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The legacy of funny man Jack Oakie

David Sonne recalls the comic actor, his wife and their charitable foundation

Barry Pascal and David Sonne
Barry Pascal, left, David Sonne and Lisa Kudrow present scholarships given by the Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie Charitable Foundation. (Photo/Carell Augustus)

The USC School of Cinematic Arts has strong ties to Hollywood history in the form of endowments, library collections, partnerships and other avenues.

One of the school’s strongest partnerships is with The Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie Charitable Foundation. Trustees David Sonne and Barry Pascal are known for their innovative scholarship presentations each year. Charles Collier is known for his behind-the-scenes support.

Sonne recently discussed his partnership with the school, the legacy of actors Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie and which of their films students should turn to for inspiration.

Talk about the Jack and Victoria Horne Oakie Charitable Foundation.

Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie did a combination — between the two of them — of approximately 140 films. They were also in television, radio and theater. And Mrs. Oakie took care of Jack’s money. Jack’s philosophy was give the money to the kids. In other words, he wanted people to carry on the tradition of Hollywood, and Mrs. Oakie made sure that there would be money there to do that in the form of cash financial support to institutions like USC to provide scholarship funding for future film and theater students. Mrs. Oakie wanted Jack’s legacy to live on forever, and we’re going to do that.

Because of Victoria’s financial acumen, there’s now a foundation, and we do what Jack wanted. We give the money to the kids.

What’s your role with USC? I think most people know you from your award presentations with Comedy@SCA.

We generally get up on the stage, which kind of has everybody shaking, because they have no idea what we’re going to say or what we’re going to do or to whom we’re going to do it to. This year is going to be big. Consider yourself warned.

If the students, heaven forbid, don’t know who Jack Oakie is, can you explain who he is?

Jack Oakie was probably one of the most typecast actors in history because he always did slapstick comedy, and he was one of the most happy-go-lucky individuals in the world. He was always the funny man. Never the straight man. He was called America’s Joyboy. He just made people smile. He was most famous for his double take, his triple take and double take with a fade, and he was the creator of that art. Jackie Gleason said he learned everything he knew from Oakie.

He started off in Wall Street and unbeknownst to a lot of people, there was some sort of underground explosion that took place outside of the building he was working in, and he was functionally deaf for many years. His hearing started to improve later on in life, but most of his acting was via lip reading and, when dancing or singing, he was able to feel the beat of the music, even though he couldn’t hear itå. And, astoundingly enough, Jack was able to sing in key.

I think the other thing he is known for is holding his own with Charlie Chaplin, in The Great Dictator.

Yes, he was nominated for a best supporting actor Academy Award for his role as Napaloni in The Great Dictator. He didn’t win, but he was awarded an honorary Oscar that was bent over in laughter. The statue was made by the designer of the original Oscar statue.

It’s been said that Jack Oakie and Charlie Chaplin never spoke after that film because Oakie upstaged Chaplin in every scene of that movie.

Mrs. Oakie is probably best known for her role as Myrtle May in Harvey, which is in revival on Broadway now. So if there’s any question about her legacy, all you need to know is that it’s still going right now. She was also a star in TV and film and theater. She was also in The Three Stooges. That’s enough to get in the history books.

If a student was going to watch three Jack Oakie films to get to know the man, which three films should they watch?

I think they should watch The Great Dictator. It ties basically with Oakie’s philosophy and Mrs. Oakie’s philosophy that you don’t have to be vulgar and you don’t have to be rude to make people laugh.

Another great movie is called Million Dollar Legs with W.C. Fields. It was about a country called Klopstokia that was trying to raise funds to get their team to the Olympics. It had romance. It had humor. Some slapstick.

Oh, you know what another great movie is? Can I give you four?

Rise and Shine was about a football player that kept falling asleep. What’s great about this movie, for Trojans, is that it’s really close to home; it was filmed at the Coliseum. Also Tin Pan Alley. What happened was Jack was in the Navy, and he’s getting ready to ship overseas. He’s a songwriter that’s got a melody that he can’t find the words for.

As he’s getting on the ship, Jack misses the gangplank and falls in the water. He’s shivering. He says the name of his friend’s sweetheart “ka ka ka Katie,” and they sing in that stuttered way because he’s freezing and wet.

At the end of the war, when they all came back parading down on Fifth Avenue, they have all of the troops singing “ka ka ka Katie” because, with the stutter, the words mix with the melody. It’s hilarious.

What’s the thing that you’ve learned that aspiring comedians can learn from Jack Oakie and Victoria Horne Oakie?

I would have to give you the title of a book Mrs. Oakie wrote called When the Line Is Straight: Jack Oakie’s Comedy and Motion Pictures. This book is from 1997.

Here’s Jack Oakie’s rule for comedy: “When the situation is funny or when the line is funny, play it straight. When the situation is straight or when the line is straight, then you add the comedy.”

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The legacy of funny man Jack Oakie

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