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Shy Show-Off—Jack Carson

When a fellow plays in about sixty movies (Jack Carson can’t remember exactly how many) and plays a heel in more them fifty of them, people begin to wonder. True, Jack played the particular type of heel known as a “comedy menace.” On the screen he was conceited and noisy. He was smug in an ignorant way—but funny.

Early came another phase in the Carson reputation. Rumor got around—you know how Hollywood is—that off the screen Jack was also conceited and loud—but not funny.

All that changed—like the whoosh of a comet—when “The Hard Way” hit the screen. You’ll remember, Jack played Albert Runkel, the happy-go-lucky, self-assured comedian, of the straw-hat, tap-routine type, who worshiped Joan Leslie. The bewildered young man Jack was playing killed himself and the tragic sincerity of that stricken boy on the screen definitely created a new star. People blinked and started asking new questions. “You can’t fool a camera that badly,” moviegoers reasoned. “All those ‘comedy menaces’ can’t be true—and this, too. What kind of a fellow is Jack Carson?”

That’s a hard type of question. Even a rough diamond has many sides and, as life cuts the man into a pattern, more sides appear.

Naturally, you have to have something to start with. So—look at two smaU boys, standing on the railroad platform at International Falls, Minnesota (that’s on the Canadian line), thirty years ago. Jack, three, is as big as his four-and-a-half-year-old brother. These children have been living at Moosejaw, Saskatchewan, where the sim seldom sets before nine o’clock and small boys are put to bed early. Neither youngster had ever before seen the sky at night. “What sure all those fights up there?” asked Bob, the elder boy. (He must have wondered if they only existed in the United’ States, the big new country where the Carsons were just arriving to live.)

“Stars,” replied Mrs. Carson.

Jackie, the younger, swallowed his Adam’s apple, stifled his awe and pointed wisely: “I see the biggest one.” He was pointing at a red station lantern, ran forward, hoping to grasp it—and fell.

That’s part of the boy you start with. Hungry for excitement, seldom willing to admit he doesn’t know all the answers, likely to reach for a gaudy lantern of a star. A boy like that is apt to stub his toe and bruise his nose a few times.

Now for a long jump, to another glance at character. The bumps and bruises had come—a good many—but “The Hard Way” had finally hit the screen. Jack had worked fifty weeks during 1940, forty-nine weeks in 1941 and fifty-one weeks in 1942. His whole fife had been mellowed by a happy marriage with Kay St. Germain, famous radio singer and swell gal. The Carsons had achieved more happiness—a baby.

Jack received an invitation to broadcast from New York.

“Come on, Kay,” invited Jack, “let’s go and see the big town. I’d like to be there once with money enough to go where I want, do what I like. I’ll show you the sights. After the broadcast, that first night, we’ll start at the Stork Club.”

Jack’s excitement was infectious and Kay was willing.

He’ll never forget what happened, that first New York night, at the broadcast. A very famous woman star was introduced. The broadcast studio audience applauded wildly. Then, after a build-up, the announcer mentioned a name: “Jack Carson.” A polite ripple of applause went around the room—and then that unforgettable pan of Jack’s appeared on stage. Folks nearly tore the house down—whistles, hand-clapping, cheers. The nameCarson wasn’t famous, but that face reminded folks of a lot of laughs—and they also spotted him as the fine, sincere actor of “The Hard Way.”

That reception frightened Jack. He honestly didn’t know that his pictures had made even his pan famous. He tried to think of a way to keep from taking Kay over to the Stork Club, as he had promised. What could he say—“I’m scared?” He had to go. “I’ll be careful,” he told himself.

Jack hates ostentatiousness, the “I’m-ritzy-look-at-me!” complex, worse than any other trait. He waited till the headwaiter had turned his back and slipped Kay and himself into seats at the smallest, farthest corner table. There he scrunched over, like a gangster hiding from Governor Dewey.

The Stork Club’s headwaiter tapped him. “I’ve a better table for you, Mr. Carson.”

“No!” said Jack. “Oh, no!” He looked as if a judge had asked him to plead guilty. “I’m happy, right where I am.”

“Why, Jack—” began Mrs. Carson, puzzled.

The new star mumbled, “No,” once more, but his will and his knees both felt weak, and—the headwaiter holding him by an elbow—he and Mrs. Carson were led to the famous “celebrities” table. (“It’s horrible,” Jack recalls, “to feel a host of eyes looking at you, narrowing, wondering just who you are. Worst of all, you can practically hear the owners of those eyes thinking, ‘Why couldn’t it be Clark Gable instead!’ ”)

Everyone was fine to Jack. Sherman Billingsley, owner of the Stork Club, sent over a complimentary bottle of champagne.

Back at the hotel. Jack asked, “Kay, you know Milwaukee?”

“No,” said Kay. “You were always going to take me there and show me your old haunts. And the good cooking!”

Jack’s brow furrowed; “Let’s go tomorrow. Do you mind?”

The Carsons left New York Sunday noon, twenty-four hours after their arrival, and spent three weeks roaming around Milwaukee, having fun with Jack’s old pals and enjoying Jack’s mother and father, of whom Kay is very fond.

That New York exit is a tip-off on Jack. Strange as it seems, he’s shy! We’ll see, later, how that explains many things.

Milwaukee was the town where the Carsons had settled, not long after that red-lantern-and-star business at the International Falls railway station.

Jack grew too fast, had too much imagination, was full of plain deviltry. How he got through St. John’s Military Academy at Delafield, Wisconsin, nobody knows. He played football, organized a pick-up jazz band and did a lot of courting. During a summer vacation he took his band to Chicago, where the boys dated girls from a Chicago “Young Ladies’ Seminary.” A few nights later the Lotharios decided to find the school and serenade their former dates. By mistake they landed outside a near-by maternity hospital! It all might have seemed innocent—as it was—except for an unlucky coincidence. Jack led off the serenade (which was promptly ended) with a popular hit of the day, “Yes, Sir, She’s My Baby.”

That got back to St. John’s. There was also plenty of foolishness by Jack on the campus, but some school executive saw the underlying fiber in the boy and stuck by him. He was graduated with honors.

Jack just fell apart at Illinois College, loafed, was asked to leave. At Carleton College, Minnesota, which he then entered on probation. Jack lasted three years. He and C. C. parted by mutual consent. Jack wasn’t studying. He had played Hercules (in a lion’s skin) and a half-breed Indian (in a breechclout) in college plays. No other honors!

There was a boy at a definite crossroads. If downgrade had been in nis nature, he surely would have headed down. One thing saved him. Once given something to do, this lad could work as hard as he, or any man, ever played. That something happened when he and a friend named Dave Willock were talking one night and they sort of both said at once, “Let’s form a vaudeville team.” They did, secured booking and played many kinds of circuits, little towns and big, for several years. Jack laughingly admits, “We’re the team tnat killed vaudeville!”

Decision to chuck the act came finally in Seattle, when someone offered the boys “joint managership” of a road show. Fine—they’d be managers! The troupe had twenty-two members and formerly these had been drawing $30 a week apiece. “Nobody can live on that and pay their own travel expense!” exploded Jack. “We’ll give them sixty a week.” Willock agreed. That expense came out of the boys’ share.

By some miracle, at the end of an eighteen-weeks run, the “managers” had broken exactly even. (They had really been reaching for a red lantern.) Vaudeville was dead; the two men went separate ways—Jack to a period of M. C.’ing, and, at last, to an uninvited assault on Hollywood. His first day’s work was a bit scene. George Stevens, the director, told him, “You have something. I’ll try and find a part for you.” Jack didn’t know it, but Stevens was absolutely sincere.

But nothing turned up. A close friend says, “I think Jack decided people didn’t like him. Maybe a hangover from the old days, when he was a too-fast-growing kid. Anyway, he began to play an imitation of those heel roles, off the screen—not deep, but just brusque—carrying a chip on his shoulder.”

People didn’t like him, huh?

In “The Strawberry Blonde” Jimmy Cagney, outside the camera range, was “feeding” lines to Jack, who was working under both mike and camera. Four times Cagney blew his lines! Jack rasped, “Whatsa matter?” Cagney stepped over. “You’re pressing too hard, kid. Play this scene easy. It’s your big chance.” Jack realized then that the great Cagney had blown lines so that he. Jack Carson, could keep trying until he got the tempo of a scene right!

In “The Bride Came C. O. D.” Bette Davis helped Jack so much, coaching him as the impossible heel he played in that picture, that the public became almost finally convinced he was one!

In “The Hard Way,” Jack became worried and blue, remembering Cagney’s earlier advice. One day he saw Ida Lupine watching him with terrific intentness. Jack blew. “I’m afraid,” he confided to Ida, “I’m overdoing it.” Ida gave him a grim eye: “You play it the way you’re playing it now, Carson. I’ll tell you when you overdo it!”

Jack can rattle off twenty examples like that, where people—big people—went out of their way to help him, boosting his career. Though Jack is now playing comedy in “Shine On, Harvest Moon,” Warners are planning meaty roles for him. Meanwhile, he’s off the defensive, no longer a man with too much bounce.

Don’t give career all the credit for the new Carson. His marriage to Kay St. Germain may have meant as much to him as Joan Leslie, on the screen in “The Hard Way,” could have meant to Albert Runkel.

The pair met working together on a broadcast. Kay had seen Jack once in a movie and on that occasion had held her hands over her eyes, asking her mother, “Let me know when that awful creature goes off the screen.” She confided this to Jack—a challenge no man could ignore!—and they were married within a year.

Kay is tall, with attractive hazel eyes under a crown of dark hair. The two make a stunning physical couple and their two-year-old baby started life at ten pounds, five ounces. Jack is not only proud—he’s devoted. He gets up and fixes the baby’s breakfast—“He might be asleep when I get home”—and manages to work a Victory garden. He, Kay, the Dennis Morgans and other San Fernando Valley friends have formed an informal troupe for near-by camp tours. The little group have fun and so do the soldiers—thousands of them.

Kay made a special request about this present article: “Please don’t paint us as ‘the perfect marriage.’ I’ve read so much of that and then the couples split up. We often differ. We’re both strong-minded. But early in our marriage Jack announced what at once became our home slogan: ‘If we both try, we’ll make it go.’ ” After this womanly wisdom, Mrs. C. promptly vetoed her request for soft-pedalling by adding, “You can say this, though, and quote me—we started happy and we’re happier now!”

A delightful example of wifely diplomacy that failed illustrates Jack the Strong-minded. “I wanted to get around him about something,” Kay relates. “I thought about it for months while I was expecting the baby. I told myself, ‘I’ll be wise and tactful. I’ll wait until I’m lying, white and wan, with the baby by my side.’ ”

She did and, as she says, “I looked white and wan all right.” Jack, whose full name is John Elmer Carson, had long before announced that any boy would be “Junior.” Now Kay looked up pleadingly: “One thing. Jack. You don’t really want to name a boy Elmer, do you? Wouldn’t it be all right if I put John Irwin Carson?”

“It’s either John Elmer Carson Jr.” Papa roared, “or it’s a divorce!”

Kay concludes that account with a chuckle: “One thing about Jack—you know you’ve got a man around the house!”

Today, “Hard Way Jack” is going places, every way.

P. S. If priorities permit, somebody ought to give John Elmer Carson Jr. a railway lantern for Christmas.