07 August 2014

It's too bad that more of us don't recognize this smiling face. Joe E. Brown was instantly recognizable to millions during the '20s and '30s.  A former acrobat, he mixed athletic physical comedy with character-based humor
, his character being a good-natured innocent who turns out to be no fool. Like many great comics, he was a superb actor; he is always 100% in the scene, not waiting for his next line.

You can see him in his own mild but generally charming Warner Bros. comedies throughout the 30s, which usually involve sports to use his physical abilities. But there are some key roles that I always think of when I think of Joe E. Brown; first, his wonderful turn as one of the clowns in Max Reinhardt's 1935 film of Midsummer Night's Dream. Featuring a dream cast of seasoned comics that was exactly what Shakespeare had in mind -- Frank McHugh, Arthur Treacher, James Cagney, Hugh Herbert, and more -- Brown still stands out even in this company as Flute the Bellows-Mender, assigned the role of Thisbe, the heroine of the Greek tragedy they are rehearsing. The actual performance is priceless, with roaring lion, a giggling wall in the person of Hugh Herbert, and Flute in mid-peroration suddenly realizing he's forgotten a key prop. I really never get tired of this movie.

Next is Hollywood Canteen, a look at the famous entertainment venue staffed by stars -- and it really was -- for the benefit of military personnel. The 1944 movie features a boatload of stars (in fact there's hardly anyone in it who isn't a star), but Brown's warm and friendly welcome must have had a special meaning -- everyone knew he had lost his oldest son in military service.

Lastly, of course, is his role as playboy millionaire Osgood Fielding III in Billy Wilder's great Some Like It Hot, which I increasingly feel is the finest sound comedy. Everyone is so wonderful in this movie -- from Pat O'Brien as the hardest of hard-boiled cops right down to Ted Christy as an alarmingly self-confident bellhop with a taste for big girls (amazingly, this dazzling performance doesn't even get screen credit). "Don't worry, Doll; I've got a passkey." It's hard to decide who is the funniest in this perfect movie, but it's also hard to imagine anyone but Brown as Osgood. He makes what could have been on paper a rather predatory jerk into a happy romantic who has simply kept his childish joie d'vivre much longer than most. One can't help feeling that he and Daphne would be very happy together.