is also singer Ginger Powell's (Priscilla Lane) husband in Blues in the Night (1941).

Fortunately, Jack Carson would switch from somewhat unlikeable blowhards to amiable sidekicks and other supporting characters. In the 1942 movie Gentleman Jim he played the friend of the title character (historical figure Jim Corbett, played by Errol Flynn). He played somewhat similar roles in such films as Princess O'Rourke (1943).  It was during this period that he appeared in one of his best known roles, that of police officer and would-be playwright Patrick O'Hara in Arsenic and Old Lace (1944).

It was also during this period that Warner Bros. developed what seemed like an unbeatable formula, teaming heart throb Dennis Morgan with Jack Carson.  Jack Carson played Dennis Morgan's amiable friend  in Wings for the Eagle (1942). In The Hard Way (1943) he played Dennis Morgan's business partner, while in One More Tomorrow (1946) he played Dennis Morgan's butler. It was Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson's rapport in One More Tomorrow that led to the movie Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946). Two Guys from Milwaukee was Warner Bros.' attempt to capture the same sort of success that Paramount had seen with the "Road to..." movies starring Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, and Dorothy Lamour. With Two Guys from Milwaukee, Jack Carson no longer played Dennis Morgan's sidekick, but was instead his co-lead, much as Bob Hope was Bing Crosby's co-lead in the "Road to..." films. Two Guys from Milwaukee would be followed by two more films with Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson firmly in "Hope and Crosby"mode: The Time, the Place and the Girl (1946) and Two Guys from Texas (1948). Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson appeared one last time together in a movie in It's a Great Feeling (1949), in which they played themselves in a movie that today could be considered "meta." All in all, Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson made eleven films together. The two men were very close. Upon Jack Carson's death from stomach cancer at age 52, Dennis Morgan described him as his "best friend."

While Jack Carson was the co-lead with Dennis Morgan in many films, he also played the lead in his own movies. The first film in which Jack Carson was clearly the lead actor was the comedy Make Your Own Bed (1944), in which he played an inept private eye who must pose as the butler in the estate of a wealthy couple. He was top billed in Love and Learn (1947), although arguably  his role in the film is yet another best friend and sidekick (in that case, to Robert Hutton). He certainly was not the sidekick in April Showers (1948), in which he played one of half of a married song and dance act with Ann Sheridan. He also played the lead in Romance on the High Seas (1948), now best known as Doris Day's film debut. With their next film together, My Dream is Yours (1949), Doris Day had graduated to leading lady status.

Much like Make Your Own Bed, The Good Humor Man (1949) is definitely a Jack Carson vehicle. The film was meant to be a follow up to The Fuller Brush Man (1948) starring Red Skelton, with Jack Carson playing an incompetent Good Humor man who reads Captain Marvel comic books and is framed for a payroll robbery. Written by animator Frank Tashlin and directed by Lloyd Bacon, the film often plays like a live-action Warner Bros. cartoon. Following The Good Humor Man Jack Carson was the co-lead in a few more films.

While Jack Carson was best known for comedy, he played dramatic roles as well. Indeed, among his best known roles is that of Wally Fay, the title character's friend and lovelorn suitor in Mildred Pierce. His previous film Roughly Speaking (1945), was also a drama. He played the faithful, yet careless husband of Rosalind Russell's character. In A Star is Born (1954) he played studio publicist Matt Libby.

Of course, many of Jack Carson's films were musicals and he appeared as a supporting character in yet other musicals, including Dangerous When Wet (1953), Red Garters (1954), and Ain't Misbehavin' (1955). His only appearance on Broadway was in a musical, the 1952 revival of I Thee I Sing.

Like many actors Jack Carson would move into television. From 1950 to 1951 he was one of four alternating hosts of Four Star Revue along with  Jimmy Durante and Ed Wynn, and Danny Thomas. He also had his own show, The Jack Carson Show, from 1954 to 1955. He appeared on several of the anthology series of the Fifties and Sixties, including Lux Video Theatre,General Electric Theatre, Climax!, Studio One, Playhouse 90, The United States Steel Hour, Thriller, The Twilight Zone, and Alfred Hitchcock Presents. He also appeared in episodic television shows, including The Bob Cummings Show, Date with the Angels, Bonanza, and Bus Stop. His final appearance on screen was playing the lead in the two-part episode "Sammy, the Way-Out Seal" on Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color.

Sadly, Jack Carson died from stomach cancer on January 2 1963 at the age of 52. He left behind a legacy of great performances. While best known for playing affable buffoons, he could play other roles. In some of his roles he was not particularly likeable, such as Hugo Barnstead in The Strawberry Blonde and the big-headed Ward Willoughby in Love Crazy. In The Male Animal (1942) he played Joe Ferguson, former football star and rival to lead character Tommy Tucker (Henry Fonda). In The Tattered Dress (1957) he played the outright villainous Sheriff Hoak. And as pointed out, he excelled in drama as well as comedy, as demonstrated by Mildred Pierce, A Star is Born and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958).

Of course, even given the other sorts of roles Jack Carson played, including dramas, it is probably as the loveable buffoons for which he is best remembered. Whether it was a supporting role such as the  hapless Officer O'Rourke in Arsenic and Old Lace or a lead role such as inept Good Humor man Biff Jones in The Good Humor Man,  Jack Carson had a flair for comedy. His gift for physicality and his perfect comic timing, particularly combined with his large size, made him the perfect comedic actor.  Indeed, his comic roles are so well remembered that I suspect the mere thought of Jack Carson brings smiles to most classic film buffs's faces.


FlickChick said...

What a wonderful tribute to a fine actor. It took me a while to warm up to Jack Carson, mainly because he sometimes played such annoying or disreputable characters. Once I caught on that he did that so deliciously well, I became an admirer. I do so love him him "Strawberry Blonde." His Hugo is so dishonorable, yet it's hard to take your eyes off him. He stands tall when sharing the screen with Cagney, de Havilland and Hayworth and that isn't easy! Great post.

Citizen Screen said...

Jack is one of everybody's favorite. You can't help but like the guy even when he's playing heels. Terrific, informative post, Terry. I didn't realize he and Dennis Morgan had a series of films together. You did this great actor honor with your thoughtful tribute.


Irish Jayhawk said...

Great detail and a lovely tribute, Terry! Jack Carson was consistently entertaining in every role he performed. Thanks so much for joining us again!

Silver Screenings said...

I always forget he died so young. What a sad loss, indeed.

He's fabulous in everything – from comedy to drama. I adored him when he appeared with Dennis Morgan. They seemed to be an usual pair on paper, but they were terrific.

Thanks for sharing your research on this very talented man.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I love this very thorough and detailed post on Jack Carson's career, which as you note took him from comedy to drama. I liked him in both types of roles, but his dramatic roles, even in a creep like Wally Fay, bring out a poignant quality which I don't think we always see in other actors who might play such a guy in a more one-dimensional way. His comic roles were delightful, and his dramatic roles were fascinating to watch. So glad to hear he and Dennis Morgan were really buddies. Well done!

Rebecca Deniston said...

Jack Carson was a cool guy! I totally smiled when I saw that you wrote about him.

Andrew Wickliffe said...

Hey Terry!

Did the 25 year math, which aged me internally another five...
Can you put me down for The Flash (1990) pilot movie, for The Stop Button?


Terence Towles Canote said...

I got you down for it, Andrew!

Andrew Wickliffe said...

Not sure how I left this on the wrong post but here we are :)