From my piece on Jack Carson in The Hard Way and Roughly Speaking, for Nomad Wide Screen:
Gather old-movie buffs around and ask them about the things they miss in modern movies, and one of the first answers will be the dearth of great character actors. Jack Carson, who packed nearly 100 movies into a career cut short in 1963 by stomach cancer at the age of 52, was one of the greatest. He was born in Manitoba in 1910, but the way his nasal voice lingered over a wisecrack always suggested an urban birthplace anywhere from Brooklyn to Chicago. A tall, beefy man who stood 6-foot-2, he had the musculature and carriage of a football player grown too fond of roadside meals. His face was round and almost apple-cheeked, with a mole on his cheek and small eyes that squinted into slits whenever the world dealt him some situation he had trouble assessing. With this equipment he built a filmography of unusual variety.
He could play an outright heel, as in his first big break playing James Cagney’s nemesis in Raoul Walsh’s The Strawberry Blonde. In Mildred Pierce, he’s a sleaze, but one who’s almost lovable, reeling out of the beach house to tell the cops, “There’s a stiff in there” with an expression that seems to say dead bodies are one of those things that always happen to stand-up guys like him. Midway through his credits are a string of comedies in which he played a version of Bob Hope to Dennis Morgan’s improbable Bing Crosby. Later on he can be found destroying James Mason’s fragile psyche with a single vindictive bar conversation in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born...
In The Hard Way, Carson plays Albert Runkel, one half of a vaudeville act with Paul Collins (Dennis Morgan, as good as he ever got). Runkel and Collins are so hopeless that their performance gives the film’s director, Vincent Sherman, a chance to echo the Citizen Kane shot of a stagehand holding his nose. But they are good enough to turn the head of Katherine Blaine (Joan Leslie), a poor girl in a steel mill town whose youthful prettiness and big-eyed fascination with the two hams causes the goodhearted but hapless Albert to fall in love and marry her. But Albert doesn’t count on Katie’s sister Helen (Ida Lupino), who only sees him as a way station on the route to bigger and better things...
The small-time sweetheart pursuing the heroine who’s on the rise — that regular Joe who shows up backstage to moan, “But what about us, baby?” — is usually one of the least tolerable aspects of any showbiz saga. Carson’s accomplishment in The Hard Way is to make the part authentically touching. It’s Albert, not the teenage Katie, who’s the real innocent.
Two scenes in particular showcase Carson’s acting. One is a musical number, “Latin from Manhattan,” in which he wears a ghastly pom-pom-bedecked sombrero and strums a guitar while Leslie vamps around a nightclub stage. Albert is selling it with everything he’s got, and he’s terrible. And Carson’s face says he knows it’s no good, but that the naive faith that was there from the beginning is still carrying him as he prances after his wife. The second is a party scene, a variation on the same theme. This time Albert is selling their love and their marriage with everything he’s got, and he knows it probably won’t work. Unlike in the nightclub, the hope in his eyes dims by the minute, until Katie tells him that if he thinks she’s leaving, he’s crazy — and the hope dies out altogether.
Update: For Karen, because she asked, and the Siren can refuse her nothing, a bit from the discussion of Roughly Speaking, which has to be one of the very few Hollywood movies that celebrates the joys of shared failure:
Harold [Carson] and Louise’s [Rosalind Russell] every attempt to make money falls flat. They open a greenhouse and flood the market with roses. They invest in a new type of airplane just as the stock market crashes. But the point of the movie is that compatibility of temperament is what matters in a marriage; Louise’s life was steadier with the stuffed shirt, but she could never be as happy as she is with Harold.
They don’t seem as though they should have chemistry, and yet Carson and Russell do — not the red-hot sexual variety, but that of two people who seem to adore one another’s company, no matter what. Their best scenes together come late. Their fortunes reach such a low ebb that Harold takes a job as a vacuum-cleaner salesman. He comes home to practice his pitch with his wife. As he shoves his shoulders in the door, throws lint on the carpet, gets the vacuum in reverse and covers the house in blowing soot, Carson’s easy camaraderie with his wife is more appealing than many a passionate love scene. Later, she discovers that Harold found door-to-door sales so soul-draining that he’s taken to earning money by doing a bit of pool-sharking at the local bar. She comes in and they sit at a table, Louise almost in tears, and Harold gently tells her he would understand if she cleared out — and Carson’s face is a marvel of dryly unsentimental love and self-reproach.