Jack Carson stood six-feet-two-inches tall, possessed the slick smile of a car salesman and—at a studio that employed such major talents as Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Olivia de Havilland and James Cagney—was arguably one of the best actors on the Warner Bros. lot. Attractive, but not movie-star handsome, Carson found supporting roles early on at RKO in films like Stage Door (1937) and Carefree (1938). He went to Warner Bros. in 1941, honing his craft opposite Cagney in The Strawberry Blonde (1941), de Havilland and Henry Fonda in The Male Animal (1942) and Edward G. Robinson in Larceny, Inc. (1942).
In the forties, Carson teamed with handsome tenor Dennis Morgan for a series of films that were Warner Bros.’s answer to Paramount’s Hope and Crosby Road pictures. If the two didn’t exactly set the world on fire, they nevertheless acquitted themselves well. Later that decade Carson helped usher Doris Day to movie stardom by costarring in her first three films. A body of strong dramatic work in high-profile projects rounded out his career. His first movie was You Only Live Once in 1937; his final film was King of the Roaring 20’s (sic) in 1961, two years before he died at age 52 of stomach and liver cancer.
The Hard Way (1943)
The part of struggling song-and-dance man Albert Runkel elevated Carson from comedic bits in lighthearted fare to a supporting role in a serious drama. The plot offered fairly enjoyable histrionics: Ida Lupino plays ambitious Helen Chernen, who schemes to get her and her sister Katie (Joan Leslie) out of their grungy steel-mill hometown by coercing her sister into a loveless marriage with Runkel. As Runkel’s stage act with partner Paul Collins (Dennis Morgan) dips in popularity, Katie’s stage career takes off. And so Runkel, borrowing a page from A Star is Born, decides to kill himself. The Hard Way earned solid reviews, especially for the cast, and propelled Carson to meatier roles.
Mildred Pierce (1945)
Its uncomplicated style, unexpected humor and irresistible mother-daughter conflict made Mildred Pierce a film noir milestone and offered further proof of Jack Carson’s talent. Not merely a secondary character to protagonist Mildred Pierce (Joan Crawford), Wally Fay (Carson) was also Mildred’s friend, real estate agent, financial advisor, legal advisor—he even introduced her to her second husband. And, in his relentless romantic pursuit of her, Wally provided Mildred with an abundant and handy source of personal validation, should she ever need it. Wally Fay was a supporting role in every sense, and it gave Carson the best reviews of his career.
Romance on the High Seas (1948)
Jack Carson was right by Doris Day’s side the moment she became a movie star. Audiences loved her in Romance on the High Seas, a story about jealous spouses, mistaken identity and a South American cruise, but Bosley Crowther of The New York Times was unimpressed. “It is hard to work up enthusiasm for the Warners' new starlet, Doris Day,” the film critic wrote. “Maybe the Warners figured they had a new Betty Hutton in her but, even without other assets, she still lacks Miss Hutton's vital style. Also Miss Day's singing voice, while adequate to such night-club tunes as ‘I'm in Love,’ ‘You or No One’ and ‘It's Magic,’ is nothing to herald.” Somehow Day dodged Crowther’s arrows and survived, making her next two pictures with good luck charm Jack Carson and, by some accounts, enjoying a brief romance with her burly costar.
A Star is Born (1954)
In Judy Garland’s comeback vehicle, Carson played to perfection that singular show biz animal, the studio press agent. In this, George Cukor’s musical remake of the 1937 drama, it is a creature frequently found between a rock—what’s good for business—and a hard place—an unpredictable and self-destructive celebrity. As Matt Libby, Carson is cynical, diplomatic when called for, devoid of sympathy and, when it’s safe, quite cruel. Libby is a man of hard edges, and Carson played it like an actor who didn’t give a damn about audience affection. It was one of his strongest performances.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (1958)
Jack Carson, in his last significant movie role, joined a handful of screen heavyweights and got to speak the words of one of America’s most famous playwrights. As the wonderfully named Gooper Pollitt, the genetically improbable brother of Paul Newman, Carson appeared alongside Elizabeth Taylor, Judith Anderson and Burl Ives in Tennessee Williams’s tale of a southern family grappling their way through a birthday gathering at the family plantation. It’s the kind of sexually heightened, psychological shoutfest at which Williams excels, and the results are fascinating to watch. It would be the actor’s last significant movie role.