During the 1930s, Joe E. Brown was among the top box office draws among all movie stars. This status was not achieved by Laurel and Hardy, The Marx Brothers, or W.C. Fields. Brown was more popular than all of them.
Wes Gehring’s new book not only covers Brown’s screen work, it examines his fascination with sports, especially baseball. Brown made comedies about the game, and also had it in his contract that he be allowed to play baseball with a team on the set between takes. These teams were not a collection of actors, but actual pro and semi-pro ball players.
Brown’s career began on stage, but really took off at Warner Brothers, with early talkie comedies like Top Speed (1930) and Broad Minded (1931) making him a popular star. His stardom really reached the heights when he appeared in the baseball comedy Fireman Save My Child (1932), in which he played a firefighter distracted by the game. It was followed by the even more successful baseball comedy Elmer The Great (1933).
Throughout the first half of the 1930s, Joe E. Brown remained a comedy superstar, his films including You Said a Mouthful (1932), Son of a Sailor (1933), the serio-comic Circus Clown (1934) in which he played himself and his own father, and Alibi Ike (1935), an even more popular baseball comedy that solidified his stardom.
Brown took an offer to go into independent production with producer David Loew in 1936, a disastrous move after Warner hits Earthworm Tractors and Polo Joe. His subsequent films were of the B variety, although there is still much to offer in Riding On Air (1937) and The Gladiator (1938).
Brown’s homespun style was less popular as the 1940s approached, and when his son Donald was killed in action in World War Two, he spent most of that decade entertaining the troops. His film appearances remained fleeting, but he is today best known for his hilarious turn as Osgood in Billy Wilder’s classic Some Like it Hot (1959). It is Brown who gets to deliver that movie’s immortal last line.
By the time he left movies after appearing in Jacques Tourneur’s The Comedy of Terrors (1963), his star had fallen and he was subsequently forgotten by all except those who remembered him as the most popular comedy star of his time.
Athletic, muscular, and healthy, Brown succumbed after several strokes in 1973 at the age of 80.
Gehring’s book does a good job of examining Brown’s life and work, with more information on the films than heretofore available. Gehring is perhaps the first writer to bother approaching these comedies, and thus his research and analysis is most welcome. Because they were simple, pleasant films, without cinematic technique or innovation, the Joe E. Brown films seem folksy and dated today. But the fact that they were so popular during their initial release, it is important to understand them as cultural artifacts. Many of the better ones, especially the Warner features and the Loew productions Riding on Air and The Gladiator hold up equally as well as Some Like it Hot.