FILM: JOE E. BROWN

Born: July 28 1892
Died: July 6 1973

by PETER T. TATCHELL (copyright 2010)

In the early 1930s cavern-mouthed Joe E. Brown was one of Hollywood’s top comedians. The public flocked to see his homespun characters triumph over adversity using physical heroics with a large dose of slapstick.

When he was ten years old, Evan (as he was known to his family of four brothers and two sisters) joined a circus as part of an acrobatic act called The Five Marvelous Ashtons. By 1905 the troupe was appearing at a vaudeville date in San Francisco when the city was struck by the devastating earthquake.

Escaping the rubble, the youngster made his way across the country and eventually formed a double act appearing at a Coney Island music hall. His partner suggested Joe include comedy in the routines. It was an idea that would create one of the best loved clowns in show business history.

By 1920, Brown was starring as a single in a Broadway revue and his humour relied heavily on eccentric dancing and acrobatics (which on occasion included falling onto a trampoline in the orchestra pit and bouncing back on stage). Success followed success and Joe was now firmly planted in the big time.

Twinkle, Twinkle, a Broadway musical satirizing the movies, led him to appear in a one-reel (Warners) Vitaphone talkie version in 1927. A year later he made a follow-up short called Don’t Be Jealous and was then signed for a series of silent features by F.B.O (a forerunner of R.K.O.).

By 1929 he was back with Warner Bros. who launched him on the road to screen popularity in adaptations of the Broadway musicals Sally, Song of the West and Hold Everything. Critics and audiences alike warmed to his style and films like Maybe It’s Love, Going Wild and You Said a Mouthful did good business at the box office.

In 1932, Joe was able to highlight his love for baseball in Fireman Save My Child and the following year he played a rookie pitcher in Elmer the Great, which turned out to be his favourite role of all.

Warners kept Brown busy in front of the cameras and despite successes like Alibi Ike and Bright Lights there were a few duds along the way. Studio head Jack L. Warner apparently wasn’t pleased when his star took an extended holiday and told the press he wanted to be out of the country when his latest venture A Very Honorable Guy was due for release.

After the 1936 movie Polo Joe Brown and Warners parted ways but Joe was quickly signed for what turned out to be lesser efforts with R.K.O., Columbia, M.G.M., Paramount and (by the 1940s) the down market Republic.

In 1938 he turned his talents to the airwaves and The Joe E. Brown Show became a Saturday night fixture on CBS for twelve months. He also appeared on stage in productions of Elmer the Great, Rio Rita and The Show Off in between movie commitments.

In early 1942 (with America now embroiled in World War 2) Joe became one of the first performers to entertain troops in Alaska, across the Pacific and eventually to the Mediterranean and many other parts of the globe. The conflict hit him personally when his eldest son was killed during a training flight with the U.S. Army Air Corps. Joe later recounted the story of his experiences in a book called Your Kids and Mine in 1944.

Following the war Brown spent several years starring in the stage production of Harvey, initially touring in the road company version before taking over the long-running Broadway version for its final twenty weeks. Critics were surprised at his more subdued performance which avoided his usual clowning. Joe later spent a large part of 1950 taking the play to Australia and augmented his income by appearing on radio in a twice-weekly show.

Now approaching his 60s, Brown found himself back in front of the movie cameras as Captain Andy in M.G.M.’s new version of the legendary musical Show Boat and in a cameo for Mike Todd’s Around the World in 80 Days. And at the end of the decade Joe all but stole the show from Marilyn Monroe, Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in Billy Wilder’s Some Like it Hot uttering arguably the most famous last line in movie history.

Along the way he also appeared in a regular dramatic role in the NBC television series The Buick Circus Hour for the 1952/3 season and in 1956 wrote his autobiography Laughter is a Wonderful Thing.

Into the 1960s Joe E. Brown made a couple more appearances on the big screen and guest starred on the television series The Greatest Show on Earth in April 1964. Soon after, his health began to deteriorate and the clown with the gaping grin died in 1973.

 

Films 

Twinkle, Twinkle (aka In the Movies) (1927 short)
Don’t Be Jealous (1928 short)
Crooks Can’t Win (1928)
The Circus Kid (1928)
Hit Of The Show (1928)
Take Me Home (1928)
On With The Show (1929)
Painted Faces (1929)
The Dancing Instructor (1929 short)
Molly And Me (1929)
My Lady’s Past (1929)
Sally (1929)
Song Of The West (1930)
Hold Everything (1930)
Top Speed (1930)
Lottery Bride (1930)
Maybe It’s Love (1930)
Going Wild (1931)
Sit Tight (1931)
Broad Minded (1931)
How I Play Golf #1: The Putter (1931 short)
How I Play Golf #7: Trouble Shots (1931 short)
Local Boy Makes Good (1931)
Fireman Save My Child (1932)
You Said A Mouthful (1932)
The Tenderfoot (1932)
The Stolen Jools (1932 short)
Elmer The Great (1933)
Son Of A Sailor (1933)
The Circus Clown (1934)
A Very Honourable Guy  (1934)
Six Day Bike Rider (1934)
Alibi Ike (1935)
Bright Lights (1935)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)
Sons O’ Guns (1936)
Earthworm Tractors (1936)
Polo Joe (1936)
When’s Your Birthday? (1937)
Riding On Air (1937)
Fit For A King (1937)
Wide Open Faces (1938)
The Gladiator (1938)
Flirting With Fate (1938)
A Thousand Dollars A Touchdown (1939)
Rodeo Dough (1940 short)
Beware Spooks (1940)
So You Won’t Talk (1940)
Polo with the Stars (1941 short)
Shut My Big Mouth (1942)
Joan Of Ozark (1942)
The Daring Young Man (1942)
Chatterbox (1943)
Pin-Up Girl (1944)
Hollywood Canteen (1944)
Casanova In Burlesque (1944)
The Tender Years (1947)
Showboat (1951)
Memories Of Famous Hollywood Comedians  (voice only, 1952 short)
Hollywood Fathers (1954 short)
Around The World In 80 Days (1956)
Some Like It Hot (1959)
It’s A Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963)
Comedy Of Terrors (1963)

 

Radio

THE JOE E. BROWN SHOW
CBS Saturdays October 8 1938 to April 1 1939, Thursdays April 6 to September 28 1939
Nov 5 1938, Feb 18, Mar 25 and Sep 21 1939 are with collectors

THE JOE E. BROWN SHOW
(Australian) Macquarie Network Mondays and Wednesdays May 8 to October 25 1950 (50 x 15 min)
shows #23 and #24 are with collectors

 

Television

THE BUICK CIRCUS HOUR
NBC Tuesdays every fourth week from October 7 1952 to June 16 1953 (10 x 60 min)

 

Recordings

How To Play Baseball
R.C.A. 2 x 78rpm

Mousie
Famous Record Company 78rpm No. 5

Stage Door Canteen / Hollywood Canteen
Curtain Calls 2LP

 

Books 

YOUR KIDS AND MINE
by Joe E. Brown (1944)

LAUGHTER IS A WONDERFUL THING
by Joe E. Brown, as told to Ralph Hancock (Barnes, New York. 1956)

 

DVDs

Painted Faces

Earthworm Tractors

Earthworm Tractors + The Gladiator

Polo Joe

Riding on Air + When’s Your Birthday?

Fit for a King

So You Won’t Talk

Joan of Ozark

Hollywood Canteen

Show Boat

Around the World in 80 Days

Some Like it Hot

It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World

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