Today is the birthday of Jack Oakie (Lewis Delaney Offield, 1903-1978).
A Missouri native who spent part of his childhood in Oklahoma, Oakie moved to New York to break into show business around the start of the 1920s. He performed in vaudeville, then broke into Broadway as a chorus boy in George M. Cohan’s Little Nellie Kelly (1923). After a couple more Broadway shows, he broke into films in 1928, during the last phase of silents.
When the switchover to talkies happened in 1930, Paramount (with whom Oakie was a contract player) sent him to perform live at their Brooklyn theatre, a presentation house, taking advantage of his vaudeville experience to help promote the movies. Notable films he appeared in during this period include Million Dollar Legs, If I Had a Million, and Once in a Lifetime (all 1932), Paramount’s all-star Alice in Wonderland (1933) and King of Burlesque (1936).
Jack Oakie would continue to be a familiar presence in radio, film and television until 1966. Today, he is most famous for playing Benzini Napoloni, the Mussolini caricature in Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. Here he is in early television adaptation of Burlesque,playing the Bert Lahr role in 1955:
To find out more about vaudeville comedians like Jack Oakie, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic comedy don’t miss Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube