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. Wally’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.