The Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie Charitable Foundation’s mission is to follow through with the late Jack Oakie’s wish, “Give the money to the kids,” by underwriting lectures on comedy and scholarships for deserving film and theater students at some of the most prestigious institutions in the country. Mrs. Oakie instructed the Trustees of the Foundation to keep her husband’s legacy alive and enhance the value of visual performing arts education.
Both Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie were active participants in and during the famous Golden Age of Hollywood. Between them, they acted in more than 122 films over a 60-year period. Their contributions to acting and comedy can now be passed on to a new generation with the help of their Foundation scholarships.
Jack Oakie was one of the most likeable players of the 1930’s and 40’s. Indeed, he was rarely out of work. Oakie made a total of 87 films from big-budgeted comedies and musicals to B Westerns and football flicks.
Born Lewis Delaney Offield in Sedalia, Missouri, on November 12, 1903, Jack was a natural mimic and wisecracker who began appearing in amateur charity shows, making his professional debut on Broadway in 1923 as a chorus boy in George M. Cohan’s Little Nelly Kelly. He learned his trade in a handful of musical comedies including Sharlee (1923), Innocent Eyes (1924), Artists and Models (1925) and Peggy Ann (1927).
But it was in vaudeville that Jack really came into his own. He toured the country with Lulu McConnell doing up to six shows a day, finally playing the Palace. By 1927, he felt he had gone as far as he could on stage and determined to crash the movies.
Unlike many stage players, Jack hit Hollywood in mid-1927, before the talkie craze hit. He signed with Paramount in 1928 (staying there through 1934), debuting with “The Dummy” that same year. He made an amazing ten films in 1929 alone, surely some kind of record. They included “The Wild Party,” the musical “Close Harmony,” “Sweetie” and “Let’s Go Native.”
From the start, Jack was a scene-stealer. While the stars would carry the plotline, Jack would be doing his trademark double (and triple) takes, bellowing out his lines in typical vaudeville style. Like fellow vaudevillians Jimmy Durante, Helen Kane and Joe E. Brown, Jack was not a classical actor; he didn’t create characters, he simply uttered his lines as Jack Oakie. That was what directors and audiences wanted the same reliably funny Jack Oakie from film to film.
Other film credits include “Million Dollar Legs,” “Dancers in the Dark”, “Alice in Wonderland” (1933), Clark Gable’s gold-mining pal in “Call of the Wild” (1935). The 1940’s began auspiciously for Jack, with Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator.” His role as Napolini, Il Duce of Bacteria, was a brilliant and very thinly disguised slam at Mussolini, and earned Jack his only Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor.
Jack continued working steadily through the 1940’s finishing out the decade in a handful of westerns including “Northwest Stampede,” and “Tomahawk.” Jack’s last high-profile films were the Betty Grable/Dan Dailey musical “When My Baby Smiles at Me” and the fast-moving gangster film “Thieves Highway” (both 1948).
Jack had begun appearing on TV as early as 1950, and turned up on such shows as “Kraft Theater” and “Studio One” (both 1958), “The Real McCoys” (1962) and “Bonanza” (1966). His last professional appearance was on a 1972 Johnny Carson special, with fellow “old-timers” Bette Davis, Ethel Waters, Jerry Colonna and Eddie Foy, Jr. Trimmer than he’d been in years, he boasted his same bright smile and a thick shock of white hair.
Jack’s sudden death from an aortic aneurysm on January 23, 1978 came as a great shock to his family and friends. He’d been in great spirits and apparently great health right to the end, socializing and giving interviews. More than 300 people attended his funeral, the eulogy given by Charles “Buddy” Rogers.