In observation of April Fool’s Day, tomorrow morning and afternoon Turner Classic Movies will show several comedies starring the hilarious Joe E. Brown and the much less-hilarious team of Abbott and Costello. Time to lower your brows — and then lower them some more!
6:00am (EST) The Tenderfoot (1933)
Joe E. Brown plays a no-nonsense but nonetheless funny cowpoke who comes to New York with $20,000 in his satchel to invest in business. At first he seems like the kind of guy who can’t be taken, but then he falls for a spiel by some Broadway producers and gives them all his cash. Ginger Rogers is a Capraesque heroine who goes along with the scam against her conscience but then join forces with Brown. Eventually his crazy choices turn the show around and make it a hit. Furthermore he rescues the girl from a bunch of gangsters, chasing their car on horseback, firing his six guns all the way. In the end he brings her back to his texas hometown and marries her. The final shot, of three baby Joe E. Browns, is priceless
7:15am (EST) Son of a Sailor (1933)
Here, Brown (as he often did) plays a young man living in the shadow of a more distinguished father, in this case, a swab-o. The climax (later exhumed by Laurel and Hardy for Great Guns) has the lad accidentally being used for target practice. In the end, he foils a spy ring! The comedy also features Thelma Todd.
8:30am (EST) Fireman, Save My Child (1932)
Prior to his film career, in his down time between vaudeville and circus engagements, Joe E. Brown had played professional baseball, a skill he puts to use in several of his comedies. Here, he’s a small town fireman who absolutely loves his job. He has invented a new “fire extinguishing bomb” (containing a chemical that smothers fires) and needs dough to manufacture it — and not incidentally to marry his fiancé. He takes a job as a baseball player just so he can better spot fires (the ball field is on top of hill) and becomes quite successful at the sport at the professional level. Meanwhile a femme fatal is working on him so she can take his money. Obviously this makes the girl he really loves unhappy. The funniest scene in the picture occurs when he is showing his fire extinguishing bombs at a company but has brought the wrong bag and sets the office on fire, nearly burning the place down. (The scene seems very much modeled on W.C. Fields’ in So’s Your Old Man and You’re Telling Me!). Anyway, of course he puts everything right in the end. And wins the (right) girl.
9:45am (EST) Earthworm Tractors
Comedy with a caterpillar. Jeo e. Brown is impeccably cast here as a natural born salesman, unstoppably cheerful, tenacious and unfazed. At first he’s a peddler of gadgets. When he can’t marry his girlfriend because his estate is so lowly he sets his sights higher and decides, almost randomly, to sell earthworm tractors, i.e., bulldozers. He ends up making good. Along the way he falls in love with the daughter of his toughest customer (which is OK because his original girlfriend has married his rival). Much destructive slapstick with bulldozers. As an added bonus, Brown has one killer stunt that reminds us of his acrobat days, where takes a flying backflip off a tree swing and lands in the water.
11:00am (EST): 6 Day Bike Rider (1934)
A bespectacled Brown in another of his small town hick roles: he sings bass in the church choir and is the station agent at the local depot. The lad is engaged to a girl and becomes jealous when a big shot bike racer comes to town and stays at her boarding house and performs bike tricks at the local vaudeville house. Trying to best the rider, Brown heckles him during the vaudeville show and gets onstage and rides blindfolded. The rider takes the opportunity to walk off with his girl. Brown gets the whole town to form a posse and chase them, but it turns out the guy just brought her home, so Brown looks bad in front of the whole town. His girl throws him over for the other guy. He blows town and coincidentally joins a team which will be racing in a big 6 day bike race (a fad of the time, similar to marathon dancing). Brown winds up in jail for calling the police on the rider yet again (he thinks the girl is in his hotel room for immoral purposes). His time in the jug is preventing him from getting to the big race in time. The girl relents (the other guy is a cad), and springs him from jail. Brown must first ride to the race on a bike to get there on time, a scene full of crazy stunts. He of course arrives just under the wire and wins the race and the girl. Over use of stock footage and process shots prevent this comedy from being as effective as it ought to be.
12:15pm (EST): Rio Rita (1942)
Abbott and Costello’s remake of the much more charming Wheeler and Woolsey original. The tropical tale is updated to incorporate Nazis but that doesn’t begin to relieve the tedium.
2:00pm (EST): Lost in a Harem (1944)
This is Abbott and Costello’s answer to The Road to Morocco, and…well, wouldn’t you much rather be watching that? Still there are some bonuses, including a riff on the old “Slowly I Turned” burlesque routine, and the lovely Marilyn Maxwell singing along with the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra.
3:45pm: Bud Abbott and Lou Costello in Hollywood (1945)
Abbott and Costello take a convoluted course from being a barber and a porter to being big time Hollywood agents. It takes what feels like a thousand years for them to get there. As a bonus, their old burlesque buddy Rags Ragsland shows up as himself.
5:15pm: (EST) Abbott and Costello Meet Captain Kidd (1952)
A full color musical and co-starring Charles Laughton, who’d played Kidd before (although here he plays him more like his more famous screen character Captain Bly, a sort of terrifying monster). The pair work at an inn in jolly old England although they are plainly American. They find a treasure map for skull island and scheme to go there but they don’t need to, as they are shanghaied by Cap’n Kidd anyway. Laughton is vastly funnier than either Abbott and Costello are, effortlessly demonstrating what real talent and craft look like while they shiver in his shadow. There are a couple of boring nameless lovers who are supposed to be the main plot; waiting through their songs is interminable torture. Lots of battle scenes. Between the songs and the battles there’s about 5 minutes’ worth of comedy – exceedingly poor comedy
6:30pm (EST) Jack in the Beanstalk (1952)
Abbott and Costello’s first color film was a children’s fairy tale. There is no harm in showing it to your children (I certainly showed it to mine), but try not to accidentally watch any of it yourself. Despite the “it was all a dream” conceit, the film is no Wizard of Oz. In almost every conceivable way it is much more like the later Snow White and the Three Stooges (1961). Trivia: the Giant is played by Buddy Baer, brother of boxer Max Baer (and thus uncle of Jethro on The Beverly Hillbillies).
To learn more about early comedy film history please check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
To learn about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.