Joe Morrison: A Brief “Round Up”

Thanks to the 2016 book Unsung Hollywood Musicals of the Golden Era: 50 Overlooked Films and Their Stars 1929-1939 by Edwin M. Bradley, and the intrepid gang at Nitrateville, I have managed to learn a little more about Joe Morrison (1904-1972) who starred in a handful of classic comedies in the ’30s.

Grand Rapids native Morrison studied for the priesthood at a seminary after high school. By 1927 he had embarked on a different path, performing in vaudeville with an act called Eddie Vine and Brother — Morrison was the Brother. Despite his anonymity in this act it was Morrison who would have success in a solo career, with Vine as his manager. He went on to sing on radio and to front the George Olsen Orchestra. A 1933 recording of “The Last Round Up” became a hit and briefly put Morrison on the map, landing him a contract at Paramount. (This legendary single can be heard on Youtube; basically it’s what Morrison dined out on for the rest of his life)

Morrison’s time at Paramount can be summed up in a single Paragraph. He is in W.C. Fields’ The Old Fashioned Way (1934); One Hour Late (1934) with Helen Twelvetrees; a short called La Fiesta de Santa Barbara (1935) where he sings his signature song “The Last Round Up”; Home on the Range (1935) with Randolph Scott and Jackie Coogan, where he sings the title song; Four Hours to Kill (1935) with Richard Barthelemess; Love in Bloom (1935) with Burns & Allen and Dixie Lee; and It’s a Great Life (1935), in which Morrison actually gets star billing.

But Paramount dropped him at this stage. It’s no mystery why if you’ve seen any of these movies. The pictures with Fields and Burns & Allen especially make me think Morrison might have been a good post-Zeppo Zeppo stand-in for the Marx Brothers. If anything he is more wooden and lacklustre than many of the gents who stepped into that thankless role — it might have worked!

In 1936, Morrison actually filed for bankruptcy. He’d clearly adopted a Hollywood lifestyle that could no longer be supported by his non-existent Hollywood career. He did get spots in a couple more films though: the all-star Hollywood Party (1937); and the short Picketing for Love (1938). After this he continued to work in radio, on variety bills in presentation houses, and in night clubs.

For more on vaudeville, where Joe Morrison got his starts, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, and for more on classic film comedy, please read Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube.