Born in Carmen, Manitoba, raised in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and schooled in Vaudeville, Jack Carson is one of classic Hollywood's most beloved character actor stars. Arriving in California in the mid 1930s Carson can be spotted in small roles in many films as he worked his way up the ladder including Stage Door and Bringing Up Baby, and gradually larger supporting roles in Carefree and Destry Rides Again. He's outstanding as a gangster's henchman with an unusual sense of humour in The Saint in New York.
Jack was very busy at Warner Brothers during the 1940s where he would make his mark in a number of well-remembered films, including a number with genial singing star Dennis Morgan such as Shine on Harvest Moon and It's a Great Feeling. Jack is a well-meaning salesman in Larceny Inc., a no goodnik in Blues in the Night (Really, what kind of a guy would stomp on Priscilla Lane's heart?) , the loquacious would-be playwright Officer O'Hara in Arsenic and Old Lace, a former college football hero in The Male Animal, a romantic vaudevillian in The Hard Way, Rosalind Russell's helpmeet in Roughly Speaking and Mildred Pierce's slimy patsy Wally Fay. Jack also had radio success with a series called Everybody Loves Jack which ran from 1943-1947.
In the 1950s Jack would turn in exemplary performances in movies such as Phffft with Judy Holliday, Jack Lemmon and Kim Novak, Douglas Sirk's The Tarnished Angels, George Cukor's A Star is Born and Richard Brooks' movie of Tennessee Williams' Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Where is Jack's Oscar nomination? Recount!) .
For all his screen success, Jack Carson still needed a live audience. During the 40s he would take a break from the studio to perform as a clown with the Clyde Beatty circus. In 1952 he starred as John P. Wintergreen in a Broadway revival of the Gershwin's Of Thee I Sing. It was during rehearsal in 1962 for a production of Critic's Choice that Jack fell ill and eventually was diagnosed with a stomach cancer which took his life at the age of 53. Jack had been married four times and was the father of two.
A role that typifies Jack's prevailing screen image is that of Hugo Barnstead in Raoul Walsh's 1941 version of actor/playwright James Hagen's successful 1933 play One Sunday Afternoon. Set at the turn of the 20th century The Strawberry Blonde stars James Cagney as Biff Grimes, a dentist and an ex-con who, one Sunday afternoon, ruminates on his hard luck in life and love. Most of his hard luck can be traced back to his friendship with Hugo, a sneaky, lying, ambitious, two-faced friend to no one whose comeuppance is a long time coming thing of beauty. The billigerent softy Biff is one of Cagney's finest characterizations. Olivia de Havilland is warm and lovely as Amy, the right girl for Biff. Rita Hayworth would make audiences remember her as Virginia, the girl of Biff's dreams. Jack Carson was a force of nature as Hugo roared through the movie. In his autobiography Cagney by Cagney, Jimmy speaks of the movie with fondness and of how his mother, who appeared as an extra in the beer garden scene, thought it captured the New York of her youth. The Strawberry Blonde is a movie of much charm and heart.
The world is full of baby boomers with fond recollections of television, among them Don DeFore as the neighbour "Thorny" on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet and "Mr. B" (Baxter) on Hazel. The image of Don DeFore in those sitcom roles is a hearty and pleasant one. His career in films is equally pleasant to contemplate. The Iowa native was studying at The Pasadena Playhouse when he went east to Broadway in a limited run of a play called Where Do We Go From Here? In 1940 Don found success in the role of Wally Myers, a college football star, in James Thurber and Elliott Nugent's The Male Animal. Nugent directed the film version for Warner Bros. with Henry Fonda playing the role Nugent himself had played in New York. Coming west to repeat his stage success was Don DeFore as Wally. In the set-up of the play, there is an older counterpart to the footballer and that role was taken by Jack Carson. In the 1952 revamp She's Working Her Way Through College, Don would play the Jack Carson role. (Trust me, it makes sense.)
Don's film appearances in the 1940s include A Guy Named Joe with Spencer Tracy and Irene Dunne, Without Reservations with John Wayne and Claudette Colbert and My Friend Irma with Marie Wilson. He stars in Roy Del Ruth's impossible to dislike Christmas perennial It Happened on Fifth Avenue and as Betty Hutton's exasperated love interest in The Stork Club. Don crosses paths with Jack Carson again in Doris Day's debut film Romance on the High Seas. I'm particularly fond of his hot-headed young gunslinger in Andre de Toth's Ramrod and of his role in 1960s The Facts of Life as Lucille Ball's neglectful husband. He also impressed in later TV appearances on St. Elsewhere and Murder, She Wrote.
In real life, Don and his wife Marion were married for 51 years and the parents of five children. Don passed from a heart attack at the age of 80.
In 1948 Warner Bros. revamped The Strawberry Blonde as a Technicolor musical with songs by Ralph Blane, Raoul Walsh once again directing and a return to the original title. Dennis Morgan was given the role of Biff in which he performs earnestly. It is not fair to compare any performer to Cagney. Janis Paige is a bright and brittle Virginia. Dorothy Malone is every inch the equal of de Havilland as the sympathetic Amy. Guess who plays Hugo! Yes, Don DeFore tackles the sneaking, lying, ambitious...we've been down this road before, haven't we? Really, who else would they cast? One Sunday Afternoon should work, but unfortunately the songs are weak and the energy and heart that make The Strawberry Blonde such a winner is nowhere in evidence. If you're not familiar with the 1941 version, it is a passable time-waster, nothing more.
James Hagen's Broadway success of One Sunday Afternoon ran for 322 performances. Steely-eyed Rankin Mansfield (To Hell and Back, The Brothers Rico) played Hugo. Lloyd Nolan (A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Somewhere in the Night) was everybody's favourite dentist, Biff Grimes.
Paramount Studios filmed the first version of the play in 1933. The role of Hugo Barnstead was played by handsome Neil Hamilton. (So sue me - I had a crush on Commissioner Gordon!)
Gary Cooper made an oddly unlikeable Biff. It is a movie I would recommend for comparison purposes only.
Wow - another great post. Jack Carson was a favorite of mine. I think the first time I saw him was in Thank Your Lucky Stars singing "Way Up North"!ReplyDelete
Jack Carson and Don Defore were too great originals!
What a coincidence! I watched HOLLYWOOD CANTEEN over the weekend, and had my first dose of Jack Carson. I was trying to find out more about him when I saw your post. May I congratulate you on your impeccable timing? :)ReplyDelete
"Way Up North" - is that the duet with Alan Hale? Boy, what a kick!ReplyDelete
I appreciate the compliment.
LucieW, I'm so happy to be of service. Timing is everything, they say.ReplyDelete
Enjoy getting more Jack Carson. I hope "The Strawberry Blonde" makes the cut.
I loved Jack Carson whenever he showed up in movie. He just brightened the screen. He had a great, expressive face. Loved him affectionately best as the goober of a cop in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE.ReplyDelete
Yipes, stripes - you gotta love these guys! Jack is one of those ever-present guys who rarely gets enough respect. Thanks for the memories (and another great post)!ReplyDelete
Yvette, my daughter is also a great fan of Officer O'Hara's - that is how she identifies Jack Carson.ReplyDelete
An actor never knows which role is the one that will stick in fan's memories.
FlickChick, a couple of weeks ago I switched the TV at the laundromat to an episode of "The Twilight Zone" that starred Jack Carson. Even the chatterers in the place stopped to watch. He won over a tough crowd.ReplyDelete
What a fun post, Caftan Woman. You certainly took me back in time with a lot of it. I agree that Jack Carson should have been recognized for Cat On A Hot Tin Roof, and, I would also say, A Star Is Born, playing so far off type so well! It was fun to see Don Defore, whose face seemed always to be on the TV screen. Really enjoyed this!ReplyDelete
My husband has cousins in Carmen, Manitoba and since it's such a small place he likes to assume some sort of relationship to Carson. Hey, it doesn't hurt anybody.
Don DeFore is one of those guys that I used to take for granted. That was wrong of me.
Don't feel too badly, Caftan Woman. Don DeFore IS just one of those actors you take for granted -- until time has gone by and you realize how often he touched your life in perhaps a light way, but often! I'm sure it's nice for him that he is remembered and spoke of fondly.ReplyDelete
That is a major reason I really like our movie blogs. I hope my family and friends (the only people who are MY audience) will remember me as well as we remember these guys!
Becky, we're like Mr. Fezziwig in "A Christmas Carol" (the 1951 version) when Mr. Jorkin asks him why he built up his business if it wasn't for money and Fezziwig says "It's to preserve a way of life that one knew and loved."ReplyDelete
What a wonderful thought for you to remember and use -- it says volumes about that feeling!ReplyDelete
I loved Jack Carson's performance in my favorite Doris Day movie, Romance On The High Seas. He plays a detective, Peter Virgil, who is supposed to keep an eye on a clients wife while she is traveling by sea....ReplyDelete
Love Jack Carson! I keep hoping the Warner Archive will release those musicals he made with Dennis Morgan. I particularly like "The Time, The Place and The Girl." Wonderful post.ReplyDelete
Dawn...and who was it that hired Jack to follow Doris/Janis on that boat? Nobody but Don DeFore!ReplyDelete
"Romance on the High Seas" is such a treat of colour, fashion and music. Love it.
Kevin, I think Jack and Dennis made a terrific team. Really under-rated.ReplyDelete
Caftan Woman, as always, your blog is a delight to read and leaves me knowing more about classic movies and the people in them than I did before! I'd seen Jack Carson and Don DeFore on TV and in movies shown on TV when I was a kid, but it wasn't until later that I discovered they had more range, particularly Jack Carson in MILDRED PIERCE. Of course, we also loved him in ARSENIC AND OLD LACE, another Team B.'s favorite. Great post!ReplyDelete
Jack Carson added something to every film he was in. Love him. Though none of the male characters in "Mildred Pierce" is particularly appealing, he was more attractive to me (even as a conniver) than either Zachary Scott or Bruce Bennett. Especially like him in "Pfffft" - great cast.ReplyDelete
Ladies, thanks for adding to the thoughts on the fellows.ReplyDelete
I've been trying to show "Mildred Pierce" to my daughter, but even though it has popped up on TCM it seems like a hundred times in the last little while, the convenient time hasn't happened.
I think Mildred fingered Wally as her red herring not only because he deserved it for the rotten business deal, but because she also knew, as she repeatedly says to him, "You can talk your way out of anything."