Jack Carson was on screen for a long apprenticeship before he hit the big time, but when he did he continued to flourish in a career which included comedy, drama and musicals.
Never quite the leading man –although he did play opposite Roz Russell with above-the-title billing, although slightly smaller than hers, in Roughly Speaking, and opposite Doris Day in her debut in Romance on the High Seas — he was one of the most recognized of character actors in Hollywood’s Golden Age.
He was big. He was brassy. He could sing, dance and act. If the guy pictured above reminds you of a slightly wacky used car salesman, you’ve hit on Carson’s professional appeal as an actor.
Who can forget his amiably sleazy businessman turn as “Wally Fay” — his finest role — in the 1945 version of Mildred Pierce.
That classic showcased Carson as a star going toe-to-toe with Joan Crawford. Savor the movie’s early scenes in which Crawford as Mildred plays on the libidinous designs of Carson to set him up for the murder of her husband.
A mixture of breezy self-regard, delusion, naivete, gullibility and an almost comic sense of danger, Carson is nothing short of delightful. Then why isn’t he remembered more often as the superb talent that he was? We have some theories.
– For one thing, he didn’t live long. His movie career began as an extra at RKO in 1937 when Carson was in his late Twenties. At the age of 52, some 120 mostly undistinguished movie and tv roles later, the once hard drinking, six-feet-two-inch actor died of stomach cancer.
– Carson did not present himself as strictly a dramatic actor. He was a proud song-and-dance man, who once toured the vaudeville circuit with his first wife, Betty Alice Lindy, a dancer. And much of his best movie work can be found in comedies, a genre that somehow continues to be largely ignored by oh-so-serious critics and scholars.
– Carson would do kooky things from a strictly professional standpoint. He used to disappear from Hollywood for weeks on end, with strict instructions to his wife NOT to disclose his whereabouts. Turns out he was touring incognito as a clown in a traveling circus.
– Of his many movie titles, only a few stand out. There’s Mildred Pierce, of course. He puts in a solid dramatic turn in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born with Judy Garland. Ditto in 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof with Paul Newman. Then there is Frank Capra’s Arsenic and Old Lace with Cary Grant. He also worked with Bob Hope and Bing Crosby.(If you have a favorite Jack Carson movie, we’d love to hear about it.)
– In some respects, Carson is best recalled today for his many tv and radio appearances. His Everybody Loves Jack series on radio was a hit. On the tube, he appeared in a host of specials and series from Bonanza through the U.S. Steel Hour to Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color. Stars weren’t suppose to be quite that commercially versatile.
We don’t think Carson has ever received his due from classic movie scholars. No big biographies, no earnest reference write-ups. But we remember and honor his work.