When you hear the name Jack Carson, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Hopefully it’s not The Tonight Show, which was hosted by Jack (Parr) and (Johnny) Carson before Jay Leno. If you’re like me, you might initially remember that he played sarcastic wise guys, bombastic buffoons, and overbearing salesmen in all those RKO and Warner Bros. comedies, some of which were B-movies. That like Ralph Bellamy, he seemed to play the third man out in a lot of love triangles or (like Edward Everett Horton, Donald MacBride, and others) that he was skilled in the fine art of the double-take, and could scrunch his face into various expressions to convey his character’s misbelief and emotion without words. However, to fail to credit this actor for the performances he gave in more demanding roles – particularly in dramas – would be to give short shrift to a career that spanned more than 90 films during his 20+ working years.
It seems that I had always underestimated Jack Carson; I will do so no longer. I think the first time that I recognized him as something other than an annoying jerk (or comic foil) that was getting way too much screen-time was when I saw him stand up to James Mason’s Norman Maine in the Judy Garland version of A Star is Born (1954). Carson’s character is aptly described (by Tim Dirks) as a “pushy, mean-spirited studio publicist”, but you feel his frustration after Vicki and Norman elope (effectively robbing him from doing his job) as well as his anger when drunken Norman finally gets his comeuppance at the racetrack. Later that same year, he was back to playing his more typical role as a womanizing bachelor that’s made the fool in a conflict between a friend (played by Jack Lemmon) and his estranged wife (Judy Holliday) in Phffft (1954). But four years later, he demonstrated the range of his dramatic abilities in two different films: The Tarnished Angels (1958) and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958). In the former Carson plays Jiggs, the dimwitted longtime mechanic and ‘friend’ of Roger Shumann, a former World War I ace that’s now a barnstorming daredevil obsessed with flying. Roger’s beautiful blonde wife LaVerne (Dorothy Malone) is like a light that attracts the attention of too many moths wherever they go; the latest is headliner Rock Hudson (and later Robert Middleton), who plays a newspaper columnist in this Douglas Sirk black-and-white drama adapted from a William Faulkner novel. Jiggs, Roger, LaVerne have a complex relationship: the mechanic worships the pylon racing pilot while holding a candle for his friend’s wife and even plays a quasi-father role for the couple’s preteen son. Together they travel the country from air show to race, while barely surviving on Roger’s paltry winnings. Amongst these three heavyweights (Hudson, Stack & Malone), each of whom had received an Oscar or nomination within the prior two years, Carson created the film’s only credible character, enabling the audience to feel the depth of his life’s anguish and regret.
In screenwriter-director Richard Brooks’ adaptation of the Tennessee Williams play Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958), Carson plays Gooper, the devoted eldest yet overlooked son of a wealthy plantation owner, Big Daddy Pollitt (Burl Ives). Again the actor found himself in a cast loaded with acting talent that had been (or soon would be) recognized by the Academy: besides Ives (The Big Country (1958)), there was Elizabeth Taylor (Raintree County (1957)) and Paul Newman – both of whom would receive nominations for their roles in the film drama – in addition to Judith Anderson (Rebecca (1940)), and future Emmy Award winner Larry Gates and previous nominee Vaughn Taylor. Madeleine Sherwood plays Gooper’s wife Mae Flynn. But Carson holds his own, giving a vivid characterization of a henpecked husband, father of five (soon to be six) and the unloved older brother of (Newman’s) Brick, who is Big Daddy’s favorite despite his son’s alcoholism and lack of interest in producing an heir with wife Maggie (Taylor). Given his acting resume, Carson could have very easily (if inadvertently) portrayed Gooper as an oafish caricature. Instead, he imbues the character with venerability, which makes us sympathetic to Gooper’s plight: his lifelong quest for love and recognition from a hardboiled father.
While dramatic performances like these earned respect for the actor towards the end of his shortened career (he died of stomach cancer soon after his 52nd birthday in January, 1963), Carson never received – nor was he even nominated for – an Oscar or any movie award. He did, however, receive two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, one for radio and one for television. Among my favorite movies featuring Jack Carson from earlier years are:
© 2009 Turner Classic Movies - this article originally appeared on TCM's official blog