Today is the birthday of Joe E. Brown — for more on this comedian’s early career see my full bio here.
He’s not to everybody’s tastes. Many people I know and respect don’t care for him. But I happen to love him. He tickles my funny bone. Part of the problem, I think, is that nearly every one of his movies is fairly dull and formulaic. They are basically old Keaton and Lloyd plots dusted off for the 30s, with routine dialogue and fewer gags…which would later be dusted off again later for the likes of Red Skelton and Danny Kaye. Yet, while the scripts aren’t any great fonts of wit for the most part, I find that the screen lights up whenever Brown is present. His instincts remind me a lot of Jim Carrey’s. The man BASKS in attention. As long as the camera is rolling and the lights are pointed his way he is doing SOMETHING with his great comic mask and acrobat’s body. (Yes, I am not above laughing at funny faces.) One of my favorite tricks of his is a sort of yell he does, where he modulates the volume, almost as though he were turning an inner knob. It’s a really strange vocal gag that I’ve never ever heard anyone else do. But Brown is more than than a bunch of visual and aural gimmicks. He’s actually a pretty fair actor, and he does get his occasional moments of pathos in the pictures.
Like everyone else living, I got my first taste of him in some of his later pictures, like Some Like it Hot (1959) and the Show Boat remake (1951), which are not real measures of Joe E. Brown the comedy star. For years I simply read about him in books. Then, fortuitously I got my first sample of Brown in his prime in his Vitaphone short Twinkle, Twinkle (1927), which I believe was shown by Ron Hutchinson of the Vitaphone Project at Film Forum. This is basically a stand-up routine, but I found him screamingly funny in it — too funny. As for the films below, I caught them all on TCM. It seems like a lot (and it is a lot), but it’s hardly Brown’s total output — it’s more like 3/4 of it. When I catch the remainder, I guess I’ll file an addendum:
On With the Show (1929)
There is everything to love in this backstage musical/ murder mystery whose all-star ensemble includes Brown, Betty Compson, Arthur Lake, Sam Hardy, Sally O’Neil, Louize Fazenda, Harry Gribbon, Lee Moran, Ethel Waters, and the Fairbanks Twins. Really what’s not to love? There’s no way I wouldn’t love this (or any) movie that depicts stage life at the time…even if it were terrible I would love it for historical reasons. Anyway, it’s not terrible, it’s quite entertaining. Brown’s not the star, just one of the company members, who constantly bickers with the obnoxious juvenile, played by Arthur Lake. (Brown doesn’t really get to shine until the advent of his starring vehicles a year later). On With the Show was a landmark Technicolor film, but if I recall correctly the version I saw was in black and white.
Sally had been a smash Broadway vehicle for its star Marilyn Miller, produced by Florenz Ziegfeld, a decade earlier. (It ran from 1920 to 1922. ) Its smash hit tune was “Look For the Silver Lining”, forever associated with Miller thereafter. The movie version of Sally was the third all-talking, all-COLOR film. Once again, Brown is not the star, but he is third-billed as an exiled Grand Duke who helps young Sally rise from her status as lowly dishwasher to…a somebody. The cast also includes Pert Kelton, Ford Sterling and Jack Duffy.
Hold Everything (1930)
This is the one movie on this page I haven’t seen, but I know a little about it because it’s somewhat notorious. The film was based on a hit Broadway smash starring Bert Lahr – -and Lahr was understandably upset for the rest of his life that the film role went to Brown (and that his own movie career pretty much went nowhere, Cowardly Lion notwithstanding. Lahr believed if he’d gotten to star in the film version of this vehicle, things might have gone differently). At any rate, Hold Everything, as you can tell from the poster was a boxing comedy. The usual drill — a lummox is mistaken for a star prizefighter and has to make good. Winnie Lightner co-starred, along with Sally O’Neil. As far as is known, the film is lost; only the Vitaphone disks survive today.
Top Speed (1930)
Written by Kalmar and Ruby and directed by Mervyn Leroy, this is one of the better Joe E. Brown vehicles, full of great jokes, songs and musical numbers. One of Kalmar and Ruby’s more conventional vehicles, not as crazy as many of them, but still better than many of B rown’s other films. It co-stars Jack Whiting (best known as the second husband of Mrs. Douglas Fairbanks). The pair play a couple of brokers’ clerks on vacation, who end up at a swanky resort and masquerade as rich playboys. The boys rescue a couple of girls from a car wreck, and romance them. Joe’s girlfriend is played by Laura Lee, a hilarious and cute comedienne, whose career was far too short for my tastes. At any rate, the boys can only stay one day. They get involved in the big speedboat race….(ha! A plot later used by Elvis!) It so happens that Whiting’s character is an expert on speedboats (his grandfather built them, how convenient). Billy Bletcher has a bit part as a chauffeur. Lots of resort business, reminiscent of Cocoanuts or Animal Crackers. (This feeling is enhanced by the presence of character actor Edmund Breese, from the former film). Lot’s of melodrama and farce about throwing the big boat race, not throwing the big boat race, and then winning the big boat race (in front of bad process shots, of course). And best of all — an excellent Pre-Code gratuitous lady undressing scene!
Going Wild (1930)
This one is set at a resort that is struggling for guests. Brown and his traveling companion are kicked off a train for lacking tickets. Brown is mistaken for a famous aviator who’s had a nervous breakdown. He enjoys all the attention and affects a posh accent but hasn’t grappled with the fact that he will have to actually fly in an airplane race. A big boastful speech. A challenge. Preparations, contraptions. He’s supposed to be going up with an expert pilot, who will work the controls for him. But his girl Laura Lee, who desperately wants to fly, replaces the expert at the last minute. Now Brown wins the race but he doesn’t know how to land! SPOILER ALERT: They parachute out and become a couple.
Eleven Men and a Girl (1930)
Joe E. Brown plays the only decent player on his college football team. They lose every game and the coach is about to get fired. Joe essentially prostitutes the coach’s beautiful daughter (Joan Bennett), getting her to flirt with top candidates to recruit from other teams. Each seduction scene is a comic opportunity for Brown. In one he does his drunk routine. In another he wrestles with a bear. Of course they wind up with a great team, every member of which is in love with the same girl. But the night before the big game they figure it out. They all pretend to fight for her until she starts to cry and they call her on it. She tells them the truth and is contrite. They forgive her and go on to win the big game, which is played pretty straight.
Insane! Another really good one, again directed by Mervyn Leroy and written by Kalmar and Ruby, this time in their full-on crazy vein. It opens on a party at a mansion where everyone is dressed like a baby. The party is raided by the cops. Its clear Brown is a wild party hound. The next day his uncle assigns him to take care of his cousin Jack (played by William Collier Jr. ) and keep him out of trouble! Their instructions are to get out of New York and no gambling, carousing or women. They head to California, driving cross country and become embroiled in a feud with Bela Lugosi at a diner. He steals their car and becomes their bitter enemy. Two girls in a car pick them up and bring them the rest of the way. They also run into Thelma Todd, an actress he knew in New York. It turns out with she’s with Lugosi. Then the girl Jack left in NY shows up. So now both guys are juggling two girls. Todd pretends to be the other girl so he can get some letters from the jilted bride. Then they are caught by their girls and Lugosi . They are in hot water awhile but then it gets sorted out and they wind up with the new girls. Hey, what the hell — one’s just as good as another, I guess?
Sit Tight (1931)
Brown teams up with Winnie Lightner again. She runs a gym. Brown works there. Excellent, hilariously gratuitous Pre-Code bathing scenes! The two are always bickering. He professes love. She had been married to a wrestler. Meanwhile a young man comes their way (a young businessman who had been slated to marry a client at the gym) and he is a natural wrestler. Brown becomes his coach. He of course gets stuck elsewhere so Brown has to wrestle on his behalf until the real wrestler can get there. Quite funny.
Local Boy Makes Good (1931)
Brown plays a four-eyed college nerd, a botanist who has a knack for running really fast. He writes bragging letters to the most popular girl in school, never intending to mail them, bragging about his prowess as a fraternity brother and track star. His maid mails a letter so now he must masquerade. He joins the track team, and the coach is impressed with his skill. In time he and another girl (Dorothy Lee) who loves him for himself fall in love. The fancy girl is a psych major, she helps him out (Pre-Code sex analysis). In the end of course, Brown wins the big race (after a drink of alcohol gives him enough confidence).
You Said a Mouthful (1932)
Joe is a lowly shipping clerk who has invented a bathing suit that will not sink in the water. The fact that he has hydrophobia may have something to do with his motivation. He quits his job when he learns he has inherited a fortune from his rich aunt, learning too late that the entire estate (when all the accounting is done) consists of a couple of bucks – and Farina. (A brief, racist moment when he learns the truth about THAT…but it rapidly becomes a buddy picture, with Farina as his combination adopted son, personal assistant and business manager). They go to the docks in search of work and are mistaken by a pre-Astaire Ginger Rogers for a famous swimmer she is supposed to pick up for a long-distance swim on a resort island (just go with it). He needs to beat out a rival in order to win the girl (Rogers) who, of course only goes for swimmers. The rest pans out according to the Joe E. Brown formula.
Fireman, Save My Child (1932)
Prior to his film career, in his down time between vaudeville and circus engagements, 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.
The Tenderfoot (1933)
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
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.
Elmer the Great (1933)
Elmer the Great is part of Brown’s so-called Baseball Trilogy. This one was based on a stage play by George M. Cohan and Ring Lardner, it stars Brown as a terrific but vain baseball player from rural Indiana. His team-mates get revenge by hiding his hometown sweetheart’s letters, causing him to fool around with a beautiful actress and get involved in gambling. As always, he saves the day in the end. One of his best comedies, with a bast that includes Sterling Holloway, Douglas Dumbrille, Frank McHugh, J. Carrol Naish, George Chandler and Gale Gordon.
A Very Honorable Guy (1934)
Brown is miscast in this one, and it has an uncharacteristic plot, with a very urban milieu rather than his usual rural one. It’s much more serious and much less silly that his usual fare. In this one he plays an upstanding guy, but he has a gambling problem and is in debt to gangsters. Alice White is his girlfriend. Irene Franklin is her mother, Toodles. He sells his body to science, with the promise to deliver in 30 days. In the meantime, he wins the lottery. He tries to go back on his deal, but the doctor, who wants his girlfriend for himself, won’t let him go home. Brown and the girl skip to the country but the doctor follows, intending to poison him. The pair manage to escape and retire to the proverbial chicken farm.
The Circus Clown (1934)
Written by Kalmar and Ruby. Brown goes back to his circus roots, playing an acrobat here. He plays two roles: both a young man and his own father. The father was in the circus, but doesn’t want the son to follow in his footsteps. He wants him to stay on the farm. But the son to go in the circus, so the father finally caves in. The boy joins a show, and falls in love with a beautiful woman – who turns out to be a female impersonator! (It’s a practical joke—everyone is on it, encourage him, etc). Meanwhile yet another woman is having an affair behind the back of her knife thrower husband Ajax, and sets him up to deflect attention. Meanwhile, there is a THIRD woman who really loves him and whose little boy Brown really gets along with. Brown’s character is a superman of the circus. He has every conceivable circus skill but management wont give him a chance, they just make him do all the menial chores. Then the manager makes him be the target for Ajax’s knife throwing routine just at the moment when Ajax is ready to kill him. Brown is like a Holy Fool in the film — everybody’s savior. The girl he’s interested in’s brother (a former drunk) rejoins the show as trapeze artist. Brown proves himself on trapeze. Then when guy is taking a nip, he takes the booze from him so people wont suspect him, and gets drunk. He goes and makes a pass at the female impersonator and learns the truth. And then the manager sees him drunk, spoiling his contract. Fired. Goes back to circus, finds brother drunk again, goes on for him in clown make-up and saves the day.
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.
Bright Lights (1935)
A semi-musical with a musical comedy setting. Brown and Ann Dvorak are a burlesque couple, the stars of their own traveling troupe. Brown’s drunk bit is hilarious, culled from classic stage routines. Similar in structure to Chaplin’s A Night in an English Music Hall but with a lot of jokes I recognize from the burlesque canon. The plot is the usual melodrama, the couple nearly splitting when an heiress falls fro Brown. Directed by Busby Berkeley.
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)
Brown is well-cast as Flute (and, thus, Thisby) in Warner Bros.’ all-star adaptation of the Shakespeare classic; James Cagney as Bottom, less so. Directed by the one and only Max Reinhardt.
Alibi Ike (1935)
Based on a short story written by Ring Lardner. Brown as a terrific bush-league pitcher who joins the Chicago Cubs (coached by William Frawley). His nickname comes from his crazy excuses for foibles like lateness and irresponsibility. A very young Olivia de Havilland, in one of her first roles, plays his exceedingly fetching love interest. The main theme is that he insists he has no time for women but he totally falls for de Havilland – -and the other guys in the club keep razzing him and trying to catch him out. Then some crooks purporting to be the “Young Men’s High Ideals Club” want him to throw the game. The couple are about to get married but then she hears him boasting to the guys that he doesn’t really want to, he’s just doing it because he feels sorry for her. She leaves town in a huff. Unhappy about it, Ike loses a game. The team management is suspicious that he threw it. Being Alibi Ike, he claims that he was alright, so that makes them even more suspicious. Then the crooks hand him money—they think they threw it too. He is fired from the team. Then they relent but now he’s mad and won’t come back. He wants to get his girl back. But he has to play again so people won’t think he’s crooked. Meanwhile the criminals think he’s going to throw another game. Learning that he really doesn’t mean to, they kidnap him. He escapes, and goes to his usual crazy lengths to make it to the field and win the big game. A funny one, and a big hit with audiences in 1935.
Polo Joe (1936)
Brown’s character returns from ten years abroad in China and visit his rich aunt. He is allergic to horses, sneezes whenever they’re near. There are several bits where he speaks and sings in “Chinese”, much as Lloyd does in The Cat’s Paw, released two years earlier. He is forced to play polo when the crowd of the girl he loves gets wind of his father’s polo playing reputation. It’s pretty typical and predictable, with all the usual gags about riding, getting kicked by hooves, etc. Decline is in evidence. We are heading toward the Boring Years here for sure.
Earthworm Tractors (1936)
Comedy with a caterpillar. 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.
Riding on Air (1937)
Elmer (Brown) is a local reporter in Wisconsin (and Chicago correspondent) who wins money in a radio contest. Guy Kibbee is a flim-flam man who swindles him out of his prize money (he thinks), forming a company to produce remote control operated airplanes (Elmer is also an inventor). He has a local rival from a rival paper. They compete to solve a murder and win girl. He also got photos of the swindler to his Chicago paper. He is recognized and arrested. Now whole town is up in arms. They are also after Brown. Then a bunch of business with airplanes and radium? Gangsters shoot machine guns at him. The usual happy/sappy ending. Directed by Eddie Sedgwick.
When’s Your Birthday (1937)
This one is funny! Brown’s character is studying astrology. He boxes (and loses) at first to raise money for an astrology school. He wants to marry a girl (whose parents are Edgar Kennedy and Maude Eburne and maid is Margaret Hamilton). Having lost his job at a bank, he becomes a waiter at a nightclub. Gangsters learn he knows astrology and want him to pick winning racehorses. To escape them he goes in drag as a French girl. He gets a job as a carnival fortune teller and gets a new girlfriend. Then he is arrested for telling fortunes without a licence. A judge (whom he’d met earlier) frees him and sets him up in a good thing, working high society. He is working at a party and runs into his former fiancé and her parents, who now accept him because he is socially prominent. Now he is depressed because his new girlfriend dumped him. Meanwhile guy is in financial trouble and wants him to box against a guy because the stars are right and he’s sure to make money by betting on him. Climax is the obligatory funny boxing match.
Flirting with Fate (1937)
A “western” comedy set in contemporary times. Mildly funny, very typical, by-the-numbers comedy. Brown is the leader of a troupe of showfolk travelling through South America (he transports them in back of his car with an automobile trailer). Leo Carillo is the leader of a bunch of horse back bandittos! The slight plot has the troupe starving, then learning that they’ve gotten a job in New York. (all but Brown, whose act has gotten “stale”). The troupe cant afford to get there, anyway. So Brown tries to commit suicide for the insurance money to get his pals to NY.
Fit For a King (1937)
Typical Brown fodder. He’s a go-get-em wanna-be reporter who lucks into a plum assignment covering an Archduke and the surrounding intrigues (assassination attempts). A funny scene with him in brig on ship during storm…very Keatonesque, with the tossing and turning. Other business with him in disguise in drag as a housemaid. He falls in love with girl who becomes queen (without knowing who she is). Reminds me a bit of Douglas Fairbanks’ plots.
The Gladiator (1938)
Joe E. Brown steals Harold Lloyd’s act, perhaps even more than usual here. This is essentially The Freshman, mixed with the upcoming The Sin of Harold Diddlebock. Brown starts out cheering up kids in a hospital with his funny voices. Then he wins a large cash prize in a radio contest and uses it to return to the college he left 12 years ago. A pretty girl encourages him to follow in his father’s and grandfather’s footsteps by going out for the football team. Lots of the usual “getting creamed in football” gags. It’s kind of marred by the college kids laughing at him no matter what he does. There’s a funny gag of him having a bunch of a scientists’ ants in his back pocket. Then a scientist makes a potion that increases strength to superhuman proportions. Hilarious visual gags as Brown flies and leaps over other players. To make dough he then becomes a wrestler. Then…the potion wears off. Directed by Eddie Sedgwick.
Wide Open Faces (1938)
Brown costars with Jane Wyman, Alison Skipworth, and Lyda Roberti. A crook tricks soda jerk Brown into taking him to an abandoned inn, where he hides $100,000 in stolen loot. The cops catch the crook first. Brown has to protect the girl who has inherited the hotel and her grandmother when other crooks descend on the inn to find the loot. It’s pretty boring. Not nearly as good as his early comedies, although he does have a really funny dance routine
$1,000 a Touchdown (1939)
Brown and Martha Raye play a couple who inherit a failing college. In order to make a go of it, they offer $1,000 to any of their football players who can score a touchdown. Doesn’t sound very cost effective! The cast also includes the great Eric Blore and the fetching Susan Hayward.
As I said, there are many films in the Brownian canon I still haven’t seen. The baseball comedies Elmer the Great (1933) and Alibi Ike (1935) are my priorities. Brown continued to make films at this frantic pace (several films a year) through 1944, when he took time off to work in the U.S.O. After that, his appearances in films were sporadic, mostly in supporting roles like Cap’n Andy in Show Boat (1951), a Stationmaster in Around the World in 80 Days (1956), Osgood Fielding III in Some Like it Hot (1959), a Union Official in It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963), and the Cemetery Keeper in the AIP classic The Comedy of Terrors (1963).
Ironically — Brown’s casting in Some Like it Hot, had to do with a bit of a wink to the early studio days (being set in the jazz and all), strongly suggested by the audience’s association of Brown with his time as a comedy star. By my day, people ONLY knew him from Some Like it Hot, and when I do my annual post about him, about a hundred people respond “Nobody’s perfect!” — which is like the sound of fingernails on chalkboard. The guy made like 50 movies. He said more than one line in one film with that big mouth of his.
For more on comedy film hsitory 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