“Well, nobody’s perfect.” Chances are–if the vast majority of today’s movie fans are familiar at all with comic actor Joe E. Brown–it’s from these three words said by his character, millionaire Osgood Fielding III, after “Daphne” (Jack Lemmon) confesses that she’s really a man in the closing moments of Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot (1959). It’s one of the all-time great movie punchlines, but most modern-day viewers aren’t aware that it came near the end of a 35-plus-year screen career, one that in its 1930s heyday made Brown the top funnyman at Warner Bros. and one of Hollywood’s highest-paid stars. The rubber-faced Brown, known for his wide mouth and boisterous trademark yell, also had success in vaudeville, on Broadway, and on radio and TV, but upon hearing his name even old-timers like myself can easily confuse him with the Car 54, Where Are You? co-star who went “Ooh! Ooh!” (that was Joe E. Ross) or the singer/actor played by Frank Sinatra in the 1957 biodrama The Joker Is Wild (that was Joe E. Lewis).
Not to take anything away from the talents of Messrs. Ross and Lewis, but Joe E. Brown, to be sure, deserves to be drawn out of this obscurity. And since five of his most popular ’30s Warners features came out on DVD this month, I thought this was an ideal opportunity to introduce the films–and Joe himself–by presenting them along with interesting facts about this multi-faceted entertainer’s life and career. Ready?
Broadminded (1931) – This slapstick comedy stars Joe E. Brown as Ossie, a man who is hired to keep his playboy cousin Jack (William Collier, Jr.) out of trouble–and away from the ladies–on a cross-country road trip. With Ossie at the wheel, however, the duo winds up in a series of wild scrapes and encounters with the fair sex. With Ona Munson, Thelma Todd, Marjorie White, and Bela Lugosi as a hot-tempered South American named Pancho.
Born in a small northwest Ohio town in July of 1892, Joseph Evans Brown was fond of saying that he was the only kid who had his parents’ blessing to run away with the circus. And, as a 10-year-old, he did indeed leave the Buckeye State behind and join a traveling acrobatic troupe, The Five Marvelous Ashtons, at a princely $1.50 a week. The young performer toured the country with the act–including a harrowing San Francisco visit during the devastating 1906 earthquake–and returned later that year to Ohio, when he began playing semi-pro baseball around Toldeo.
Local Boy Makes Good (1931) – A bashful college botany student (Joe E. Brown) tries to work through his crush on the campus eauty queen (Dorothy Lee) by writing unsent love letters bragging of his non-existent frat exploits and track and field stardom. What’s Brown going to do, though, when his pals mail one as a prank, and she shows up to watch him win the next meet? Start running, we guess! Fleet-footed frolic co-stars Ruth Hall, Edward Woods, Edward Nugent.
How good a baseball player was Brown? Well, he was offered a pro contract in the early 1920s by no less than the New York Yankees, but turned the Bronx Bombers down to concentrate on his nascent Broadway career. After debuting in the 1920 show Jim Jam Jems, he later starred in the hit 1925-26 revival of the musical Captain Jinks. In 1948 he would receive a special Tony Award for his work as rumpot and giant rabbit’s best friend Elwood P. Dodd in the touring company of Harvey. While he said no to the Yankees, baseball remained one of Joe’s passions throughout his life.He starred in a trio of successful diamond-themed films: Fireman, Save My Child (1932), in which he played a St. Louis Cardinals pitcher, and Elmer the Great (see below) and Alibi Ike (1935), where he wore a Chicago Cubs uniform. Off-camera, Joe was a one-time part-owner of the minor-league Kansas City Blues and helped announce Yankees games in the early 1950s, while his son John L. Brown spent more than 20 years as the general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates.
You Said a Mouthful (1932) – Shipping clerk and wannabe inventor Joe Holt (Joe E. Brown) packs off to Catalina Island, hoping to market his unsinkable swimwear. He’d demonstrate it himself, except he can’t swim a stroke! When a case of mistaken identity gets him signed up for a marathon race to the mainland, are Joe’s dreams–and he, for that matter–sunk? Surfside silliness with Ginger Rogers, Preston Foster, Allen “Farina” Hoskins, and Guinn “Big Boy” Williams.
He may have gained fame with his vocal prowess, but Joe made his film debut in the silent era, with a 1927 short called Twinkle, Twinkle. He would co-star in the first all-talking Technicolor musical/comedy, Warner Bros.’ On with the Show! (1929), which helped catapult him to the 1930s Hollywood A-list. Along with his regular Warners work, he was also given the chance to perform Shakespeare when he was cast alongside James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Dick Powell and a teenage Mickey Rooney in the studio’s lavish 1935 adaptation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. As Francis Flute, a bellows-mender and part of a hapless theatrical troupe, Brown easily handles the Bard’s dialogue…although he did supply what’s said to be the film’s sole non-Shakespearean line, shouting “I won’t play anymore!” after his flute playing gets him tossed in a pond.
Elmer the Great (1933) – The best-loved of Joe E. Brown’s baseball vehicles casts the comic as the cocky country-boy phenom plucked from the sticks by the Chicago Cubs in order to land them a pennant, but who might have to hit the showers once big-city fixers get their claws into him. Rousing take on the George M. Cohan-Ring Lardner stage hit (said to be based in part on real-life Hall of Famer Ed Walsh) also stars Patricia Ellis, Frank McHugh, Preston Foster, and Sterling Halloway.
Shortly before the outbreak of World War II in 1939, Brown went to Washington and testified before the House Immigration Committee, urging passage of a bill to permit up to 20,000 refugee Jewish children from Germany to come to the U.S. The actor and his wife Kathryn would later adopt two refugee youngsters themselves. Once America entered the war, Brown toured extensively–and often at his own expense–to entertain servicemen across America and overseas, including combat areas in the Pacific, and brought sacks stuffed with letters back home to be delivered. In fact, Joe was one of only two civilians to be awarded the Bronze Star for his efforts. Such dedication, however, was accompanied by tragedy; In 1942 Brown’s oldest son Don, an Army captain, was killed in a military plane crash in southern California.
A Very Honorable Guy (1934) – Far more honest than he was successful, Broadway gambler “Feet” Samuels (Joe E. Brown) resolves to make good on his debts by selling his body to a shady surgeon (Robert Barrat) and then knocking himself off in a month. That’s all good, until the coming weeks find him on an incredible winning streak…and the very mad doctor comes to collect! Farce taken from a Damon Runyon tale co-stars Alice White and Alan Dinehart.
The Hanna-Barbera cartoon studio was well known for basing its characters’ voices on popular film and TV entertainers (Art Carney for Yogi Bear, Ed Wynn for Wally Gator, and so on). Well, Joe E. Brown, with his distinctive yell, was no exception. In fact, voice actor Daws Butler borrowed from Brown’s delivery for no less than two animated stars, Lippy the Lion and Peter Potamus. By this time, Brown’s screen career was winding down. Along with co-starring as Cap’n Andy in MGM’s 1951 remake of the musical Show Boat and his memorable supporting turn in Some Like It Hot, Joe made cameo appearances in Around the World in 80 Days (1956) and It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963), finishing up with the role of a cemetery worker in Roger Corman’s 1963 horror spoof The Comedy of Terrors. Retiring from performing after suffering a heart attack in 1968, his “big mouth” was finally silenced when he passed away from arteriosclerosis at his Los Angeles home in the summer of 1973, just a few weeks shy of his 82nd birthday.