Saturday, February 4, 2017

Jack Carson


Today, I'm writing about the life and career of actor Jack Carson.

This article is part of the O, Canada! Blogathon hosted by Speakeasy  and Silver Screenings.

Today Jack Carson is remembered as a talented character actor who appeared in films like Mildred Pierce (1945) and A Star Is Born (1954), but, during his lifetime, this Manitoba-born actor was a popular star of vaudeville, radio, film, and TV. In this article, I'll recommend five Carson films and one TV show you should watch, but first here's a little background.

John Elmer Carson was born Oct. 27, 1910, in Carman, Manitoba, to insurance salesman Elmer Carson and his wife, Elsa. When Carson was just 3 years old, his father accepted a promotion, and the family packed up and moved to Milwaukee. He and his brother, Robert, who also became an actor, grew up there, and Carson planned to follow his father into the insurance business until he started attending Carleton College in Northfield, Minn. 

Carson's massive frame -- he was 6 foot 2 inches tall and 220 pounds -- got him the role of Hercules in a school production. Carson had a blast in the play, but he never saw acting as a future career until one evening when he tripped and crashed through the scenery to great laughter from the audience. This unintended pratfall gave Carson and his buddy Dave Willock the idea for a vaudeville act, and for a few years in the early 1930s they toured the country as the team of Willock and Carson.


Eventually, the duo decided to head for more lucrative employment opportunities in Hollywood. At first, Carson only landed bit parts at RKO Pictures, but several radio appearances eventually led Carson to get his own CBS radio show, The New Jack Carson Show, in 1943. Radio significantly boosted Carson's profile and he was able to get a lucrative contract with Warner Bros. where he started getting excellent supporting parts opposite big-name stars like James Cagney (The Strawberry Blonde), Errol Flynn (Gentleman Jim), and Joan Crawford (Mildred Pierce).

Carson's genial demeanor and work ethic made him one of Warner's top stars of the Postwar period. He was teamed in popular comedies with both Jane Wyman and his pal, Dennis Morgan, and he and Doris Day became a popular screen team. In fact, Day always considered Carson her first mentor in Hollywood and they were good friends until the end of Carson's life. 

Carson continued to have a successful film career in the 1950s in movies like Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958) and A Star Is Born, but he became an even bigger star on TV, where he hosted the wildly popular variety shows Four-Star Revue and The Colgate Comedy Hour and appeared as a guest star on Bonanza and The Twilight Zone. Sadly, Carson was working on a pilot for a drama series when he passed away on Jan. 2, 1963 from stomach cancer (ironically, he died the same day as another old Hollywood favorite, Dick Powell). He was only 52 years old. Carson is buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, Calif.

Here's four of Carson's best film roles and one TV role and where you can watch them.

Wally Fay in Mildred Pierce (1945), dir Michael Curtiz

Butterfly McQueen, Joan Crawford, and Jack Carson in a production still from Mildred Pierce (1945).
Carson had been kicking around Hollywood for almost a decade when he got his breakout role in this seminal film noir as housewife-turned-restaurateur Mildred Pierce's business partner. In a film packed with memorable performances, Carson stands out as a lecherous, but still somehow good-hearted man, and his repartee with the wisecracking Eve Arden is priceless. TCM at 1 p.m. Feb. 17 and 9:30 a.m. March 22. DVD; Blu ray; video on demand.

Buzz Williams in Two Guys from Milwaukee (1946), dir. David Butler


To compete with the success of the Bing Crosby-Bob Hope Road movies, Warner's decided to pair Carson with his fellow Wisconsite Dennis Morgan for a buddy comedy about a prince from the Balkans (Morgan) who decides to take an incognito tour of New York City with a friendly cab driver (Carson). The movie is somewhat silly -- at no point is Morgan even remotely convincing as European royalty --but it's still a lot of fun, especially the many in-jokes about Milwaukee and S.Z. Sakall's performance as a flustered member of the Prince's entourage. This movie spawned a semi-sequel, Two Guys from Texas (1948). video on demand.

Peter Virgil in Romance on the High Seas (1948), dir. Michael Curtiz

Doris Day and Jack Carson on the set of Romance on the High Seas (1948).
This lightweight Technicolor musical about a singer (Doris Day) who is masquerading as a married woman during a South American cruise was originally supposed to team Carson and Betty Hutton. However, when Hutton became pregnant, director Michael Curtiz convinced Warner's to cast Day, who had only appeared in a few musical shorts. Romance on the High Seas made Day an overnight sensation, but she always said that her successful performance would not have been possible without Carson's support and advice. DVD; video on demand.

Matt Libby in A Star Is Born (1954), dir. George Cukor

Charles Bickford, Judy Garland, James Mason, and Jack Carson in A Star Is Born (1954).
Carson proved his considerable acting chops in this musical remake of the 1937 Hollywood drama by playing a rapacious studio publicist who hides his bitterness and cynicism behind a sunny facade. This is Carson's most powerful performance (in my opinion, he should have received a best supporting actor nomination), especially in the scene where he confronts a drunken Mason. DVD; Blu ray; video on demand.

Harvey Hunnicut in "The Whole Truth" episode of The Twilight Zone

Jack Carson as used car salesman Harvey Hunnicut
Carson anchors this mostly comic episode of Rod Serling's seminal sci-fi series as a smarmy used car salesman who has his pants-on-fire sales pitches seriously curbed when he buys a haunted Model A Ford that requires all of its owners to tell the absolute truth. This isn't one of the great The Twilight Zone episodes -- quite frankly, the ending is ludicrous -- but Carson is never less than exceptional in a scenario that mimics the Jim-Carrey movie, Liar, Liar (1997). Sadly, he passed away almost one year after this episode aired. Streaming on Netflix Instant; DVD; Blu ray; video on demand.

I'll leave you with a fun scene of Carson performing a calypso number in Romance on the High Seas with the help of Sir Lancelot.



10 comments :

  1. Bravo! Jack Carson is one of my all-time faves, and I was thrilled to see your tribute. He was one of the greats, in my opinion, and it's interesting to speculate on how his career would have turned out if he were given more of the meaty roles.

    Thank you for joining the blogathon, and for bringing dear Mr Carson to the party!

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    1. Watching his films back to back gave me a new appreciation of his considerable talents.

      Thanks for hosting!

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  2. Love seeing jack Carson turn up in most anything which shouldn't come as a surprise because..... what's not like? :)

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  3. Jack Carson was an old school entertainer and an actor of dramatic depth and great comedic chops. Do they make 'em like that any more?

    PS: My husband has cousins in Carmen so he likes to pretend that he may be related to Jack Carson. Hey, we all have dreams.

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    1. It seems like a small town, so it could be possible. I'm supposed to be Humphrey Bogart's 25th cousin once removed of something like that.

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  4. Difference in tastes, but I liked the TZ episode. Of course I'm a huge fan of the series overall. Hence my use of two separate episodes for entries in blogathons. (The Buster Keaton one isn't published yet but is forthcoming and I did one with Agnes Moorehead last year.) Like the overview of Carson.

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    1. I never really got into the comic episodes of The Twilight Zone, but it's well worth watching for Carson's performance.

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  5. Why do I like him especially in "Arsenic and Old Lace" and "Bright Leaf"? Maybe because the aspiring play writing cop and the travelling huckster indicate to the audience that that, no matter what, things will work out in the end.

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    1. He is a welcome presence in every movie.

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