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24 July 2015

Another Remembrance of Joe E. Brown

Joe E. Brown as Flute as Thisbe sits on the knee of James Cagney as Bottom as Pyramus

In Another Place, posters have said that it's a shame that the wonderful comedian (and acrobat) Joe. E Brown is practically forgotten today. Several mentioned that they loved him best for his role as Osgood Fielding III, Daphne's eventual fiancee in Some Like It Hot. I have often mentioned how I love that movie. But another way I always remember him is his splendid comic turn as Flute the Bellows Mender in the 1935 Midsummer Night's Dream.

Shakespeare's "rustic" comedy is notoriously difficult for modern actors (not to mention modern audiences). All I can say is that Max Reinhardt must have been one heck of a director, because the wonderful cast of American clowns are all marvelous in this version. Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert, Arthur Treacher, Otis Harlin, Dewey Robinson, and, of course, James Cagney as the stage-struck Bottom portray uneducated yokels who plan to take part in the celebration of the Duke's wedding by putting on a play based on a classical legend (it is a real legend,and a darned silly one). Cagney, as Bottom, the Weaver, takes the role of the romantic hero, Pyramus -- once he can be dissuaded from playing all the other parts, too, including the lady and the lion -- and Joe E Brown's Flute reluctantly plays the lovely maiden, Thisbe.

No, I love this movie, and I have always found the comedy really funny and Mickey Rooney, as a totally non-human mischievous sprite, Puck, gives what would have been the performance of a lifetime if there weren't so many more to come -- but my favorite part is the play within the play.

Here the rustics prove their mettle, coping with every disaster that can befall actors on stage. Lines are forgotten, costumes are tangled,  the audience is full of kibitzers, and finally when the demure Thisbe decides to kill herself, uttering he line, "Come, trusty sword!", no sword is found. The prop department seems to have fallen down on the job. Flute can only repeat his line, in increasingly desperate tones. 
Joe E. Brown is so funny here, because his Flute is a whole person; and when the time comes, he does his best to make Thisbe a real person, too. Flute might not be the sharpest knife in the drawer, but he is committed.

As Pyramus is moved to exclaim, "Oh, dainty duck! Oh dear!"

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