In my younger years, when I would avidly watch the plethora of classic movies scheduled on television, Jack Carson was always one of those familiar faces that would turn up and was instantly identifiable with a certain type. He’d be the guy competing with the star for a girl’s affections, the big lunk with the smart comments who is ultimately outfoxed by our hero. All along the way you kind of felt sorry for him, as there was rarely any malice in his antagonistic role, yet he always lost the girl (who was usually Ginger Rogers). His nameless appearances had a sort of cumulative effect on me until suddenly the light went off above my head and I realized that this boorish yet good-natured guy was in fact named Jack Carson. I had initially seen him in films such as Stand-In, The Saint in New York and Carefree, but it was really his role alongside James Cagney in The Strawberry Blonde that crystallized my screen memories of him.
From there I started to seek out his appearances and enjoyed his comedic turns in The Bride Came C.O.D and The Male Animal as well as his excellent and under appreciated skill with dramatic parts in movies such as Blues in the Night, The Hard Way and of course Mildred Pierce. I’ve since found him a difficult fellow to categorize – not quite a leading man, yet far more than a character actor; a natural comic yet an accomplished actor. He was popular in film, radio and television yet is not quite forgotten but not well remembered either. Despite this, I feel his real talents lay in out and out comedy that required his trademark double takes and a healthy dose of physical comedy. To that end, you really can’t do better than The Good Humor Man. The picture belongs solely to Carson and for once is built around his character without the need to have him play off against the likes of Dennis Morgan or Doris Day (not that that's a bad thing either). Carson plays Biff, a big-hearted ice cream salesman who in reality is really just a grown up kid. He’s a favourite of the local children and is a member of their Captain Marvel fan club. In fact the whole movie seems to be a massive advertisement for Fawcett publications and Good Humor ice cream.
What immediately struck me when watching the film was how despite a solid cast, a seasoned director (Lloyd Bacon) and a good writer (Frank Tashlin), the art of making comedies by 1950 had kind of been lost. The script is good and contains lots of excellent ideas and gags but as soon as we are introduced to Biff, his persona and his ultimate goal (to win the heart of his girl, played by Lola Albright), the film moves awkwardly into a murder plot. This, of course was the formula for most 40s comedies, as if merely presenting an amusing character being funny wasn’t enough for an audience. It occurred to me that Harold Lloyd (for example) could have made a whole film about an ice cream seller trying to win the heart of a girl. In fact he pretty much made a whole career very successfully using that basic simple formula. What happened to comedy films in the 40s that simply exploring comic situations wasn’t enough? But I digress…
The Good Humor Man starts out looking like it is going to be one of those old style comedies with some rather well observed gags as we establish Carson’s character as he goes about his daily rounds. There’s a nice moment where a cute dog approaches him and begs for an ice cream. When he gets it, the dog runs off and we pan to a large pack of different sized doggies all waiting for their free ice cream too (cue double take!). Carson is shown not only being kind to (and exasperated by) animals, he also helps a kid out with some money and in case we don't believe his good intentions, is shown picking up litter! He then meets up with the local kids and their Captain Marvel fan club in their meeting hut, all decked out in capes and cool club t shirts that would doubtless go for an absolute fortune on Ebay these days. Carson uses his membership of the club to get close to the kid brother of his sweetheart, and the young lad, seeing a kindred spirit sympathizes with his plight. Ironically the cad that is stopping this love match is played by none other than George Reeves, giving in retrospect a little bit of a Captain Marvel versus Superman vibe (if Superman had turned evil, that is)
The film perfectly sets up the premise and the main character, and in true old school fashion, goes on to show a little vignette of the life of a Good Humor man. This involves Carson having to bring an ice cream to a man working at a furnace. Of course the ice cream keeps melting, and to add to the problems, Carson needs to keep his uniform pristine for a big date after work. The situation of worked out wonderfully with perfect timing from Carson, with his big eyes and bendy mouth constantly looking to the viewer for help as he gets further and further into trouble. It’s a lovely scene expertly written by Frank Tashlin, the sort that as previously mentioned was becoming quite a rarity by 1950 (except perhaps in Tashlin’s own films). Carson gets stuck inside his own van and when released has been turned into a human Popsicle. In a rather absurd pay off to the scene the six-foot iceman is then floats away and is promptly washed down a storm drain. Why? Who knows?
From here on, the murder mystery kicks in and the rather charming comedic episodes come crashing to a halt in favour of a second rate film noir pastiche. That’s not to say that the film loses it’s way, as luckily the characters (and Jack Carson’s central performance) are drawn so well that they remain engaging. It’s just that it’s all been done before (mostly by Bob Hope) and for the most part done better. What potential the movie had a comic vehicle is somewhat hampered until the climax. Carson still manages some nice moments though, in particular his discomfort at being seduced by the film’s femme fatale. When asked if he reads comic books, his innocent yet triumphant “Of course I do, everybody does!” is a rallying call to all young at heart dreamers.
The final scene takes place in a school and features a big showdown between Carson with his Captain Marvel fan club and a bunch of mobsters. On its own the scene is a tour de force example of the work of Frank Tashlin with its manic energy, silly visual gags, ridiculous props and camera tricks. It’s simultaneously very funny and really rather irritating unless I’d imagine you are a big fan of Tashlin’s work (I can take him in small doses). However, there are some great ideas as the fight works it’s way through the different rooms of the schoolhouse. The music room sees trombones, harps and cymbals being used as weapons (again, this scene is probably something Lloyd and his contemporaries could have developed into a couple of reels). In shop class Carson fights off the mobsters with saws and rulers until inexplicably an unruly buzz saw escapes and chases people round the swimming pool like a shark! The kids arrive to save the day (and in a nice touch, so does the ice cream loving doggie from the beginning!) and chant the Captain Marvel code word as they dispatch the villains.
Naturally the whole thing ends up with a massive custard pie fight (what else?) and much speeded up camera work. Proceedings are enlivened by the appearance of a donkey in a Captain Marvel outfit and more of the ice cream loving dogs. Come on, who can't resist a donkey in a cape?! By the end there is so much going on and the music has reached such a frantic crescendo that I felt like I needed a quiet sit down in a darkened room to recover from it all. It’s certainly a well built sequence but sadly very far removed from the gentle character comedy of the opening scenes. However, it was 1950, so what else could you expect? The film is certainly a mish-mash of ideas and styles, but luckily it’s all firmly held together by Jack Carson playing perhaps his quintessential comic role.
I always wondered if The Good Humor Man was ever considered a pilot for a series of Jack Carson films. Certainly, his unique comic persona was arguably never distilled better, and a series of vocational comedies exploiting this character (even written by Frank Tashlin) could have been very interesting and probably funny too. Sadly, it was not to be, but Jack Carson continued on with his career after The Good Humor Man and enjoyed many, many great moments, both comic and dramatic until his untimely death in 1963. I hopefully will continue to catch him unexpectedly in films, lending an air of assured quality to each production and despite often playing the bad guy, remaining one of the screen’s undeniably likeable personas. And by the way, don’t forget your Captain Marvel fan club secret code word – “Niatpac Levram!”