Carson was born in Manitoba, Canada in 1910. His family soon moved to Milwaukee, and it was during his college years there that he developed a taste for performing. It was also in college that Jack met fellow character actor Dave Willock. The two of them eventually hit the vaudeville circuit, and in the late thirties, the team of Willock and Carson ended up in Hollywood, finding work in radio and in film.
Carson snagged a contract with RKO and worked there steadily throughout the rest of the decade, mostly in bit parts like “Policeman” (Everybody’s Doing It and Condemned Woman, both in 1938), “Truck Driver” (It Could Happen to You, 1937), and even “Roller Coaster Ride Attendant” (Maid’s Night Out, 1938).
Still, even in the smallest part, Jack’s star quality shines through. Take, for example, his very small, uncredited bit as “Minnesota — a Sailor” in the 1939 Gregory La Cava comedy, 5th Avenue Girl, starring Ginger Rogers, Walter Connolly, and a very young Tim Holt. Somewhere in the film’s third act, Ginger and Tim are inhabiting a bench in Central Park, desperately trying to deny their attraction toward each other. Their park-bench-hogging squeezes out the more committed spooners in the vicinity, including Minnesota and his lady friend. Jack Carson has all of ninety seconds of screen time (if that much), but he makes the most of it as he indignantly clarifies to Ginger and Tim that they are taking up much-needed make-out space.
By the 1940s, frustrated with his progress at RKO, Jack made the move to Warner Brothers and fared much better. He had some impressive co-starring roles in two James Cagney vehicles, The Strawberry Blonde and The Bride Came C.O.D. (both 1941). He submitted a fine dramatic performance in The Hard Way (1943), a role he had also done on stage. 1945 was a turning point, however, as he was cast as the sleazy but somehow reliable real estate agent Wally Fay in Mildred Pierce. He tirelessly pursues Joan Crawford, effortlessly banters with Eve Arden, and knowingly sneers at Ann Blyth. Score!
Jackaboy went on to actually star in a few vehicles, including Doris Day’s film debut in Romance on the High Seas (1948). Try as he might (and did) Carson was just not cut out to be leading man material. During this era, however, he made a number of buddy-film comedies (now known as “bromances” to you kids out there) with his real life buddy, Dennis Morgan. Apparently, Warners thought they could provide their answer to the Paramount Hope/Crosby films. It didn’t quite take, but the efforts are amusing and fun to watch.
In the 1950s, television called and Jack answered. But he also kept his film chops sharp, particularly in his role as studio PR director, Matt Libby, in 1954’s A Star is Born. This film is a favorite of Judy Garland fans, of course, but Jack adds an extra shadow to the already darkish plot. Throughout most of the film, we see him as the beleaguered go-to boy for the studio head, as he is forced to cover up for Norman Maine’s (James Mason) indiscretions. But when Maine has finally reached near rock bottom, and still complains, Libby lets him have it in the kisser in a scene that portrays all the years of frustration he has bottled up inside of him.
Carson’s private life appeared to be something less than blissful. Apparently, there was a lot of alcohol and many (well, four) wives…not to mention a failed between-marriages affair with Doris Day that ended when she choose to marry producer Martin Melcher. In 1962, he collapsed on stage during a dress rehearsal for Critics Choice. He had stomach cancer, a condition which was diagnosed after he collapsed and one he revealed to almost no one until the very end. He passed on January 2, 1963, at the age of 53.
Jack Carson had the gift that all great character actors possess. When he comes into frame, even if it’s only for a moment or two, everything about the film is suddenly enhanced. If it’s already a good film, now it’s even better. If it’s a not-so-great effort, it has at least received a quick transfusion. Although he was taken from us at a relatively young age, we still have him with us, onscreen, and that’s something to celebrate…Because Jack Carson was such a Character!
PostScript: A quick look at Carson’s filmography on IMDB reveals a small gold mine of film gems. Imagine all of those in a month-long TCM film festival. Frances Redmond has, in her respectful tribute website to Carson, and she’s asked for help in convincing TCM to make Jack one of its “Stars of the Month.” You can join the campaign by going here, and writing a quick comment of support. I did it. How ’bout you?
I’ll end with a short clip from It’s a Great Felling.
I do that in all my pictures. Classic!