Wednesday, July 18, 2012

WHAT A CHARACTER: JACK CARSON

One of my favorite character actors that died way too young was Jack Carson. His acting was wasted at Warner Brothers for much of his career, but he did make some memorable appearances in classics like: "Arsenic And Old Lace" (1944), "Mildred Pierce" (1945), and "A Star Is Born" (1954). Some of his roles might have been small but his ability was massive. Carson's trademark was the wisecracking know it all who eventually and typically was undone by his own excessive self-confidence.

Carson was born in Carman, Manitoba on October 27, 1910 to Elmer and Elsa Carson. Shortly afterwards the family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, which he always thought of as his home town, although there is no known evidence confirming that he took out United States citizenship. He attended high school at Hartford School, Milwaukee and St. John's Military Academy, Delafield, but it was while attending Carleton College that he developed a taste for acting.

Jack Carson, because of his size — 6 ft 2 in (1.9 m) and 220 lb (100 kg), had his first stage appearance as Hercules in a college production. During a performance, he tripped and took half the set with him. A college friend, Dave Willock, thought it was so funny he persuaded Carson to team with him in a vaudeville act—Willock and Carson—and a new career began. This piece of unplanned business would be typical of the sorts of things that tended to happen to Carson during some of his film roles.

During the 1930s, as vaudeville went into decline owing to increased competition from radio and the movies, Willock and Carson sought work in Hollywood. Carson initially landed bit roles at RKO Radio Pictures, including a bit part in Bringing Up Baby (1938), starring Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn. The radio also proved to be a source of employment for the team following a 1938 appearance on the Kraft Music Hall during Bing Crosby's period as program host. This led to a number of other appearances which would culminate in Carson's own radio show in 1943.

From 1950-51, Carson was one of four alternating hosts of the NBC Television program 4 Star Revue, along with other hosts Jimmy Durante, Ed Wynn. and Danny Thomas. The show aired Wednesday evenings. Carson's second season was his last with the comedy-variety program when its title was changed to All Star Revue.


Carson's radio success on radio led to the start of a lucrative film career. An early stand-out role for Carson was as an undercover G-Man feigning drunkenness opposite Richard Cromwell in Universal Pictures's anti-Nazi action drama entitled, Enemy Agent. Carson shortly thereafter achieved contract-player status with Warner Brothers. While there, he was teamed with Dennis Morgan in a number of films, supposedly to compete with the popular Crosby and Hope road pictures.

However, despite this auspicious beginning, most of his work at Warner Brothers was limited to light comedies with Morgan and later with Doris Day (who in her autobiography would credit Carson as one of her early Hollywood mentors). Critics generally agree that Carson's best work was in Mildred Pierce (1945) where he played the perpetually scheming Wally Fay opposite Joan Crawford in the title role. Another role which won accolades for Carson was publicist Matt Libby in A Star is Born (1954).

Carson's work during this period included a number of appearances on television including The Martha Raye Show, The Guy Mitchell Show and The Polly Bergen Show (both 1957), Alcoa Theatre (1959), Bonanza (Season 1, Ep.9: "Mr. Henry Comstock", 1959), and The Twilight Zone (Season 2, Ep. 14: "The Whole Truth", 1961). Jack Carson also had a brother Robert (Bob) who was a character actor.

In 1962, while rehearsing the Broadway play Critic's Choice, he collapsed and was subsequently diagnosed with stomach cancer. Carson died in Encino in 1963, aged 52. The early death of the burly Carson, whose screen image was one of energy and vitality, made front page news, along with the death of fellow actor and good friend Dick Powell. He was entombed in Glendale's Forest Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery. He has been gone nearly fifty years, but Jack Carson's talent lives on in the great character roles and movies he left behind...

2 comments:

  1. My favourite Carson role is Hugo Barnstead in "The Strawberry Blonde". My husband has relatives in Carmen, Manitoba so likes to pretend that maybe he might be related to Jack somehow. My daughter always thinks of Jack as Officer O'Hara from "Arsenic and Old Lace". I think there must be a favourite Jack Carson role for every fan. His name in the credits always gets a smile from me.

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  2. That moment in "Princess O'Rourke" when Jane Wyman demands that Carson stand up and dance with her, his wife. Carson's reaction is so manly and romantic; I watch that movie for just that reaction every time it is shown on TV.

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