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Jack Oakie on Display by Leonard Maltin

Updated: Aug 18, 2022

This jovial, moon-faced performer. . .

was one of the screens most expert second-bananas (and a notorious scene stealer), although he occasionally starred in films as well. After spending his early years in Oklahoma (from which he took his stage name), Oakie moved to New York, where he worked as a Wall Street clerk before entering show business in the early 1920s. A passable song-and-dance man and talented comic actor,he was signed by Paramount with the coming of sound, and appeared in dozens of films there, sometimes in starring roles but often as the leading man's best friend. Titles include The Fleet's In, (1928) Fast Company (playing an egotistical ballplayer in this Ring Lardner story), The Wild Party, Close Harmony (all 1929), The Sap From Syracuse (1930), Million Dollar Legs, If I Had a Million (both 1932), The Eagle and the Hawk, Alice in Wonderland (as Tweedledum), College Humor (all 1933), College Rhythm (1934), and The Texas Rangers (1936). He played leads in Sitting Pretty (1933), Murder at the Vanities (1934), and The Big Broadcast of 1936 (1935), among others. At RKO he top-lined the first screen version of Hit the Deck (1930). On loan to Universal, Oakie gave an uncharacteristically low-key and extremely successful performance as the dull-witted cohort of a pair of con artists in 1932's Once in a Lifetime, a hilarious adaptation of the Kaufmann-Ferber play satirizing Hollywood. At Fox he had prime co-starring roles opposite Spencer Tracy in Looking for Trouble (1934), Clark Gable in Call of the Wild, and Warner Baxter in King of Burlesque. In 1937 Oakie moved to RKO, where he co-starred in That Girl From Paris, Hitting a New High, and The Toast of New York, and headlined such program pictures as Super Sleuth, The Affairs of Annabel (which launched the starring career of Lucille Ball), Annabel Takes a Tour, and Radio City Revels. By this time Oakie was positively rotund, and his screen persona—brash, egotistical, and frequently obnoxious—dominated his offscreen personality as well. He abruptly left RKO for a long "vacation" in 1938, effectively killing his starring career. But Oakie made a startling comeback as Napoloni, the hilariously bombastic Mussolini-styled despot in Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator; the performance earned him an Oscar nomination. Oakie's career then enjoyed a second wind at 20th Century Fox, where he was second banana in a parade of popular musical comedies, including Young People (as Shirley Temple's vaudevillian father). Tin Pan Alley, The Great American Broadcast, Song of the Sisland, Hello Frisco, Hello, (1943), reprising his King of Burlesque characterization in this Technicolor retread. It Happened Tomorrow, and Sweet and Lowdown (both 1944). He starred in Rise and Shine (1941) as a dumb football player kidnapped by gangsters.

After top-lining a couple of mediocre Universal musicals. On Stage, Everybody, and That's the Spirit (both 1945), Oakie found his career in irreversible decline, and appeared in only a few more films —in progressively smaller roles—including Northwest Stampede, When My Baby Smiles at Me, Thieves' Highway, and Last of the Buccaneers Oakie worked sporadically during 1950s and 1960s, on TV and in such features as Around the World in Eighty Days (1956), The Rat Race (1960), and Lover Come Back (1961), but increasing deafness finally forced him out of the business. He continued to be a familiar face in Hollywood right up until his death. His widow, Victoria Home, published his memoirs,"Jack Oakie's DoubleTakes," in 1960.

The houndstooth suit on display is from Universal's 1944 Merry Monahans, in which Oakie plays the father of a vaudeville family.

"David Sonne, Trustee of the Jack and Victoria Horne Oakie Foundation graciously praised this wonderful Maltin article, and reminded us that "Double Takes" was published in 1980, not 1960. Thank you David!

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