Many years after he directed Jack Oakie in Thieves’ Highway, his excellent 1949 film noir about the dangers confronting wildcat California truckers trying to make a buck transporting fruits and vegetables, Jules Dassin remembered.
The director’s recollections are included as an extra in the Criterion release of the Thieves DVD, and capture his near incredulity.
It was only after working weeks — WEEKS! — that I realized that Jack Oakie was deaf — DEAF!, said Dassin. And by what magic or instinct, he would pick up the cues. He never failed a moment. He was miraculous to watch.
Oakie was deaf throughout his long career, and he certainly made the best of it. In Thieves’, for example, he plays with likeable energy a righteous but roughhouse trucker on the make called “Slob.” A trimmed-down version of Oakie is shown above as “Shorty Hoolihan,” Clark Gable’s pal in 1935’s Call of the Wild.
Ok, let’s see what else you know about this durable, noteworthy and versatile comedian-actor.
1) Question: Oakie successfully labored through a serious physical handicap to achieve what he did. What was this handicap? a) He was blind in one eye; b) He was deaf; c) He suffered from constant acid reflux; or d) He had a speech impairment.
1) Answer: As mentioned above, he was (b) deaf.
2) Question: Long before Lucille Ball became Lucie on tv’s I Love Lucy, she played opposite Oakie in a pair of RKO comedies. Name the pictures, and tell us what was her role and what was his?
2) Answer: Oakie and budding RKO star Ball costarred in a pair of light comedies about a budding, desperate for work actress (Ball, of course) and her manic Hollywood press agent (Oakie). The first, 1938’s The Affairs of Annabel, was a hit, and the second title, Annabel Takes A Tour, didn’t do badly. RKO had hoped to continue the series but balked when Oakie demanded what the studio deemed was too much money. The two-titles gave Ball her first exposure as, as she termed it, “a second-rate star.” Little did she know.
3) Question: Oakie’s most famous role, in Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 comedy The Great Dictator, earned him a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his spoof which one of the following dictators? a) Adolph Hitler; b) Joseph Stalin; c) Benito Mussolini; or d) Hideki Tojo.
3) Answer: c) Benito Mussolini. The character in The Great Dictator was “Benzino Napaloni,” but as Oakie played him, there was no doubt about the source.
4) Question: In director Jules Dassin’s excellent film noir, 1949’s Thieves Highway, Oakie actually plays a character by the name of “Slob.” a) True; or b) False.
4) Answer: True. See above.
5) Question: In the Thirties, Oakey appeared onscreen in various college comedy settings. Which one of the following titles did he NOT appear in? a) 1933’s College Humor; b) 1934’s College Rhythm; c) 1936’s Collegiate; or d) Jack Oakie’s College.
5) Answer: This is a bit of a trick question. Sorry. Oakie actually appeared in ALL these titles. Except (d) was the title of his own show — on radio and not on the big screen.