Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Nomadic Existence: Jack Carson


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.

37 comments:

Erich Kuersten said...

He's the silent strength of the Liz Taylor Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, navigating between the shrillness of his wife and kids and the brooding of brother and brother's wife. I always well up at his quiet power in the big climax when Paul Newman is like "is that what you think?" and he's like all moist-eyed and just shakes his head, "no," - it's a beautiful moment and Carson OWNS it without being showy

Thanks for writing this! Awesome

The Siren said...

Erich, I completely agree about Carson in Cat; it's a wonderful performance that he balances perfectly between self-pity and urgent yearning for love. He was so versatile. Just to pick one other, I also treasure him in Arsenic and Old Lace, where he holds his own against Cary Grant, no less.

Ned said...

“Filmography of unusual variety” is a great description of Jack Carson’s career. He is mostly plunked down in the category of character actor but his roles indicate just how inexact such categories can be.

He isn’t an Eric Blore or Franklin Pangborn or Roscoe Karns. He could extract the most out of small turns but his appearance in Tarnished Angels, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (as Erich mentions, where he holds his own in a potentially thankless role; a lesser actor would have evaporated in the company of Newman, Taylor and Big Daddy hisself), and the aforementioned Mildred Pierce and A Star is Born.

Speaking of which, the Siren mentions Carson’s vicious take down of the James Mason character. It’s been my experience that small, but important roles like this, often pale next to the original. In some ways, because Jack Carson often played amiable guys (but often with a mean streak), his evisceration is even more affecting than Lionel Stander’s dismantling of Fredric March.

He’s one of those guys who transcend pure character acting and move onto more substantial ground. Not quite Walter Huston; a Thomas Mitchell, perhaps, at least in terms of roles requiring more than shtick. And if that’s not enough, his cop in Arsenic and Old Lace ("No! You've got to hear how it ends!") gives Cary Grant yet another reason to mug uncontrollably, and that’s not a bad thing.

Ned said...

Forgot to mention that Carson,in one of his earliest pictures at Warners, Stand-In, appeared with a flock of great character actors, Charles Middleton, C. Henry Gordon, Pat Flaherty, etc, and a few pretty good leads, not long after showing up in another classic, Stage Door. Not a bad way to start a career.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Oh how I love Jack Carson. Especially as Libby in A Star is Born (1954). He holds nothing back in creating a character of uncompromising cynical cruelty.

Vanwall said...

The funny thing is, for all his menace - he looked like he coulda broke in half most of the actors he played alongside - his voice and wit was what did the damage, and was there ever a voice more destined for cozenage and obsequiousness?

I can't remember him in a truly evil role, a heavy that enjoyed abuse - he was brilliantly funny, tho, in a smooth way.

A guilty pleasure is "Romance on the High Seas" - he's believably befuddled and is the one who carries the film, in spite of Oscar Levant, Cuddles Sakall and a great turn by Doris Day. It also has Don DeFore in his usual obtuseness, another character actor from the grand old tradition, altho he was amazing in "Ramrod", I recommend that one highly to see what DeFore could've been with his traces slipped.

Robby Cress said...

Excellent review of an excellent actor. Jack Carson was great in everything he was in - too bad he is not more well remembered - but so it goes with many character actors. Thanks for shining the spotlight.

Dave said...

Thanks for this, Siren.

Jack Carson is one of the reasons I love the movies. Just seeing his name in the credits of anything guarantees me at least one scene I'll love.

Caftan Woman said...

Jack played a memorable thug in "The Saint in New York". Was he memorable in this small role because I know who he will become or just because he was plain good at what he did?

For years my daughter referred to Jack Carson as "Officer O'Hara", much the way I spent decades calling William Schallert "Patty Duke's father", but both quirks of memory have been amended.

My husband has cousins in Carman, Manitoba and likes to assume some sort of relation to Carson. Could be. Who are we to burst his bubble?

DavidEhrenstein said...

More than a "great turnn," Vanwall. Doris Day had never been given an acting role of any kind until Romance on the High Seas Right out of the gate she's THERE. It's the greatest acting debut in the hisotry of the cinema. It's only rival is Harvey Ketel in Who's That Knocking On My Door

Dave said...

David:

Can you explain the (to me) enigma that is Doris Day? I find her an utter cipher in pretty much anything. What's the appeal for you? Is it an "either you get it or you don't" thing?

Karen said...

Oh, gosh. Long awaited, Siren! Jack Carson must be constantly smiling in heaven for all the love he gets down here at your site.

I loved that the moment you mentioned his eyes narrowing to slits I had a montage of vivid mental images of just that luck, whether inspired by malevolence or by a slowly dawning suspicion in a slightly dimmer-than-average brain. He never failed to make a huge impression, no matter what the size of his role.

I hope that, in the full Nomad, you mention Roughly Speaking. I think that may be the only Carson film I've ever seen where he got to play a fully-realized, multi-dimensional, romantic lead--against Rosalind Russell, no less. That movie brings me so much pleasure, because it feels like his reward for always coming through even in the tiniest parts, always giving 100+%.

You're right: there isn't anyone like Jack Carson. I guess everyone wants to be a star. I remember seeing Jeremy Piven several years ago, on the Daily Show, newly slim and showing off his tone. He said, "If this doesn't get me a leading role at least, dammit, nothing will." It made me so sad. He'd been such a great character actor up to then.

Such an unappreciated career, the character actor--even by modern character actors themselves.

Vanwall said...

Siren, the Nomad piece is a fine tribute, and yes, Karen, she has a perfect vision of "Roughly Speaking" and Jack Carson's marvelous role in it.

Karen said...

Thanks, Vanwall! I've clicked through a couple times, but can't access it--it is forever "loading" but never "loaded."

Vanwall said...

I finally remembered this quote from David Thomson's "The New Biographical Dictionary of Film":

"Never nominated or celebrated, never given lead roles in front-rank pictures, Jack Carson could be stupid, vacant, coarse, vain, amiable, decent, touching, nasty, hateful...even ordinary. Somehow one doubts that he ever got, or needed, much direction. Instead he understood story and character. He was cast and he was relied on, and let us say that one in ten times he was indelible... Apart from that, he was only perfect"

I'm on the side of more than one in ten times, But the last line says it all.

The Siren said...

Karen, for you I posted a bit from the Roughly Speaking discussion. It's really an unusual, and quite lovely, movie.

X. Trapnel said...

Part of the fascination of Carson in nearly all of his roles is a sense that he represents a fantastical if not downright surreal take on The Average Joe, some aspect of an an unexceptional character (bully, blowhard, nice guy) that he seizes upon and plays with brilliant virtuosity, both technical (my Carson epiphany was watching him toting up insurance figures in Mildred P with Heifetz-like panache) and imaginative.

barrylane said...

Re Roughly Speaking. Harold and Louise had a son, Frank, who went on to quite a bit of success writing and directing pictures.

Rob said...

You're right Siren, and it's so nice to read some praise for him.
He's so touching and sad in The Hard Way. In one of her books, the always brilliant Jeanine Basinger makes a case for Ida L being the real victim in that movie, but I don't buy it--it's poor Jack who gets it in the teeth.
And Roughly Speaking...! Why isn't this movie better known? Roz is terrific in it, Jack is too and it's fairly faithful to the source material (one of my favorite books).
Just finished one of the newer biographies of Doris Day and it seems she and Jack hit it off (platonically, if not exactly romantically-on her part, anyway)and it's a darn shame. He clearly adored her...

X. Trapnel said...

I know we're supposed to be saddened at the end of Stage Door when Lucille Pall goes off to marry the lumber lummox, but somehow just because it's Jack Carson one senses that her life is about to become...interesting.

The Siren said...

Barrylane - Hold the phone. Frank Pierson, screenplay, Dog Day Afternoon? That Frank Pierson???

Karen said...

Oh, Siren...for ME?? I am speechless with delight! THANK you!

That's a lovely passage and, again--unsurprisingly--you've captured the essence of the chemistry between Carson and Russell in Roughly Speaking. In a way, their relationship is a powerful argument for the love that endures past youthful passions. They love each other like grown-ups should, and that's not a love that Hollywood tends to spend much time on.

Greg said...

"My mother was an actress."

"Oh, legitimate?"

"Of course she was, she was my mother! Peaches LaTeuer was her name."

Ned said...

Karen, excellent point about Jeremy Piven.

I suppose the pull of that name above the marquis is too much for some actors. Too bad, because character actors often create roles that end up being at least as memorable as the leads, and they work non-stop (albeit not for $20M Brad Pitt type paydays).

Think of Thomas Mitchell: Doc Boone, Uncle Billy, Mr. O’Hara, the reporter in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Fabulous roles, all. A guy like Brian Cox makes five or six films a year and has been working steadily for decades. No one thinks he’s a schlub.

Jeremy Piven has created one of the most distinctive characters in recent memory (Ari Gold, far more memorable than anyone else on Entourage. Of course, if all he wanted was respect for his acting chops he could back on the stage, but then he’d have to stay away from seafood.

I don’t know if Jack Carson ever longingly eyed leading man territory, but the fact that we’re still talking about him a half century after he died has to count for something.

barrylane said...

Siren, you have it right.

Trish said...

Vanwall and David, I just saw "Romance on the High Seas" for the first time a few weeks ago. I loved it -- I thought the sequence in the club at the end with all the balloons and mirrors was spectacular! This was Doris' first acting role? Good lord, that woman is good.

Siren, thank you so much for the banner -- my favourite of the three Doris/Rock films. BTW, what do you think of these? I know I want them...

My Living Dolls

DavidEhrenstein said...

My friend the late, great Paige Cavanuagh accompanied her in the bar sequence where she sings "PPut 'em in abox, tie'em with a ribbon."

The best way to explain Doris Day's appeal, IMO, is via the sequence in Terence Davies The Long Day Closes where he stands outside waiting for the cinema to open and Doris singing "At Sundown" is played on the soundtrack.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Off-tpoic, but It's Helmut Berger Day at Dennis Cooper's

DavidEhrenstein said...

Helmut's the Jack Carson from Hell.

Amanda said...

Simply adore Jack Carson. Wonderful post.

Karen said...

I don’t know if Jack Carson ever longingly eyed leading man territory, but the fact that we’re still talking about him a half century after he died has to count for something.

Beautifully put, Ned! How many Sirenista discussions have devolved into paeans to our favorite character actors? Tributes to Charles Lane, to Mary Boland, to William Demarest, to Ruth Donnelly, to Walter Catlett, to Sterling Holloway, to....I mean, the list goes on forever. The Siren even devoted an entire post to them.

We know their names and we love them. I wonder if they had any idea, at the time, that their stars would shine so bright for so long.

barrylane said...

Re Carson as a leading Man--

Of course, he was in fact just that. With Rosalind Russell, as we know. And other choices were Ray Milland and George Brent. Right guy got the part. With Doris Day. With Ginger Rogers, and if you look around, you will find more. Roughly Speaking's Harold Pierson was the part, however.

Trish said...

Jack was built like a refridgerator. When I look at his shoulders, I think of Victor Mature and Lon Chaney, Jr (in the Wolfman). He just had that look. And he had a pleasing onscreen personality. You know you're gonna like the movie if Jack Carson is in it.

Eddie said...

I'll add to the chorus regarding Jack Carson, and recommend the little-seen The Good Humor Man, which, weirdly, is what I'd deem "slapstick noir." It's based on a straight crime thriller by Roy Huggins (who'd go on to create The Fugitive, among many other shows), but it's rewritten and directed by Frank Tashlin, who does nothing much other than change the protagonist into an itinerant ice cream salesman and cast Jack Carson in the role. Magic results.

dame said...

Rob, that's really interesting... which title was it? Beyond the bright colors and the radio setting (catnip to those of us who love old time radio), the formulaic "My Dream is Yours" is still pretty watchable. Carson plays Doris Day's agent, secretly in love with her. Their chemistry is similar to Farran's description: there's a warmth between them, a sense that they can have fun together.

Eddie, I just saw the most fascinating piece of memorabilia from "The Good Humor Man," but it was 90 degrees in an non airconditioned building here in Texas. Now I'm just going to have to go buy it - and then catch the film. Is it available on Warner Archive?

Ms.Zebra said...

I think I've loved Carson in everything he's done, even the stinkers. The Doughgirls is one that isn't mentioned much (his reactions to Jane Wyman's clueless comments are priceless), and the Hard Way-esque, vaudeville movie he did with Ann Sothern (the title escapes me at the moment). Love him.

barrylane said...

The Ann Sothern film with Carson is called April Showers.