Joe E. Brown, Comic Hero of Small-Town America

12 Feb

Joe E. Brown was a major comedy star at Warner Bros. from 1930 to 1936, making 20 starring features for them during that period, until he left the studio for an ill-fated contract with an independent producer that led to a series of lackluster vehicles that brought his starring career virtually to an end. He wound up in B-movies, with an occasional character part in A-movies, turning up years later on television and in memorable bits in such films as AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS, SOME LIKE IT HOT, and IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD.

I first saw Brown in IT’S A MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD WORLD, although I knew who he was well before that, probably from caricatures in old Warner Bros. cartoons or simply pictures of him in film books and newspaper TV listings, although I don’t remember his movies playing on TV in New York when I was a kid.

In MAD WORLD, he’s seen in a cameo (above) as a builder announcing the start of demolition of a building that’s soon overrun by all the main characters chasing the case of money. He does the wide-mouthed yell that was a trademark of his since his vaudeville days, but they don’t give him the closeup he should have had.

The only movie of his I remember seeing on TV when I was young was A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (1935), Max Reinhardt’s ambitious Shakespeare adaptation, in which Brown plays Flute, the Bellows-Mender, in the theatrical troupe run by James Cagney’s Bottom.

Years later, at one of William K. Everson’s New School screenings, I finally saw one of Brown’s Warner Bros. comedies, YOU SAID A MOUTHFUL (1932), which memorably teamed him up with Ginger Rogers, in her pre-Fred Astaire era, and Allen “Farina” Hoskins, following his “Our Gang”/“Little Rascals” period. Eventually, when cable finally came to the Bronx and Ted Turner’s TNT channel began showing old Warner Bros. movies, we finally got to see Joe E. Brown in all his glory and, since then, on TCM. I have gone through a couple of Joe E. Brown marathons in the last few months, seeing a total of ten films, most for the first time, thus prompting this piece. (I did an earlier marathon, nearly ten years ago, seeing all three of his baseball films on one sick day.)

Joe E. Brown, Allen “Farina” Hoskins” in YOU SAID A MOUTHFUL

How does one describe Joe E. Brown? His films were never terribly funny, but they were filled with physical comedy, much of it quite impressive. Brown was a natural athlete and did many (but not all) of his own stunts. Sports were often featured in his films, including his renowned baseball trilogy from 1932-35: FIREMAN, SAVE MY CHILD (1932), ELMER THE GREAT (1933) and ALIBI IKE (1935), the latter two based on works written or co-written by Ring Lardner, which are arguably Brown’s finest works. Brown had been a baseball player in his youth and did all his own playing and running in the films.

Olivia de Havilland, Joe E. Brown in ALIBI IKE

He wrestles in SIT TIGHT (1930), plays football in ELEVEN MEN AND A GIRL (1930), races a motorboat in TOP SPEED (1930), runs track in LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD (1931), swims in YOU SAID A MOUTHFUL (1932), races a bike in SIX-DAY BIKE RIDER (1934), and plays polo in POLO JOE (1936). Among his other activities, he flies a plane in GOING WILD (1930), gambles in A VERY HONORABLE GUY (1934), performs in a circus in THE CIRCUS CLOWN (1934), sings and dances in a vaudeville act in BRIGHT LIGHTS (1935), and sells tractors in EARTHWORM TRACTORS (1936). One of the good things about these films is that they’re all pretty short, usually just over an hour long. Some of the films were pre-code and include some pretty risqué dialogue and elements.

June Travis, Joe E. Brown in EARTHWORM TRACTORS

Brown seemed to specialize in the role of an overconfident, go-getting small-town guy who’s eager to excel in a given field if it will impress the girl of his immediate affections. In EARTHWORM TRACTORS, for instance, he knows nothing about tractors but manages to get a job selling them, all to impress his hometown girl. He pretends to be a famous aviator in GOING WILD, but then has to fly a plane in a race to prove himself. He pretends to be a famous swimming champ in YOU SAID A MOUTHFUL and then has to win a swimming race from Catalina to the San Diego coast or face ruin. In POLO JOE, he pretends to be the polo champ of the Far East after returning from a ten-year job in China, all to impress the rich polo-loving girl next door, despite the fact that he’s allergic to horses.

Some of these plots can get awfully tiresome after a while. But at the same time, one gets a sense of a culture and way of life that dominated this country before urbanization took over. Most of these films involve small-town characters and settings. These films are part of a sub-group of American popular cinema that represents a link Hollywood had with 19th and early 20th century Americana. EARTHWORM TRACTORS was based on a book by William Hazlett Upson, who had created the character of “natural born salesman” Alexander Botts in a series of short stories published in the Saturday Evening Post and based on the author’s own experiences as a salesman. I found an account of the author’s beginnings as a tractor salesman on a website devoted to pulp authors and one can clearly see how his experiences are reflected in the film, but with typical Brown exaggeration. Here’s a quote from it:

In 1924 he left his job with the Caterpillar Tractor Company in Peoria, Illinois, and began his career as a full time author. He created his famous character, Alexander Botts, in 1927. Alexander Botts was a tractor repairman who became a salesman (like the author), and relied on his wits, determination, luck to get him out of the messes (usually self-made) he got himself and his company into. His stories were told through the letters and telegrams exchanged between his office and himself.

There are quotes in the piece from his own writing offering greater detail of his early days as a tractor salesman with little knowledge of tractors. Here’s a link to the website:

In the film, Brown’s ineptitude with tractors causes thousands of dollars of property damage in some great stunt pieces involving real tractors as well as several beautifully executed miniature sequences. In the end, despite all that, he manages to make the sales, win a promotion, and get the girl (the boss’s daughter!).

Here are my notes on some of the Brown films I watched in the recent marathons.

TOP SPEED (1930, 71 min.) Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Joe E. Brown, Bernice Claire, Jack Whiting, Laura Lee, Frank McHugh, Edwin Maxwell. This has four musical numbers, two with one set of leads (Whiting and Claire) and two with the other set of leads (Brown and Lee). Brown only sings in one, but he dances in both—quite well. Lee is phenomenal. Why wasn’t she a major star? Apparently, per IMDB, Ginger Rogers played Lee’s part in the Broadway show. Lee is more of a comedienne who can sing and dance, with traces of Fannie Brice. All the leads do their own singing voices. All the songs are by Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. Per IMDB, six songs featured in the show were cut from the film. Brown does that wide-mouthed thing he’s famous for. He does a lot of schtick. And a lot of dumb jokes. But it IS funny, moves well and a lot was shot outdoors by a lake. There’s a motorboat race in it and some slapstick. Everyone seems to be having a good time. I really liked this.

GOING WILD (1930, 66 min.) Dir.: William Seiter. Cast: Joe E. Brown, Lawrence Gray, Ona Munson, Laura Lee, Walter Pidgeon, Frank McHugh. Joe plays more of a hustler/con man here as he impersonates a famous aviator and then has to fly a plane in a race with Pidgeon. Ona Munson’s back from BROADMINDED and Laura Lee’s back from TOP SPEED. In one semi-musical number, they sort of sing their courtship to each other (Joe and Laura). Not as funny as I’d like. Starts off well, but loses inspiration about halfway through with the doctors’ examination of Joe. Which could have been funny but isn’t and just slows the film down considerably since nothing comes of it.

LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD (1931, 68 min.) Dir.: Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Joe E. Brown, Dorothy Lee, Ruth Hall, Edward Woods, Edward J. Nugent. Pretty insane. In the track meet scenes, Joe can sure run. Is that him in long shots? Filmed at an actual event. The two girls are gorgeous. Dorothy Lee is studying psychology and psychoanalysis and asks Joe about his “sexual problems” and his “libido.” Both girls kiss Brown pretty passionately. He plays a botanist working on a “zinnia coptafeel.” I kid you not. Occasionally funny, but pretty harrowing and suspenseful at times especially when Brown, wracked with fear, refuses to run in the relay race. Edward Woods is his rival on the track and for Lee’s affections. He’s Cagney’s brother from PUBLIC ENEMY. It’s pretty ridiculous that the coach would let someone run in the big meet without any training. However, if I had to pick the best of this recent batch of Brown viewings, it would probably be LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD because Brown is actually an interesting, tormented, emotional character in it, one held back by his fears. Yet he’s got two hot babes wanting to marry him.

6 DAY BIKE RIDER (1934, 69 min.) Dir.: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: Joe E. Brown, Maxine Doyle, Frank McHugh, Gordon Westcott. Long bike race sequence. Brown is doubled for the long shots, including some nasty spills. Not terribly funny, exciting or suspenseful. But Brown is a great physical comedian. He has a bike ride through the city from the jailhouse to get to the race and it’s all him, with lots of stunt work. Of course, the fact that the police want him for stealing the bike and chase him, is dropped even though the cops should have arrested him after he finishes the race. Ends with him and his now-bride riding a bike built for three—with a baby in the middle! Ward Bond plays a cop. I like the small-town scenes early on, particularly Brown’s jealousy of Westcott putting the moves on Brown’s girl, Doyle. And then getting the town all roused when he accuses Westcott of running off with Doyle, only to find her at home. Brown is more his patented small-town character here than he was in the other five films I saw this week. Interestingly, Brown and Doyle died two months apart in 1973.

EARTHWORM TRACTORS (1936, 69 min.) Dir.: Ray Enright. Cast: Joe E. Brown, June Travis, Guy Kibbee, Dick Foran, Carol Hughes. Pretty wild comedy with two girls competing for Brown, both really cute, although one marries Dick Foran. Lots of physical comedy involving the tractors, with lots of destruction. Brown causes so much property damage that it’s a wonder he isn’t jailed or sued for everything he’s got (which is nothing). He’s one of these go-getter types, over-confident, lacking in any real skills who talks his way through everything. That he manages to sell any tractors is a pure contrivance. The other actors all get mad at him on a regular basis. Nobody really buys his spiel except the two girls and, from a distance, Joseph Crehan as the head of Earthworm Tractors. Some excellent miniature work in scenes of tractor driving through a quarry being dynamited at end and, earlier, when Brown uses tractor to move Kibbee’s house on rollers—when it wasn’t supposed to be moved!

POLO JOE (1936, 64 min.) Dir.: William McGann. Cast: Joe E. Brown, Carol Hughes, Richard “Skeets” Gallagher, Gordon Elliott, Fay Holden. [Longer notes taken from my IMDB review for the film]

The novelty value of POLO JOE is found chiefly in two scenes in which star Joe E. Brown sings songs in Chinese. He also frequently resorts to using Chinese phrases in the course of his frenetic activities throughout the film, even talking to a horse that way in one bit. This is all a result of his character having worked in China for the previous decade in a job that’s never defined. The first song is heard in the very first scene as he sits in a train car on his way to his Aunt Minnie’s home, where he will be staying. Later, at a dinner party welcoming Joe, Aunt Minnie (Fay Holden) reveals that she’s hired three Chinese musicians, performing traditional instruments, to accompany Joe as he sings. One of the musicians, played by Dong Yuen Jung, even sings a duet with Joe, who has wisely made sure, before his performance, that the musicians speak the same Chinese dialect that he does, a rare acknowledgment of China’s multiple languages in a Hollywood film referencing China. (I’m assuming Joe speaks Mandarin in the film, although he never identifies his dialect and the way he speaks it is not clear enough for me to rule out the possibility that it’s Cantonese.) This isn’t the only time I’ve heard Caucasian Hollywood stars speak Chinese in a Hollywood film. Shirley Temple does it in STOWAWAY, the same year as this film. And twenty years later, Clark Gable does it in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE (1955) and both John Wayne and Lauren Bacall do it in BLOOD ALLEY the same year. [See Hollywood Looks at China: Two Films from 1955]

Otherwise, there isn’t much to recommend this film. It uses the standard Brown plotline of lying about possessing a particular skill and then being called on it and having to prove it. He did this also in YOU SAID A MOUTHFUL (1932), where he pretends to be a swimming champ. Here he pretends to be a polo champ, all to impress a girl (Carol Hughes). Brown was a natural athlete and is always impressive when he engages in any sports activity on film and invariably did all but the most dangerous stunts, so his character didn’t have to lie about anything. It’s a cheap and lazy device on the part of the screenwriters. In any event, polo is not a particularly compelling sport, nor does it lend itself very well to comedy. And the people who practice it and watch it are all idle, shallow rich people who get tiresome onscreen pretty quickly. The best scene in the film involves a donkey who runs loose around Aunt Minnie’s house up and down staircases, butting into every room, and terrorizing the occupants, giving the audience, for a brief moment, one noble critter worth rooting for.

Finally, there’s one film of his I saw on TV years ago but not since that deserves special note. It was one of his independent productions and was called THE GLADIATOR (1938). It was supposedly based on Philip Wylie’s science fiction novel, Gladiator, about an experiment in creating a super-soldier to fight in World War One. Brown’s film just uses that premise to create a super athlete on a college campus. The serious nature of Wylie’s examination of the corrupt effects of such super power on one person is thrown over for a college comedy and a Brown vehicle. That novel inspired two high school boys in Cleveland, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, to create the Superman comic book character, who made his debut in Action Comics the same year as Brown’s film.

I suspect that Brown’s films didn’t play New York TV stations when I was a child because of their small-town appeal. And I suspect that the major studios didn’t try to revive Brown’s career because of a sense that small-town audiences were, by the 1940s, not enough of a draw to justify big budgets for comedies like these. There were plenty of B-movies that catered to small-town tastes including the hundreds of B-westerns that continued to be produced into the early 1950s. While the Brown films at Warner Bros. may not quite boast the verbal pleasures of W.C. Fields, Mae West, Abbott & Costello, and the Marx Brothers, or the abrasive slapstick inventiveness of the Three Stooges, they stand out as a distinct body of comic work that deserves to be seen and understood.

Who are Brown’s comic successors today? I’m not familiar enough with current film comedy to make an accurate assessment, but I would argue that the few Will Ferrell movies I’ve seen seem to fall in line with the general arc of Brown’s comedies, with their mix of physical humor and overconfident, outsized personalities and use of sports and competitive activities, as seen in such films as BLADES OF GLORY and TALLEDEGA NIGHTS, and occasional small-town settings. I made a reference to Brown’s similarity to Jim Carrey in one of my notes, but I can’t offhand think of a Carrey film that would make a good comparison (“BROADMINDED (1931): Brown is wild, but not that funny. Think Jim Carrey unrestrained”).

I need to see the baseball trilogy again and there are other Brown films I need to see for the first time, including SONS O’ GUNS (1936), which has a World War One theme; THE TENDERFOOT (1932), in which he’s a cowboy arrived in New York to try to back a Broadway play; SON OF A SAILOR (1933), in which he’s paired with the great Thelma Todd (picture below); and THE CIRCUS CLOWN (1934), in which he gets to show off his genuine acrobatic skills.

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