Jack Egan: Early Bloomer

Jack Egan (1904-1982) enjoyed his greatest fame at the beginning of his career, as a juvenile in the last days of silent films and a couple of very early talkie musicals.

The Paterson native was only 21 when he made his screen debut as a “Sophomore” in Wesley Ruggles’ college comedy The Plastic Age (1925) with Clara Bow, Donald Keith, and future stars Clark Gable, Carole Lombard, and Janet Gaynor. By his next film Love ‘Em and Leave ‘Em (1926) with Evelyn Brent and Louise Brooks, he was already sixth billed. He played W.C. Fields’ son in the sadly lost The Potters (1927), setting the template for the kind of characters Grady Sutton and others would later play. Next came Cabaret (1927) with Gilda Gray, Tom Moore, and Chester Conklin.

In 1928, Egan had great success appearing in screen adaptations of comic strips. He co-starred with Derelys Perdue in a series of 16 comedy shorts based on George McManus’s The Newlyweds, which ran into the following year. And he played the title character in the first adaptation of Harold Teen (1928) with an all star cast that included Arthur Lake, Mary Brian, Lucien Littlefield, Jack Duffy, and Hedda Hopper. Other films from the silent period include Mad Hour (1928) with Alice White and Sally O’Neil; The Big Noise (1928) with Chester Conklin, Alice White, Sam Hardy, and Ned Sparks; and It Can Be Done (1929) with Glenn Tryon.

Egan has the lead in the musical Broadway Scandals with Alice White, and co-stars with Marie Saxon and Louise Fazenda in Broadway Hoofer, both in 1929, leading me to wonder about a stage background prior to films. He sings and dances in these vehicles. He was a young adult when he started in films, but it’s entirely plausible he spent time in vaudeville, stock, or musical theatre prior to that, though I haven’t yet encountered any references. Later in 1936 and 1937 a Jack Egan appears on Broadway with a couple of Federal Theatre Project shows, American Holiday and A Hero is Born. It seems likely it was the same man, as Broadway Hoofer was his last starring movie vehicle.

It seems significant that Egan’s starring credits dry up on 1929. Was he wiped out by the Crash? Did he not click in talkies? He has no screen credits at all for two years, then re-emerges as a bit player in 1931. In most of his subsequent films he is just a walk-on. These pictures include Our Relations (1936) with Laurel and Hardy, Zenobia (1939) with Hardy, and Beware Spooks! (1939) with Joe E. Brown. He enjoys more prominent turns in the Our Gang short Three Smart Boys, and the Hal Roach feature Pick a Star (1937) as well as Dick Tracy Returns (1938), which also leads me to suspect that he’s the same Egan who did those Broadway shows in ’36 and ’37.

Egan’s last film was in 1942 — the same year Billboard announced that Jack Egan, the press agent for Alvino Rey and the King Sisters was going into the Coast Guard. A 1946 item in the same magazine mentions him as the same band’s manager, presenting them at the Chez Paree in Chicago, where there was a regular live radio broadcast. There are also references to this Egan doing radio announcing from Chez Paree. As his part in Dick Tracy Returns was a radio announcer, I think it’s reasonable speculation that in the late ’30s that Egan switched horses in midstream when his movie career was faltering. It’s likely he began to work in radio, where he met Rey, who became musical director at station KHJ in Los Angeles in 1939. The time and the place and the logic all work. All that awaits is evidence to support the theory, which of course, could be completely wrong! But frankly some other, more determined, sleuth is welcome to sniff that out.

For more on classic and silent comedy read  Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube,and for more on variety entertainment please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and