Saturday, November 9, 2013

The circus kid: Veteran funnyman Joe E. Brown

The What a Character Blogathon is an event devoted to the great character actors of classic Hollywood and the often memorable supporting roles they played throughout film history, hosted by Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled, & Paula's Cinema Club. For a complete list of participating bloggers, visit the links at any of the host sites.

Some Like It Hot has got to be, in my humble opinion, the funniest English-language comedy film of all time. (Brief aside: I remember when I first heard about the movie when I was much younger, I thought it must be a dirty movie - by modern standards. A character in either a TV show or film briefly mentioned it - wish I could remember what it was - and something about the way she talked about it made me think that. Don't know why.) It's Marilyn Monroe at (arguably) her sexiest, and for laughs per minute, it doesn't get much better than Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in drag.

That mouth of his was a little creepy.
As I learned more about movies in general, and director Billy Wilder in particular, I could put names to some of the rest of the cast as well. Old Dude Who Flirts With Jack Lemmon, in particular, is a major scene-stealer, but it wasn't until recent years that I could put the name Joe E. Brown to him. He, of course, gets many funny moments with Lemmon, and is lucky enough to get to say one of the all-time great last lines in movie history (which only makes sense in context). Turns out he's got quite a story.

Brown's road to show business had some very unusual twists. He was a circus tumbler at the age of nine, touring around the country. Then he got into baseball - almost became a Y-nk-- but preferred to go into showbiz instead, first Broadway and then the movies. He would go on to be a broadcaster for them in 1953, though. Among his '30s films include three baseball-themed movies, plus his son Joe L. would eventually become the general manager for the Pittsburgh Pirates for over twenty years.

With Olivia DeHavilland in Alibi Ike (1935)
Comedies were Joe E. Brown's forte, and for a time, he was fairly big. During World War 2, he entertained American troops, traveling on his own dime. He also lost a son in the war. His post-war work slackened off, although in addition to Some Like It Hot he was also in Show Boat and It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World, plus some work in early television.

In Cameron Crowe's book Conversations With Wilder, Wilder stated that he was aware of who Brown was, but that he didn't realize Brown was still around until he saw him at a Los Angeles Dodgers ball game and realized he was perfect for the role of Osgood Fielding III in Some Like it Hot:
...So I asked him, "Would you like to read [for the part]?" "Would I? Of course I would." He did the part, and shortly after, he died. [He actually didn't die until 1973.] He was an absolute surprise to people, to young people, because they'd never seen him. He had the biggest mouth in the world. He was the nicest guy.
The sexual innuendo in Hot cannot be understated, and Brown was so marvelous at pulling it off. This scene where he meets Lemmon (in disguise, of course) for the first time is brilliant.

Look at his face at 1:10. His character is totally convinced that Lemmon's not only a chick, but a desirable one - and of course, the "Pull in your reel" line can only be interpreted one way. And Lemmon gives as good as he gets at 1:31 when he talks about slapping his fiddle. The dialogue by Wilder and co-writer IAL Diamond is pure gold, of course, but it's brought to life magnificently by these wonderful comedic actors.

That famous last line was suggested by Diamond, at first as a placeholder until he and Wilder found something funnier:
...We never found the line, so we went with "Nobody's perfect." The audience just exploded at the preview in Westwood.... it wound up to be our funniest last line. I was asked by many people, "What is going to happen now? What happens now to Lemmon, what happens to his husband?" And I always said, "I have no idea." "Nobody's perfect." Leave it up there on the screen. You cannot top that.
With Buster Keaton in the Disney short
"Mickey's Gala Premier" (1933)
Did you know that Brown has also been immortalized in comics and cartoons? He appeared as himself in an old British comic called Film Fun, beginning in 1933, and he was caricatured in several Disney cartoons. He was also the inspiration for two semi-obscure Hanna-Barbera characters: Lippy the Lion and Peter Potamus

I vaguely remember Peter Potamus from early in my childhood. Despite his "Hippo Hurricane Howler," he didn't make much of an impression on me, I'm afraid - and no wonder, if all his cartoons were as lame as the one at the link. I don't remember Lippy the Lion, but he seems completely indistinguishable from PP.

Brown was indeed quite a character. Next time one of his early movies shows up on TCM, I hope to catch it - especially if it's one of his baseball movies!


  1. I love Joe E. Brown in "Some Like it Hot" -- he almost steals the whole show!

    Glad you featured Brown in the blogathon. It wouldn't have been complete without him.

  2. I'm glad you agree. Besides, I enjoyed learning about him!

  3. Excellent! I have been learning more about him lately and have come to have new respect, so I was really happy to see your post. Great job!

  4. Love this guy, scene-stealer of the highest order. I need to see more of his movies. Thank you for such an informative post :)

    1. I admit, I wasn't 100 percent sure whether he qualified as a supporting character or character actor or whatever, but Aurora said he did so that's enough for me.

  5. No! Not a Y-nk--!

    I love the guys like Brown, and Brown in particular, who make it look so easy to give us laughs. He's absolutely adorable in "A Midsummer Night's Dream" as Flute.

    Grand article which added immeasurably to my knowledge of Mr. Brown. Thanks.

  6. As a Mets fan, I have to take my moral stands where I find them.

  7. I love him! Seems that's what I'm starting many of the comments to the posts for this blogathon, but it's still true. I remember watching SOME LIKE IT HOT with my parents when I was a kid and thinking I was introducing the film and cast to them I was quite surprised to learn Joe E. Brown was hugely popular in Cuba - actually all over the world. (You know how kids think they know everything.) In Cuba they referred to him as "bocaza," translated as "big mouth."

    Anyway, Rich. Wonderful post on a great entertainer! Thanks so much for participating in the blogathon!


  8. BTW - I ignored the fact fact you couldn't write YANKEES!!!! YANKEES! ;-)

  9. The Team From the Bronx has more than enough publicity without me adding to it. Like I said, the Mets are my team and always have been. :-p

    Didn't know that JEB was big in Cuba, but it certainly makes a kind of sense, given his baseball connections.

    Thanks for having me.

  10. Joe is hilarious in Some Like it Hot! My favorite scene includes Joe and Lemmon dancing.
    It's a curious fact that he inspired the two cartoon characters. I'm familiar with both from my childhood, Peter and Lippy have very different personalities, but both seen fun-loving.
    Don't forget to read my contribution to the blogathon! :)

  11. You remember those characters too? I guess they're not as obscure as I thought.

  12. Nice focus on an actor I really didn't know much about. I forgot all about his role in SHOW BOAT! One of those actors who pops up in more movies than you realize...

  13. I didn't know he was in SHOW BOAT either. I gotta watch that one day.


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