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28 May 2016

Joe E. Brown: Service With a Smile

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. He grew up in the circus, in a tumbling act with his father and brothers; in his movies 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 (though he hated seeing himself onscreen).

Alibi Ike
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. His other love was baseball, in fact he could have taken his career in another direction and become a ballplayer. Several of his most popuar 30's movies were about baseball  -- Fireman Save My Child, Elmer the Great, and Alibi Ike. Another standout was A Very Honorable Guy, from a Damon Runyon story,and Earthworm Tractors, from magazine stories of the same name.

But there are other 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.

In China visiting refugees in WW2
Another memorable appearance, for different reasons, is Hollywood Canteen, a look at the famous entertainment venue founded and staffed by stars for the benefit of military personnel. The 1944 movie features a boatload of stars, but Brown's warm and friendly welcome must have had a special meaning at the time, because everyone knew he had lost his eldest son in military service.
Visiting airmen in Australia
In fact, he spent countless weeks and months traveling all over the world, to Australia, the Phillipines, North Africa, and Europe, entertaining troops not just in makeshift performance venues but in hospitals, where the most desperately wounded were. He brought sacks of mail home from every trip to speed it on to servicemen's loved ones. And he paid his own expenses for these tours. In fact, Joe E. Brown was one of only two civilians to receive the Bronze Star for wartime service.
As Elwood Dowd in Harvey
He had been performing in front of live audiences all of his life, and along with film and TV work he also maintained a stage career. One of his greatest successes came when he replaced Frank Fay in the original run of Harvey, a play about a gentle man whose best friend is a six-foot invisible rabbit. (I saw the Broadway revival of this with James Stewart; the special effects of the invisible rabbit moving from place to place live on stage are great fun.) Brown went on to tour with the play across the country and around the world, playing Elwood P. Dowd for more than 1,500 performances.

Of course, Joe E. Brown is best known 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. Wilder loved him, saying "He was the nicest guy!" 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.

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