Oscar Polk: Plowing Past Pork

Though best remembered as “Pork” in Gone with the Wind, Oscar Polk (1899-1949) had roles in numerous important stage and screen productions over a 20 year period. Originally from rural Arkansas, Polk broke into show business as a dancer and even took classes with Jack Blue, who taught Ruby Keeler, Patsy Kelly, and others.

By 1927, Polk was on Broadway appearing in the hit The Trial with Mary Dugan, which ran for over a year. It was the first of over a dozen Broadway shows to his credit. Other notable early shows include the original production of Kaufman and Hart’s Once in a Lifetime (1930), the Irving Berlin musical Face the Music (1932-33, with direction by Kaufman, book by Hart), and Maxwell Anderson’s Both Your Houses (1933).

Polk’s first film was the musical short World’s Champ (1933) starring boxing champion Jack Dempsey. In 1935 he got a new level of fame playing the angel Gabriel in the all-black Broadway show The Green Pasture, written by Marc Connelly. He reprised the role in the Hollywood version the following year. At the same time, he played Donald in the original production of Kaufman and Hart’s You Can’t Take It With You (1936-38). Given that this was his third time working with the team, one has to think the part was created for him. When Frank Capra made the film version in 1938, Polk was busy with other roles, so the part went to Eddie Anderson, with whom he had appeared in The Green Pasture. In the middle of You Can’t Take It With You, he did his first race film, Oscar Micheaux’s Underworld (1937), no doubt grateful for the much larger part than he normally was allotted in Broadway and Hollywood productions. He also had a starring role in Max Fleischer’s Out of the Inkwell (1938), an early experiment in live action/ animation combo. After his grueling stint on Gone with the Wind, he returned to Broadway for Swingin’ the Dream (1939), a jazz version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

After this he appeared in another Micheaux film The Return of Elinor Lee (1940), followed by a bit role in Birth of the Blues (1941). Kaufman then cast him in the Broadway show, Mr. Big, written by Arthur Sheekman. There followed three more shows and three more films. On Broadway he did Oscar Hammerstein’s Sunny River (1941), The Walking Gentleman (1942), and Dark Eyes (1943). In Hollywood, there was Cecil B. DeMille’s Reap the Wild Wind (1942), White Cargo (1942, with Heddy Lamarr), and the landmark all-black musical Cabin in the Sky (1943).

Following this, Polk appeared in three regional stage productions, Horses Are Like That (1943), Bigger Than Barnum (1946), and The Magnificent Heel (1946). He was due to play a major role in Ruth Gordon’s The Leading Lady when he was struck and killed by a cab in Times Square in 1949.

To learn more about vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous