Family & Companions
An affable second banana in numerous screen comedies throughout the 1940s and 1950s, Jack Carson's comic talent was featured in such memorable films as "The Strawberry Blonde" (1941) and "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944), as well as a slew of musical comedies in which he was partnered with the equally likable Dennis Morgan. Tall, burly and blessed with a flexible face that won over moviegoers by curling into broad expressions of total disbelief, Carson began in vaudeville and radio before moving into features in the late '30s. He remained a popular comic performer well into the 1950s, but also displayed a talent for drama, most notably in "Mildred Pierce" (1945) and as the venomous publicist in "A Star is Born" (1954). In the 1950s, he segued smoothly into television, where he worked at a breathless pace as a guest performer and host on countless variety shows, including his own, "The Jack Carson Show" (NBC, 1954-55). In 1962, Carson collapsed during rehearsal for a Broadway play; the cause was stomach cancer, which would claim his life the following year on the same day as actor Dick Powell. Though never a bona fide movie star, Jack Carson left behind a diverse body of character work that continued to inspire laughs decades after his passing.
He was born John Elmer Carson on Oct. 27, 1910 in the small farming town of Carman in southern Manitoba, Canada. Shortly after his birth, his parents, insurance salesman Elmer Carson and his wife Elsa, relocated Carson and his older brother, Robert, to Milwaukee, WI. Carson showed no interest in acting until he attended Carleton College; there, he literally stumbled into his future career when, dressed as Hercules for a college stage production, he tripped and nearly demolished half the set. A school friend, Dave Willock, thought that the combination of Carson's burly frame - he stood at 6'2" and weighed 220 pounds as an adult - and physical comedy was perfect for vaudeville, and he soon convinced Carson to form an act with him. Billed as Willock & Carson, they soon became staples of the vaudeville stage and later radio before making their way to Hollywood in 1936. Not long after their arrival, Carson landed a plum supporting role in the show business satire "Stand-In" (1937) opposite Humphrey Bogart, but after signing with RKO, found himself stranded in small, often uncredited roles in such major features as "Bringing Up Baby" (1938), "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" (1939) and "Destry Rides Again" (1939) while maintaining a slightly higher profile in B Westerns and thrillers.
Carson's fortunes improved after signing with Warner Bros. in 1941. There, he began a series of comic supporting roles, often as bluff blowhards or happy-go-lucky sidekicks in such A-list pictures as "The Strawberry Blonde" (1941), opposite James Cagney and Rita Hayworth, "Gentleman Jim" (1942) with Errol Flynn and "Arsenic and Old Lace" (1944) with Cary Grant. He traded heavily on his signature move, a peerless double take that endeared him to audiences for much of the 1940s. During this period, Warner groomed Carson to become a comic lead in the vein of Bob Hope, but the actor lobbied to move into dramatic roles. He earned two fine showcases for his acting talents in "Mildred Pierce" (1945) as Joan Crawford's lovelorn friend and supporter, and "Roughly Speaking" (1945) as Rosalind Russell's reckless but faithful husband. Despite these fine turns, Warner wanted Carson as a comic, and he soon found himself partnered with Dennis Morgan in a string of 15 lightweight musical comedies throughout the late '40s. Big band singer Doris Day soon abetted the duo as an ersatz Dorothy Lamour before becoming a movie star in her own right. Carson continued to support Day, most notably in "My Dream is Yours" (1949). The pair also enjoyed a brief off-screen romance between 1950 and 1951 before Day married her third husband, Marty Melcher.
Despite his hectic film schedule, Carson would frequently slip away from Hollywood for extended periods of time during the 1940s. No one - save his second wife, Kay St. Germain - knew of his whereabouts during these absences. Years later, Carson would reveal that he moonlighted as a clown with the Clyde Beatty Circus, traveling throughout the United States and performing before hundreds of audience members while completely disguised in greasepaint. The chance to perform pratfalls and broad comedy along the lines of his vaudeville origins remained a hobby for Carson for several years.
Carson continued to work steadily throughout the 1950s while parlaying his likable screen persona into guest and host work in the new medium of television. From 1950 to 1951, he alternated with Jimmy Durante, Ed Wynn and Danny Thomas as host of the variety series "All Star Revue" (NBC, 1950-53), and then earned his own summer replacement program, "The Jack Carson Show," which featured his old vaudeville partner, Dick Wilcox. His feature work was consistent if largely unremarkable during the decade, save for his fine dramatic turn as the backstabbing publicity chief in the Judy Garland showcase "A Star is Born" (1954) and as Paul Newman's oafish yet secretly venal brother in "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof" (1958). After completing his final screen turn in "Sammy, the Way-Out Seal" for "Walt Disney" (ABC/CBS/NBC, 1958-1990), Carson fell ill during a rehearsal for the Broadway production of Ira Levin's play "Critic's Choice" in 1962. Subsequent diagnosis revealed that he had been suffering from stomach cancer for some time. The disease would claim Carson's life on Jan. 2, 1963, several hours before another well-loved screen star, Dick Powell, would also lose his life to cancer. Despite his occasionally thick-skulled comic persona, Carson was one of Hollywood's most well-read individuals, and was completing a book about religion at the time of his premature death.
By Paul Gaita