He’s largely forgotten — of not overlooked entirely — today, except perhaps for parodying Mussolini in Charlie Chaplin’s 1940 satire, The Great Dictator.
It seems to us that given his long and extensive career — more than 100 movie and tv credits spanning almost 45 years (from silent movies to Sixties tv) — Jack Oakie should be better known than he is today.
Oakie, a rotund, plump faced comedian, was a first rate second banana dubbed at his peak “America’s Joyboy.” Little did many know that he labored through a lifelong handicap that would have easily sidelined many other actors.
Many years after he directed Oakie in Thieves’ Highway (with Richard Conte, pictured below), 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.)
Oakie’s movie career began in the waning days of silent pictures; among other titles, he costarred as a svelte sailor in pursuit of Clara Bow in 1928’s The Fleet’s In. As he put on the pounds in the Thirties, he became typecast as a supporting player in musicals, comedies and adventure outings. One of the latter was Call of the Wild, mostly memorable if only because the affair of its costars, Clark Gable and Loretta Young produced an out of wedlock daughter.
Oakie made his biggest mark in the late Thirties and Forties playing a rich variety of characters from sleazy pressagents to righteous proletarians to tinpot dictators to zany college freshmen. He died in 1978, at the age of 74.