Sunday, October 26, 2014

A Few Words About Jack Carson

(Oct. 27 is Jack Carson's 104th birthday, and TCM is having an all-day, eight-film celebration that includes both Mildred Pierce, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, and Roughly Speaking. The Siren wrote this in 2011 for the now-defunct Nomad, but never published it in full. Here's the whole thing, gussied up with edits and additions.)

Gather old-movie buffs around to ask them what they miss, and one answer will be character actors. Jack Carson, who packed nearly 100 movies into a career cut short by stomach cancer at the age of 52, was one of the greatest.

Carson 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 beefy man who stood six-foot-two, he had the physique 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 right cheek and small eyes that squinted into slits whenever the world dealt him a perplexing situation. With this un-starry equipment he built an unusually varied filmography.

He often played heels, as in his first big break playing James Cagney’s nemesis in Raoul Walsh’s The Strawberry Blonde. Much later on, in his most purely villainous role, Carson can be found destroying James Mason’s fragile psyche with a single vindictive bar conversation in George Cukor’s A Star Is Born. But he could play well in other keys; midway through Carson's credits are a string of light but often diverting comedies where he played Bob Hope to Dennis Morgan’s improbable Bing Crosby. And he had that ability of any good actor to show you more than what's in the script, even a brilliant script. In one of his last film roles, as Gooper in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Carson is both venal and sympathetic, a son whose greed for his father's money comes from the bitter knowledge that it's all he will ever get from an old man who doesn't love him, and never has.

In his best-known role, as Wally Fay in Mildred Pierce, Carson's a sleaze, yet weirdly lovable. He reels 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 always happening to stand-up guys like him. This man’s romantic maneuvers are like watching the Queen Mary try to parallel-park: “Not too much ice in that drink you’re about to make for me.” Mildred Pierce also gives Carson what the Siren thinks of as his career-defining line. “I like to hear you talk,” says Joan Crawford, trying to distract him so she can pin a murder on him. “So do I,” replies Carson, pleased to have found common ground. “Something about the sound of my own voice fascinates me.”

Unlike a lot of character actors, however, Carson did land the occasional secondary lead. In two such movies, both made at Warner Brothers (and available on Warner Archive), he gave great performances. Neither character is a heel.

In The Hard Way (1943), 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 they give the 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 (an unusually hard-edged Joan Leslie), a poor girl in a steel-mill town whose prettiness and big-eyed fascination with the two hams causes the goodhearted, hapless Albert to fall in love and marry her. But Albert reckons without Helen (Ida Lupino, in one of her best roles), Katie’s sister, who sees him as a way station on the route to bigger and better things. Pushed by Helen, Katie becomes a star, and Albert is left behind, knowing he’ll never get his wife back and never equal her, either.

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 makes his part truly touching. It’s Albert, not the teenage Katie, who’s the real innocent.

In one musical number, “Latin from Manhattan,” Albert wears a ghastly pom-pom-bedecked sombrero and strums a guitar while Leslie vamps around a nightclub stage. He's 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 naive faith that was there from the beginning is still carrying him as he prances after his wife.

And then there’s a party scene where Albert tries to get a now-successful Katie to return to him. This time Albert is selling his love for Katie and their marriage with everything he’s got, and he knows it probably won’t work. Unlike the nightclub, the hope in his eyes gets dimmer minute by minute, until Katie tells him that if he thinks she’s leaving, he’s crazy — and you watch the hope die right out of Carson's face.

In Roughly Speaking (Michael Curtiz, 1945), Carson’s character shows up for the first time about halfway through the movie. At that point Louise (Rosalind Russell) has endured the death of her father, the births of four children, the infantile paralysis of the youngest child, years of marriage to a stuffed shirt, the stuffed shirt’s infidelity, and a divorce. Harold (Carson) meets Russell at a costume party and falls for her within two hours of meeting her — after encountering all four of her children in her kitchen. Harold is the ne’er-do-well son of a rich man, and he’s looking for a woman who will approach life with an optimistic and adventurous spirit.

And they need it, as Harold and Louise’s every attempt to make money falls flat. They open a greenhouse and inadvertently flood the market with roses. They invest in a new type of airplane just as the stock market crashes. But the point of Roughly Speaking is that compatibility of temperament matters most 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 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, Louise discovers that Harold found door-to-door sales so soul-draining 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 that he would understand if she cleared out. Carson’s face is a marvel of drily unsentimental love and self-reproach.

Even more tender is the last scene in the movie, when they are sending the two oldest sons off to war. They’re Louise’s boys, Harold is their stepfather, but they call him “Pop” and tell him how much he's meant to them. As Carson watches them go, his eyes and expression show that these are now his sons. Perhaps Harold never completely considered them so before, but he does now. The ability to pack that much meaning into one look at a train station — that’s character indeed.


Vanwall said...

Excellent! Carson is a key part of my growing up with films that had an edge. I used to look for him over the leads sometimes, just because he was The Great Jack Carson.

MC said...

Great essay! Jack Carson is one of those actors I'm always happy to see pop up in a movie, whether he's playing a heel or a nice guy. I like the movies he did with Doris Day, especially "Romance on the High Seas." He and Day had a nice onscreen rapport.

barrylane said...

I think as nice as the essay is that Carson played enough leading and star parts -- and I believe Norman Maine is a disgusting, weak stumble bum causing everyone around him unnecessary headaches. Why in t he world should Libby, no matter who plays him, embrace this creep. In Roughly Speaking, and I think we have done this, Frank Pierson, the Academy Award winning screenwriter, was the son of Harold and Louise.

barrylane said...

An added connection. Frank Pierson directed the Streisand remake.

Kirk said...

I loved Carson in everything I've seen him in, but especially ROUGHLY SPEAKING which should be a better known movie than it is. I'm glad you talked about it.

Two other films I'd like to mention: LARCENY, INC and THE MALE ANIMAL

Cristiane said...

I can't tell you how great Jack Carson is in The Hard Way. He's so touching. It's one of my favorite movies - every time it's on TCM, I record it. The only problem is that it's kind of hard to believe the rocket-to-fame of Joan Leslie's character - she's pleasant, but hardly a world beater. Too bad they couldn't have cast Ann Blyth.

rudyfan1926 said...

I absolutely adore Carson in anything. Always a bright spot in comedies and so wonderful as a schnook. Wally Fay in Mildred Pierce is, naturally, a favorite. But I love his blustery Hugo Barnstead in The Strawberry Blonde.

Casey said...

One of the signs of a great actor is the way they can take a thinly written part and fill in all the details. In My Dream Is Yours, an uneven Curtiz effort from 1949, Carson takes the lackluster dialogue and makes it come alive. He injects his own irresistible energy into the film to keep things humming (with important assists by Eve Arden and Adolphe Menjou.) When I was younger I took Carson for granted. Now I don't think I could live without him.

Ms.B. said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
yojimboen said...

When I was a boy of seventeen, Jack Carson was such a bad actor I could hardly stand to have him around. But when I got to be 35, I was astonished at how much Carson had improved in just a few years.

(With apologies to S Clemens.)

Ms.B. said...

What a wonderful essay! I have to second barrylane here--I find Carson oddly sympathetic in A Star Is Born (as well as utterly compelling); his reactions to Norman Maine conjure a whole past in which Maine has never given him anything but the back of his hand.

gmoke said...

His turn in "The Bride Came C.O.D" was probably the best thing in that film and there's another show biz saga he starred in that I can't find on IMDB in which he plays the vaudeville father who's outshone by his son.

Also, his late appearance on "The Twilight Zone" as a used car salesman who buys a cursed Model T that dooms him always to tell the truth. His face at the end when he unloads the vehicle on Kruschev is classic.

yojimboen said...

And here it is:

Rich said...

Wow, that was a great piece of writing. Great job Kid :)

barrylane said...

The picture about a show business family is called April Showers. Carson is co-starred with Ann Sothern, the boy is Bobby Ellis.

Birgit said...

Jack Carson should be more remembered. I loved him in Arsenic and Old Lace. he was a reall SOB to James Mason. I have not seen the 2 films you mention here but would love to

myrna said...

April Showers is based on the life story of Buster Keaton. The talented son, named Buster in he movie, saved his parent's vaudeville act when he joined it. But child labor laws removed him from the act. And the Dad, played by Jack Carson, began to drink heavily.I saw April Showers on TCM when they were featuring Ann Sothern.