From the Editor
by Vicki Leeper
America’s beefy, plump-faced comedian Jack Oakie was one of the funniest top and second banana of the stage, radio, and the golden age of Hollywood films. Born Lewis Delaney Offield in 1903 he changed his name to Jack Oakie, Oakie being his mothers maiden name and Jack was one of the first characters he played on stage. He accomplished so much in his career, 87 films over a 38 year career, and the public never know that he was “functionally deaf” or what they would now call hearing impaired. I learned this fact when I toured the home he purchased from Barbara Stanwyck and lived in for 6 decades in Northridge California.
Most of his acting was performed primarily by lip reading closely, so he’d be prepared in case of ad-libs. Or when singing and dancing, he would feel the beat of the music even though he couldn’t hear it. And, astoundingly enough, he was able to sing on key. He disliked working with Spencer Tracy because Tracy had the habit of mumbling his lines for a natural effect. Oakie had too hard a time reading his lips in their shared scenes in Looking For Trouble and they never worked together again. Oakie’s pictures were the bread and butter films of the studio. They cost nothing and made millions, and supported the prestige productions that cost millions and made nothing.
The stories on how he became deaf vary — scarlet fever at age 9, or a Wall Street building explosion where he worked at age 17 as a messenger— but it didn’t hamper his performing success in films and also broadway musicals – not an easy task if you can’t hear! He is credited with creating the ‘double’ and ‘triple take’ in comedy. He was the inspiration for later comedians like Jackie Gleason, and a scene stealer with the legendary Charles Chaplin in The Great Dictator. He was dubbed the ‘Worlds Oldest Freshman’ because he was in his 30’s and still asked to play 18 year old seniors in screwball college comedies. And he never wore any makeup under any circumstances – resulting in a fight or two with the cameramen.
His deafness did not affect the output of his work, and seldom were there problems in the profession in accommodating his disability. Director Jules Dassin in fact, made it a point to state that Oakie never caused any delays in the filming of his film noir Thieves’ Highway.
When I think of the assistive technology we have today that would have helped him, I wonder if he would have even bothered with it. From all accounts he was a happy, productive man and his hearing impairments, though they didn’t last his entire life, didn’t hamper him any. I like to think of him as the happy go lucky freshman, just working hard and enjoying life!