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American Heritage Center

Playing It Straight: Jack Oakie



Jack Oakie (1903-1978) enjoyed an acting career that lasted more than fifty years.  Born Lewis Delaney Offield, Oakie took his first acting job in a 1922 George Cohan production on Broadway.  Oakie went to Hollywood in 1927 and was an instant hit on the big screen.  In 1929 he was in an astonishing ten films.  Lucille Ball said, “He had the ability to upstage bigger-name stars.”  Lionel Clynton wrote “He is outstanding proof of the fact that some players are considerably better in a secondary part rather than a starring role.”  Oakie appeared in numerous genres of films, however he is most remembered as a comedian.  Oakie appeared in his last film, Lover Come Back, in 1961.




When Jack Oakie arrived in Hollywood, silent films were still quite common.  “I’ve always been a naturally talkative fellow, so I had to keep biting my tongue until talkies (pictures with sound) came in.”  Oakie added, “I’ll always believe that talking pictures were invented just for me because they were right down my back alley.”  Five of his first six films were silent pictures.  In 1928 Oakie signed on with Paramount Pictures and performed in Paramount’s first sound picture The Dummy, and the next year he appeared in the musical Close Harmony.

Close Harmony

Hand-painted movie poster, Close Harmony, 1929
Promoting one of the industry’s first talking pictures.
(Jack Oakie Collection)



Oakie appeared in a number of college pictures in the 1920s and 1930s, often playing a college jock.  Oakie said, “I played football for State for over ten years.”  In these movies, Oakie often wore a sweatshirt, and before long people became accustomed to only seeing him sporting this college attire.  Clark Gable once refused to let Oakie attend a formal party at his home until he removed his tuxedo and wore his familiar sweatshirt.  His college films, many of which were football films, included The Collegiate, Touchdown, Rise and Shine, The Wild Party, College Humor, College Rhythm, and Sweetie.


Sweetie, 1929
College jock (Jack Oakie) sticks up for his college sweetheart (Helen Kane.)
(Jack Oakie Collection)


In 1928 Paramount Pictures adapted Ring Lardner’s successful Broadway play Elmer the Great and retitled it Fast Company.  It was Hollywood’s first baseball movie, and Oakie landed the roll of Elmer.  Fast Company remained his favorite picture the rest of his life.  According to his wife, Victoria, he liked it because it fit his personality.  “That’s what living with Jack was – fast company.”  The Kansas City Star wrote: “This Jack Oakie lad who plays Elmer is the easiest and most natural comedian to hit a screen in years.”  This comedy chronicled the rise of a country boy who became a baseball legend.

Fast Company

Movie poster from Fast Company, 1929
Hollywood’s first baseball film.  It starred Jack Oakie and his longtime acting partner “Skeets” Gallagher.
(Jack Oakie Collection)



Oakie played the role of the Italian leader Benito Mussolini and Charlie Chaplin played Adolf Hitler in the political satire The Great Dictator (1939.)  “Working with Charlie Chaplin was the high point of my career.  He made it one of the happiest periods of my life,” Jack Oakie said.  For his performance, Oakie was nominated for an academy award for supporting actor.  New York Times columnist Damon Runyan said, “This role stamps him as one of the great comedians of the screen.  There are not many great screen comedians.  Perhaps ten.  We put Oakie in the first five.”

The Great Dictator, Benzino Napoloni, Adenoid Hynkel


The Great Dictator, 1939
Jack Oakie as “Benzino Napaloni” and Charlie Chaplin as “Adenoid Hynkel” square off in this wartime classic, which was Chaplin’s first talking show production.
(Jack Oakie Collection)



Jack Oakie’s Rule for Comedy:

“When the situation or line is funny then play it straight!
When the situation or line is straight then add the comedy!”
(Taken from the book, When the Line is Straight: Jack Oakie’s Comedy in Motion Pictures: by Jack and Victoria Oakie, 1997, Strawberry Hill Press, Portland, OR.)

Texas Rangers

Movie poster promoting The Texas Rangers, 1936
From the Western starring Fred MacMurray, Jack Oakie, and Lloyd Nolan.
(Jack Oakie Collection)




Sheet Music from the motion picture Let’s Go Native, 1929
Starring Jack Oakie as a Brooklyn cabbie and Jeanette MacDonald as a socialite.  The incompatible castaways become stranded on a tropical island in this musical comedy.
(Jack Oakie Collection)


Million Dollar Legs

Million Dollar Legs, 1932
The President of Klopstokia (W.C. Fields) sends super-athlete Migg Tweeney (Jack Oakie) to the Olympics to raise money for the depression-stricken country.
(Jack Oakie Collection)



Learn More About It…

The Jack Oakie Collection housed at the American Heritage Center contains approximately ninety boxes of material related to his personal life as well as his acting career including scrapbooks, audio-visual material, photographs, correspondence, and awards.  To learn more about Oakie, visit the reading room on the 4th floor to request materials from his collection.

Virtual tour of the Jack Oakie Room, American Heritage Center

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