Born in Carman, Manatoba, Canada on October 27th, 1910, John Elmer Carson (soon to be nicknamed “Jack”) was the son of Elmer and Elsa Carson. The third of four children, he had an older brother and sister and one younger sister. While he was still a very young boy, the family relocated to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, a place Carson always considered his hometown (though he apparently never became a naturalized U.S. citizen.) First attending high school, he later attended a military academy before enrolling at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. The husky, 6' 2” young man found himself portraying Hercules in one of the school's dramatic productions.
In an event that foreshadowed his later Hollywood career, Carson tripped, lost his balance and keeled over, knocking the better part of the set down! One of his friends doubled over at the hilarity of this sight and convinced Carson to join him in a Vaudeville act, which they then took on the road. Dave Willock was the friend's name and “Willock and Carson” took pains to perfect their routine. As Vaudeville was becoming increasingly diminished by the popularity of radio and movies, the duo headed to Hollywood seeking work.
Not only did the two find sporadic work on radio, but the burly Carson began to land bit parts in movies. He was already nearing twenty-seven years of age by now. His very first role came courtesy of director Fritz Lang who cast him as a gas station attendant in the Sylvia Sidney-Henry Fonda RKO drama You Only Live Once in 1937. That same year, he appeared in a dozen more films in all! His parts were often small ones like “Truck Driver,” “Cop,” “Taxicab Driver” or “Football Coach,” but he was learning, making plenty of contacts and getting to work with such stars as Humphrey Bogart, Leslie Howard, Fred Astaire, Joan Fontaine and Ann Sothern. His most famous movie of 1937 was Stage Door, which starred no less than Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers.
1938 proved to be an even busier year for him, with parts in fifteen (!) movies. Some of these are long-forgotten B-films, but at least one – Bringing Up Baby, with Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant – is now considered a sparkling classic. His parts ranged from small supporting to outright bits such as “Rollercoaster Ride Attendant” and “Waiter Captain.” Lucille Ball, James Stewart, Douglas Fairbanks Jr, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were among the stars of his films that year. (He would work with Rogers seven times in all, eventually rising up to the status of her costar!)
As is often the case when a bit player begins to earn better roles, his output decreased some in 1939. He was beginning to emerge as a reliable, often amusing, character performer. In what is frequently described as one of Hollywood's greatest years in terms of quality film-making, he had roles in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Destry Rides Again, both classics of their respective genres. Somehow, between 1938 and 1939, he managed to sneak in a quick marriage and divorce to a dancer named Betty Lindy during this frenetic period.
Still, he was hardly a household name. 1940 brought plenty of supporting parts in B-movies balanced with small roles in more prestigious pictures like I Take This Woman with Spencer Tracy and Hedy Lamarr. He also married for the second time, to singer Kay St. Germain, who would give him two children. Things began to turn a corner career-wise in 1941 when he landed several amusing featured roles. Still free to work at various studios, he made the rounds of 20th Century Fox, MGM, Paramount and Warner Brothers (where he would ultimately be given a contract.)
He was fourth-billed in Alfred Hitchcock's comedy (a rare genre for the director) Mr. & Mrs. Smith, starring Robert Montgomery and Carole Lombard. He also rubbed elbows with James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland and Rita Hayworth in The Strawberry Blonde, though Cagney had initially balked at working opposite a man nearly eight inches taller than he. A very funny role came his way in the wild comedy Love Crazy with William Powell and Myrna Loy. In it, his blowhard character repeatedly delivers the self-introduction, “Willoughby, Ward Willoughby” no matter the cirmcumstances.
There was also The Bride Came C.O.D. Which placed him in the company of James Cagney again along with Miss Bette Davis. He played Davis' fiance who's only moderate interest in her leads to interest from Cagney. Carson was swiftly becoming a go-to guy for third-wheel types (aka – jilted boyfriends, past lovers back on the scene or stalwart pals who the girl doesn't recognize as the right one for her.) In 1942's The Male Animal with Henry Fonda and Olivia de Havilland, he played the ex-football hero and ex-lover of de Havilland who comes along right when Fonda is feeling insecure about his marriage.
A fine cast including Edward G. Robinson, Broderick Crawford, Anthony Quinn and Jane Wyman populated Larceny, Inc., about a trio of crooks who decide to purchase a luggage shop for the express purpose of robbing the bank next door only to find themselves making a decent living from the store itself! Still in 1942 came Gentleman Jim, a wonderful Errol Flynn movie about boxing legend Jim Corbett in which Carson played his longtime pal.
In 1943, Carson was given his own radio show, which allowed his effusive and effervescent personality shine through. By then, Willock and Carson as such had gone the way of the dinosaur, but Carson and his old partner remained friends. The two had appeared in six of the same movies from 1939 to 1943 and Willock played Carson's smart-aleck nephew on his popular radio show. For his own part, though he never reached the heights of fame that Carson eventually did, Willock enjoyed a career as a supporting actor up until the early 1980s including films as varied as 1955's Revenge of the Creature (if you can force your eyes past John Bromfield's hunky body!) and 1964's Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte (with Carson's frequent costar Olivia de Havilland) among many others. He died in 1990 at the age of eighty-one of a stroke.
Carson, a large man by Hollywood standards, was not fat so much as husky and built. He worked out regularly with a trainer in order to stay trim (though as he grew older, he became decidedly thicker around the middle.)
Carson's movies in 1943 included Princess O' Rourke with Bob Cummings and Olivia de Havilland and The Hard Way with Ida Lupino and Dennis Morgan. Carson and Morgan would soon be teamed in a number of films together in an effort to steal away some of the thunder of Paramount's Bob Hope and Bing Crosby semi-musical comedies. The 1944 musical Shine on Harvest Moon had Morgan and Carson teaming with Ann Sheridan. At last he won top-billing that same year in Make Your Own Bed with (a rather glitzy-looking!) Jane Wyman costarring.
It was Wyman again, this time as his wife, in the same year's The Doughgirls, with Ann Sheridan and Alexis Smith starring as well. In his other 1944 film, he played a befuddled policeman in Arsenic and Old Lace, though this one had actually been filmed in '41. It was contractually prevented from being released until the Broadway show had closed, but since the show was such a rousing success, it took that long before it could be shown!
Though he only made two movies in 1945, they were both terrific. In Roughly Speaking, he played the zany, inventive, rowdy husband of Rosalind Russell, a previously divorced mother of four whose life has been a rollercoaster of highs and lows. The two demonstrated incredible chemistry together (in their only pairing) and very effectively delivered the movie's seriocomic content.
His other film that year was Mildred Pierce. He was second-billed in the now-classic movie about a woman left to raise two daughters when her husband walks out on her for another woman. The mother (played by Miss Joan Crawford in her Oscar-winning role) goes into business for herself as a restaurateur with sturdy pal Carson's help. Still, he's the odd man out as Crawford turns to slimy Zachary Scott for affection. In light of his dynamic work here, Mildred Pierce is probably the film he won the best notices for and may be best known for.
As a tall, strapping, manly gent, Carson was frequently the butt of amusing sight gags such as rigging him out in an apron as shown here. Do note the proliferation of pies in the kitchen. As you many recall, Crawford's ungrateful wretch of a daughter says, “My mother, a common waitress...Aren't the pies enough? Do you have to degrade us?” only to later come back for the spare with “With this money I can get away from you. From you and your chickens and your pies and your kitchens and everything that smells of grease. I can get away from this shack with its cheap furniture. And this town and its dollar days, and its women that wear uniforms and its men that wear overalls.”
The aforementioned push to make Carson and Dennis Morgan happen emerged in full force during 1946 when each one of Carson's films was opposite (higher-billed) Morgan. One More Tomorrow, Two Guys From Milwaukee and The Time, the Place and the Girl might have pleased audiences to a varying degree at the time, but have not endured with nearly the same amount of fame (right or wrong) as the Hope/Crosby Road movies. Here, Carson works on a sign for Milwaukee while a canine pal looks on. If you ever read my post here on movie dogs, you know I have a soft spot for pooches.
Carson traded in Morgan (and won top-billing for himself) in 1947's Love and Learn, which put Robert Hutton in the co-lead spot. The two played aspiring songwriters (and are reportedly upstaged by supporting players that included Martha Vickers, Janis Paige - seen canoodling with him here, Otto Kruger and Florence Bates.) That was his only movie that year. In 1948, he and Ann Sothern played a married song-and-dance duo in April Showers. Carson appeared in clown-face here and, in a little-known fact, used to run off for weeks at a time in order to perform anonymously as a clown with The Clyde Beatty Circus, with only his wife knowing where he was!
Also in '48, he starred in Romance on the High Seas with a newcomer to films, band singer Doris Day. Not only did she later credit Carson for helping her to learn the ropes (such as finding her marks without looking at them, securing the most facial exposure to the camera in scenes, etc...), but she also developed an attraction to him that would soon develop into a relationship. By now, his 1940 marriage to Kay St. Germain was coming unglued and they divorced in 1950. Still in 1948, he did another picture with Dennis Morgan, Two Guys from Texas.
1949 brought John Loves Mary with Ronald Reagan and Patricia Neal. There was also My Dream is Yours with Doris Day. Here, he took part in the highly unusual number which placed Day and him in oversized bunny rabbit costumes (as such Warner Brothers cartoon characters as Bugs Bunny and Tweety Bird joined in!) By now, Carson and Day had been involved in a fairly serious romance, but Day was unhappy with the amount of drinking that Carson did in his off hours. She ultimately broke up with him to marry Marty Melcher (who later created no small amount of trouble for her, career-wise and financially.)
Carson starred in The Good Humor Man in 1950 which, as you might guess, concerned an ice cream truck driver/salesman who loves Lola Albright, a young lady who won't marry him because she has a young brother she has to support. Carson and Albright hit is off rather well together. So well, in fact, that they would be married within two years. 1950 also marked the year that Carson made the leap to television. He appeared as a guest on Your Show of Shows, acted on an episode of The Ford Theater Hour and proceeded to host a program called All Star Revue. He, Jimmy Durante, Ed Wynn and Danny Thomas took turns helming the comedy program, something he did until 1952.
Then there was Bright Leaf, a tobacco-farming yarn starring Gary Cooper, Lauren Bacall and Patricia Neal. His part in this one (as Cooper's friend and business partner) was rather negligible. In 1951, Carson was forty-one and though he could still win top-billing in a minor comedy, the prestige factor was often close to nil. He had the lead in Mr. Universe, which co-starred Janis Paige, Bert “The Cowardly Lion” Lahr, Robert Alda and a heavily-peroxided Vince Edwards (in practically his first screen role.)
As usual, Carson worried not about physical pratfalls and bodily contortions (see above his pretzel-like pose.) Anything for a laugh. It probably meant quite little to him, but I would probably have found it fun to give a young, fit, scantily-clad Edwards a rubdown as he's shown doing here! Do take note that on these two lobby cards, the figure in the bottom right (in red) is not female.
After having worked in so many Ginger Rogers films, often in unbilled bits, Carson was elevated to costarring level in The Groom Wore Spurs. (Of course, by now it could have been argued that she had descended to costarring level with him! Now a decade after her Oscar win, she would only make movies for about five or six more years before exiting the screen, returning occasionally every great once in a while.)
Mr. Carson headed to Broadway in 1952 to headline a revival of the George and Ira Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing (directed by George Kaufman, who directed the 1931 original and the previous 1933 revival.) This time, though, the show didn't catch on and was closed after a couple of months.
The next phase of Carson's career was in providing comic support in slightly more distinguished and colorful films than he had been appearing in just previously. 1953's Dangerous When Wet was an Esther Williams vehicle which had her portraying a farm girl who is convinced by Carson (as a health tonic salesman) to swim the English Channel.
In 1954, he was teamed with Rosemary Clooney in the musical Red Garters, the only film she ever did in which she was the primary focus. The extraordinarily colorful film was a spoofy sort of inverted version of The Taming of the Shrew (with Clooney taming a man), but failed to light much of a fire at the box office. More popular (despite studio tampering and various other troubles) was A Star is Born in which he was third-billed beneath Judy Garland and James Mason.
He rounded out 1954 with the Jack Lemmon-Judy Holliday marital comedy Phffft in which he played Lemmon's friend who also has a serious interest in Lemmon's estranged wife Holliday. The following year, he worked with Rory Calhoun, Piper Laurie and Mamie Van Doren in a now-forgotten musical called Ain't Misbehavin', all about a college girl dating an older, wealthy man.
In 1956, Carson played an Arizona blowhard who becomes embroiled in the problems of (unlikely) brothers Joseph Cotten and Van Johnson in Bottom of the Bottle. Then he starred in Magnificent Roughnecks, an oil wildcatting romp which costarred Mickey Rooney. 1957 brought The Tattered Dress, in which he played the villain, a devious and deadly sheriff who has it in for attorney Jeff Chandler (seen here along with Jeanne Crain.)
At this point, Carson was also appearing quite a bit on TV in shows such as Screen Director's Playhouse, Lux Video Theatre and Climax! He got to work for the creative Douglas Sirk in 1957's The Tarnished Angels, a William Faulkner-based drama that starred Rock Hudson, Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone.
In 1958, he landed what is probably one of his better remembered parts these days, that of Gooper Pollitt in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. He played the older brother of star Paul Newman, whose marriage to Elizabeth Taylor is in the midst of turmoil and speculation on the day that his and Newman's father Burl Ives has come home from the hospital following a cancer scare.
The film, which was modified from its roots as a Tennessee Williams play in order to avoid outright suggestion of homosexuality, couldn't quite overcome being hamstrung, yet remained a significant hit thanks to the gorgeous leads (both at the peak of their beauty) and the roll call of terrific actors in the cast. Apart from Newman, Taylor, Ives and Carson, there was also Madeleine Sherwood as Carson's catty wife and Dame Judith Anderson as his mother.
Somehow, the casting manages to work even though Carson was fifteen years Newman's senior, but only one year Ives' junior! Anderson was thirteen years Carson's senior. The picture was one of only several opportunities in his career for him to explore drama versus comedic and/or musical material.
That same year, he worked with Newman again in the strained comic film Rally 'Round the Flag, Boys. Here, he had the opportunity to work with Miss Joan Collins, as seen below. Also, Carson's marriage to Lola Albright ended at this time.
1960's The Bramble Bush was a tangled soap opera that starred Richard Burton as a doctor who aids an old friend through euthanasia. Also starring were Barbara Rush as the patient's impatient wife, Angie Dickinson as a nurse with feelings for Burton and Carson as Dickinson's lover, a shady lawyer who doesn't want to give her up.
Carson continued to work very busily as an actor, with 1961 an especially prolific year when it came to television appearances. Among the many programs he did was one episode of The Twilight Zone. In it, he played a smarmy used car salesman who comes upon a car that forces him to speak the truth at all times, sort of a decades prior precursor to Jim Carrey's Liar, Liar.
He married for the fourth time in 1961 to Sandra Jolley Tucker, the former wife of Forrest Tucker (divorced eleven years prior.) Still working constantly, Carson was rehearsing for the play Critic's Choice when he was felled by a stomach ailment, causing him to collapse. After recovering from that, he proceeded to work on an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents and the Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Color production of Sammy, The Way-Out Seal, not without some difficulty.
What no one knew except for a handful of people was that Carson had terminal stomach cancer. Often one to play his cards close to the vest, he had opted to keep his condition a secret. Thus, it came as an incredible shock to many when he died on January 2nd, 1963 at only the age of fifty-two. His relatively new wife was devastated at the loss (and, in fact, his mother was still alive as well. She had already buried one daughter in 1956 and would herself live until 1971.) Producer-actor Dick Powell died the exact same day at age fifty-eight.
Jack Carson didn't always completely overcome his propensity for Vaudeville-era hamming and mugging, but was nevertheless an amiable, often hilarious, and surprisingly versatile performer who, as I mentioned earlier, worked with some of the greatest screen actors ever. Two quotes are attributed to him that, as a performer myself, I appreciate a lot. I can also say that they have both proven true for me and I do so with full awareness of how horribly egotistical one of them makes me look! The truth is the truth though and I commend him for recognizing that.
“Fans are people who let an actor know he's not alone in the way he feels about himself.” - Jack Carson
“People will always laugh at somebody else's discomfort. But they only laugh because they have suffered the same indignity themselves or known darn well how it feels. Being a comedian is almost like being a doctor--the more troubles you discover and understand, the more gladness you can bring to an audience.” - Jack Carson
An insightful man who put a great deal of thought into what he was doing and who loved to discuss various philosophies with other introspective people, he was in the process of writing a book on religion when he died. Thanks to his premature death, he was robbed of the chance to age into an even greater character actor, but he left behind a considerable amount of work, tightly crammed into a couple of decade's time.