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A couple of years ago, I wrote a post here about one of my favorite character actors, Ward Bond. I think it’s time to write a little about another of the great character actors that being Jack Carson. Like Bond, I don’t know much more about Carson’s life than that presented in his Wikipedia biography.
Carson was born in the province of Manitoba in Canada in 1910. His father was a successful insurance executive and the family moved to Milwaukee, Wisconsin when he was three or four years old. As such, he always considered Milwaukee his hometown and he was eventually naturalized as a U.S. citizen as an adult. His older brother, Robert, also pursued an acting career although with much less success.
Carson caught the acting bug while attending Carleton College. He acted in every school play that came around and at age 21, in 1931, he and a schoolmate, Dave Willock, put together an act and hit what was left of the vaudeville circuit. This lasted a few years although both eventually drifted to Hollywood and the movie business. Willock and Carson would remain lifelong friends.
Once in Hollywood, Carson tried to break into the movies and he began to get bit parts in 1937. It would take several years before he started to get screen credits; but, by the early 1940’s he was getting bigger parts and better roles such as James Cagney’s buddy in The Strawberry Blonde (1941). He played a clueless neighborhood cop in 1944’s Arsenic and Old Lace starring Cary Grant. This scene is just a little under two minutes long.
Carson was a big man (6′-2″, 220 lbs. according to his bio). He had a big personality to match his physical size and these attributes served him well in his acting career. When the U.S. entered World War II, Carson who had a pilot’s license attempted to enlist in the U. S. Army Air Corps but was rejected for medical reasons. So, he would work through the war solidifying his acting credentials. In 1944, he appeared as himself in Hollywood Canteen and performed a delightful duet with Jane Wyman (2:48).
Over the course of his career, Carson mainly appeared in comedies and musicals, although he did appear in several dramas in which he more than held his own. The biggest of those dramas was probably the Joan Crawford vehicle Mildred Pierce from 1945. This scene is three minutes long.
That scene is an exemplar of the Carson persona, that of a wolf in wolves clothing, a would-be ladies man who strikes out more often than not but never gives up.
In 1946, Carson and Dennis Morgan teamed up to make pictures that were Warner Brother’s answer to the Bob Hope-Bing Crosby Road pictures. There are plots to these movies although the details don’t much matter as the pair poked fun at each other, sang and danced a bit, and fought for the girl’s hand. I couldn’t find any of the scenes from either of these “Two Guys” pictures they made but Morgan and Carson made several other pictures that fit the same mold. The scene below (2:48) is from It’s a Great Feeling. The other guy in this scene went on to have a pretty impressive post-acting career.
In fact, It’s a Great Feeling also starred Doris Day in her second picture. Carson starred with Day in her first three pictures – in her 1948 debut Romance on the High Seas and My Dream is Yours from 1949 as well as It’s a Great Feeling. Day and Carson were apparently an item for a year or two circa 1950 and Day spoke highly of him in her autobiography describing him as a mentor. Below are several more scenes from the Day-Carson pairing. This first one is about 2-1/2 minutes long. Carson doesn’t like Day’s treatment of a song and shows her how it should be done.
Next is Martha Gibson’s (Day’s character) big break in My Dream is Yours. The scene lasts about three minutes.
Finally, this one-minute bit from It’s a Great Feeling.
Even though I’ve described Carson as a character actor he had the lead in a number of films. Here’s the trailer for one of those movies The Good Humor Man from 1950. It’s not exactly Hamlet but you can get a sense of the flavor (get it- flavor) of the sort of pictures he generally got the lead in.
I think this next one will be the last clip. Carson had a big role in another drama 1958’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. This is movie’s last scene and it’s about 4 and a half minutes long.
In addition to his movie career, Carson was also a star on the radio. He starred in the eponymous Jack Carson Show for half a decade or so (I think you can find links to all of his radio shows here). Below is one of those half hour shows. In this one, Jack builds a chicken coop for his lone chicken.
Just a couple of odds and ends to close things up. Carson was married four times, divorced thrice, and had two children (both daughters) from those unions. He died young at age 52 from stomach cancer in 1963. One last thing that might be of interest to the crowd here at Ricochet: He was the uncle of Kit Carson, Rush Limbaugh’s chief of staff for decades.Published in