Today appears to be a day for profiling lesser-light younger brothers. Just now we did something on Harry Gribbon’s brother Eddie. Now we look at Jack Donahue’s younger brother Joe (1899-1943). Jack was something of a show business legend, although outside of the small community of show biz buffs he too has been forgotten. And Joe was in his shadow at best — often billed as “Jack Doanhue’s Kid Brother” even late in his career. Like Jack, Joe was born and raised in Boston. He first went onstage around age 12, often dancing with his brother, who mentored him. He understudied for Jack on several Broadway shows, and got to sub for him on Sunny (1928) with Marilyn Miller. He also appeared onstage in his own right in the shows Lady Butterfly (1923), and Americana (1928).
When Jack died suddenly in 1930, Joe briefly came into his own. He got to play Jack’s part in the film version of Sunny. This was followed by the films Party Husband (1931), The Reckless Hour (1931), Expensive Women (1931), and he is in one Andy Clyde short The Boudoir Butler (1932). After this he returned to live performance in nightclubs and what remained of vaudeville. He was only 44 when he died in 1943. Like brother Jack, he died young.
For much more about Joe Donahue, including a wonderfully detailed look at his film work, check out this article on Immortal Ephemera. (Although I must admonish the writer on the use of a preposition: the proper expression is “in vaudeville”, never “on vaudeville”! I see that one with increasing frequency, to my dismay.)
To learn more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous