My rationale for establishing this page is that TOO MANY people have forgotten this wonderful performer and comedian. Many of his movies from the 1930’s and early 1940’s are rarely seen and remain unavailable on video. Neglect has rendered many of the surviving prints with splices and scratches and there seems to little effort to salvage his creativity before the record is lost. Bring up his name in conversation and various generations of people will scratch their heads. This is a great tragedy. Joe E. Brown was an American Original and one of the funniest men to ever emerge in stage, film, radio, and television. This is a fan page, pure and simple, and I hope that the older generation will recall his humor and the young will seek out this treasure of a man. His large mouth and holler was his trademark. However, the many fighting men overseas would attest that his heart was even larger. He loved his family and when he lost his son in the war overseas, he embraced every young man far from home, as if he was his own. His entertaining of the troops would become legendary. If there are other enthusiasts for his work out there, feel free to contact me.
A GOOD BUT BRIEF BIOGRAPHY OFFERED BY BARNES AND NOBLE
GLIMPSES OF A LIFE
Taken from Laughter is a Wonderful Thing
by Joe E. Brown as told to Ralph Hancock
Joseph Evan Brown was born to Mathias and Anna Brown on July 28, 1892. He was the third of five boys and two girls. At the age of ten, he joined the acrobatic team of the Marvelous Ashtons and performed in the circus for $1.50 a week. Perfecting his act he would later make a buck more. However, his time with Billy Ashe would end soon after their survival of the San Francisco earthquake and fire. He was fourteen years old when he returned to Toledo. Joe turned to what was the great love of his life, baseball. He was the youngest player on the Young Avondales, organized by Ollie Pecord, the bar tender at Colonel Bolen’s Bar. Ollie later got him employment as a baseball player in the semi-pro Trolley League. Although small of stature, his athletic abilities came in handy. However, he soon returned to an acrobatics act, this time with Tommy Bell and Frank Prevost, calling themselves the Bell-Prevost Trio. He was making $7.50 a week and thought he was doing pretty well. Unfortunately, Bell turned out to be more physically harsh than Ashe, and faulted Joe for failed tricks, even though Bell missed practice sessions. Bell would prove himself as particularly untrustworthy. Finishing his somersault after Bell threw him into the air, Bell just walked and Joe saw himself, too late, falling toward the hard platform. Joe broke his leg and the act broke up as well. Frank Prevost, old enough to be his father, took Joe to his home in Jamaica, New York, to mend. Prevost would suggest that Joe try his hand with comedy in Burlesque. He slowly perfected his comedy, dressed up, but somewhat askew, and spoke in a high squeaky voice. He developed “an expression of super-idiocy” that amused the audience, an accentuated sneeze and the technique of double-talk. Playing baseball with the St. Paul team during the off summer season, he tried to comply with a signal not to slide into third base, but it was too late and he hit the ground awkwardly. Joe’s leg was broken again. Joe tells us: “I was playing with a Toledo team, Needham’s All-Stars, at Weston, Ohio, July 3, 1910, when I got one more broken leg.” Joe loved baseball, and played on just about every Toledo team, but show business usually paid better. He became a good friend to the legendary John L. Sullivan who used his clout to get Joe released on bail for crossing traffic on a bicycle. While traveling on the Canadian National train, he became acquainted with Kathryn McGraw. He had never had a serious relationship with a girl, and this one after much correspondence on the road resulted in marriage. He received her answer while performing in Baltimore, MD. During the summer he made between three and twenty dollars a game playing baseball. While hanging out at a cottage on Lake Erie owned by a baseball pal, he yelled repeatedly for his friend Larry Gazzola to join him for an early swim. “I opened my mouth slowly and at the same time began a long, drawn out yell that ended with my mouth open. People’s heads popped out of tents and cottages for blocks up and down the beach. And that’s how the yell that was later ‘heard around the world’ got its start.” Joe possessed decided values. He did not believe routines and jokes had to be obscene to be effective. He took care of his mother and Kathryn with immense devotion. Here is an extended passage:
I knew she wanted a church wedding. With her family background it was almost a necessity. But with less than 100 dollars in my whole world, I couldn’t afford to be married on such a grand scale. But on the subway that took us back to Times Square, I put my arms around my wife and said, “Kathryn, someday we’ll have a real wedding. It’ll be in a church, with organ music and flowers and all the rest.” She said, simply, “Thank you, Joe.”
It was 25 years before I got around to keeping that promise. On the occasion of our silver-wedding anniversary we stood before a minister in St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Hollywood and went through the ceremony again, this time with all the trimmings. Our son, Joe L., was best man; son Don, the eldest, gave the bride away, and our daughters Kathryn Frances and Mary Elizabeth were flower girls.
I have heard that there is no accounting for tastes. Most matrons who have reached their silver-wedding anniversary would be reluctant to face a church ceremonial and in the bridal attire usually donned by young women and girls. The average long-married male would veto the whole idea– church, wedding, bridal party, and all– as dumb foolishness.
The Joe E. Browns, obviously, are different. They may be credited with more than the desire to fulfill their youthful dream of a church wedding with all the trimmings. I think they are, most of all, an old-fashioned pair who believe that a civil marriage is no substitute for one performed in and blessed by the church.
But it didn’t end there. A few years later, Mrs. Brown, who was brought up in the Catholic faith, confided to me that she felt she wanted to have her Catholic rights (rites?) restored, and as the earlier marriage ceremonies were not recognized by her church, this could not be done unless we were married by a priest.
“If it will make you any happier,” I said, “let a rabbi marry us too.”
So it is my happy boast that we are the only married couple I know who’ve been married three times to each other without ever having a divorce.
When his wife became pregnant with their first child he returned to Toledo and managed a bowling alley. Don was born on Christmas day, 1916, when Joe was 24. Joe got sick in the delivery room and passed out with news of the birth. He tried his hand at the Electric Auto Lite factory, but it did not work out. Returning to show business, he did one more season with Prevost and then decided to try and make it as a comedian in Burlesque. He would only accept jobs if there was no off-color stuff. Meanwhile, his wife was pregnant again and in 1918 gave birth to Joe Leroy. John Cort, the producer of Listen Lester, a broadway hit, was taking the show on the road, an impressed with Joe, offered him the part of Lester at $150 a week. He was to take over the role on August 7, 1919, but Equity called a strike. Going with the strikers, he lost the role and he was left impoverished. If that was not bad enough, his father died. Fortunately, when the strike ended he was again offered the part and played it to good reviews. He performed Jim Jam Jems that opened at the Cort Theatre on October 4, 1920. Joe received three raises– from $200 to $250 to $400 to $500 a week. He was a star with his name in lights. He would be paid $1,000 to do Greenwich Village Follies, that opened in Atlantic City on August, 1921. He had a great run in the revived show, Captain Jinks, voted the best musical of 1925-26. 1926 saw the death of Joe’s best friend, Frank Prevost. Joe would do one more show on Broadway, Twinkle Twinkle. After a long run, Joe moved to Los Angeles. Joe would be doing movies! Along with success, he enlarged his family. Moving into a house in Hollywood, they took in Mike Frankovich in 1930. He was just a few years older than his sons. Later they adopted a baby girl, Mary Elizabeth Ann. A year later they decided to adopt another child, Kathryn Frances. By now Joe was a top star at Warners, getting $100,000 a picture.
During his career he made many films and took great personal risks. He filmed with a bear that he later discovered to be a proven man killer. He also made some films about which it is difficult to find information about today. For instance, his film SQUARE CROOKS made in 1932, what was it about? Are their any prints or videos available. Many of the old films are extremely hard to find.
Joe loved children and they loved him. He relates the following: “One mother wrote that she and her young daughter had just seen one of my pictures. As they came out of the theatre after the show, the child– just six– said to her mother, ‘Mommy, when Joe E. Brown dies, will he go to heaven?’ ‘Why of course darling,’ replied the mother. ‘Golly, Mommy,’ the child said, ‘won’t God laugh!'” Joe was conscious of the goodness in innocence and never used the words “hell” or “damn” in any of his shows. He even inspired others, like Harry “Hennie” Cooper to clean up his Burlesque act. Joe often turned to plays and shows in the off season.
Joe collected all sorts of important sports memorabilia, eventually donating much of it to U.C.L.A. Many do not know that he was once offered a contract himself to play with the New York Yankees. However, he turned it down because he was making headway on Broadway. His dear friend Lou Gehrig, suffering from multiple sclerosis, gave him the first baseman’s glove with which he played his 2,130 consecutive games. It meant everything to Gehrig, but he wanted to make sure it would pass into hands that would truly cherish it. Joe kept these many trophies in his Room of Love. Joe’s contract with Warner Brothers stipulated that Joe was to be supplied with a baseball team, a strange clause indeed. Joe E. Brown’s All Stars was composed of professional athletes. He bought into the Kansas City Blues in 1933. Joe had also been the owner of a racing stable, although he attests that his horses were as slow as they come.
When his boys attended U.C.L.A., he was on campus a great deal. His popularity was such that he was invited to join his son’s fraternity, Zeta Psi. Although he lacked a high school diploma, he enrolled in the school to make this possible. He broke the Physics class up so, the professor promised him an ‘A’ if he would avoid class. Switching agents, he contracted to do six independent pictures for $100,000 each. However, none of the films were up to the standards set by Warners.
Joe had suffered a double hernia on the set of THE GLADIATOR and was almost ready for work again when he had a devastating car accident. His brakes failed while surveying Joe E. Brown field at the university. He went off a steep 30 foot embankment on Sunset Boulevard and totaled the station wagon. Blood flowed from his face and he was barely conscious. He was virtually paralyzed. He had a severe septum and his back was broken in two places. Later they discovered one lung had collapsed. While being treated his heart stopped. He was clinically dead for 40 seconds.
This was not the first time Joe had broken his back. Twelve years after a major fall from the trampoline, an X-ray discovered two separate breaks in the spine long healed over. The new break had inadvertently unfrozen certain vertebrae in Joe’s back, giving him an additional half inch in height. Recuperation gave him time to take stock of his career. He thought some of his movies were poor. He went back to the stage and played the part of Aubrey Piper in the George Kelly farce, The Show-Off. It packed the houses.
Then came the war. His sons graduated and entered the air corps. Mrs. Brown got involved with the Red Cross. Joe traveled over 200,000 miles in entertaining the troops during W.W.II. Then came the dire message, his son Don had been killed during what was supposed to be a routine flight. Meeting some of Don’s fellow officers, they wept together and Joe came to a decisive understanding: “When you have lost your own boy, all other lads become your sons.” Joe tells us of a spiritual awakening:
I felt it that night, but I was too stunned to accept it then; acceptance came much later, and then it came through action.
The next few days were a dark abyss. I seemed to be falling through endless chaos; I couldn’t get hold of myself. And then one night when I was alone, I felt something I never had known before. It was the presence of God. It was a peace that passes understanding. I felt God’s arms around me, in a way I cannot possibly describe.
While entertaining the troops, a lone voice from somewhere shouted to Joe that he tell them some dirty stories. Joe told them, “I made a rule a long time ago that I’d never tell a story that I wouldn’t want my mother to hear me telling.” All of them, even the one that asked, applauded with a fury. “Cardinal (then Archbishop) Spellman said that within two weeks after that happened in Guinea, he heard about it in North Africa, halfway around the world.” Parents of the boys would write him a whole carton of letters in appreciation. Ten chaplains wrote him as well. Many also promised to pray for him. (Having noted this, there is the unexplained GRAMP’S DIRTY LIL COMIC BOOK from the 1940’s– using his name and likeness– that must be considered pornographic. How did this come about? I am told by a comic collector that it was WITHOUT Joe’s consent? Such cheap works stealing the name and likeness of celebrities were once common in the sordid world of underground comics. He makes no mention of it in his autobiography.) While today, largely because of the movie, we associate the dramatic comedy, HARVEY, with Jimmy Stewart. It was Joe E. Brown that made it popular on the stage for quite some time. Joe would continue to do films, but often playing secondary characters. He would anchor baseball games on radio, too. His was a full life, and one that made ours richer, too.
Joe passed away in 1973 but he is not forgotten. Thanks to video and DVD, there is real hope that his legacy of work will endure and entertain generations to come.
Joe was not a quitter. Remember these words from Joe, “As far as I’m concerned, no game is over until there are three men out in the ninth inning.”
(As an aside, back in 1907, Joe flew some thirty feet into the air attached to a kite contraption. Although he crashed and broke a finger, he was intrigued by flight. His friend, Glenn Martin (the airplane maker), took Joe on his first airplane flight in 1911.)
E ONLINE offers a database with brief descriptions of the following films and whether or not they are available:
- Sally (1929)
- On the Show (1929)
- Painted Faces (1929)
- Going Wild (1930)
- Maybe It’s Love (1930)
- Eleven Men and a Girl (1930)
- Top Speed (1930)
- The Lottery Bride (1930)
- Local Boy Makes Good (1931)
- Broadminded (1931)
- Sit Tight (1931)
- Two Reelers -Comedy Classics 10 (1931)
- Fireman Save My Child (1932)
- The Tenderfoot (1932)
- You Said a Mouthful (1932)
- Son of a Sailor (1933)
- Elmer the Great (1933)
- Circus Clown (1934)
- Six-Day Bike Rider (1934)
- A Very Honorable Guy (1934)
- Bright Lights (1935)
- Alibi Ike (1935)
- A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1935)
- Sons O’ Guns (1936)
- Polo Joe (1936)
- Earthworm Tractors (1936)
- Fit for a King (1937)
- When’s Your Birthday? (1937)
- Riding on Air (1937)
- Wide Open Faces (1938)
- The Gladiator (1938)
- Flirting With Fate (1938)
- $1,000 A Touchdown (1939)
- Beware, Spooks! (1939)
- So You Won’t Talk (1940)
- Shut My Big Mouth (1942)
- Joan of Ozark (1942)
- The Darling Young Man (1942)
- Chatterbox (1943)
- Pin Up Girl (1944)
- The Tender Years (1947)
- Show Boat (1951)
- The Joe E. Brown Show (1955)
- Some Like It Hot (1959)
- The Comedy of Terrors (1964)
My favorite three movies by Joe E. Brown are these:
YOU SAID A MOUTHFUL
ELMER THE GREAT
Curious Movie Trivia
During the making of the movie THE CIRCUS CLOWN he walked over to the large elephant and said, “Up, up old girl!” The trainer called out that it would take some time before she would take the cue from him. However, she lifted Joe neatly upon her back. “How did you do that? She never did that for anyone else without training,” remarked the trainer. Then it all came back to him. Thirty years earlier the elephant as a baby had been Joe’s playmate in the Robinson’s circus. Joe notes: “And she remembered me. If you saw that picture and remember how smooth the elephant sequences were, this was the reason.”
Fox’s Theatre in Jamaica, NY, gave the comedic-acrobatic act of Prevost and Brown a chance, but there were no laughs. The manager, Lew Sidney, paid them for three days anyway. Forty-three years later, Sidney’s son would direct Joe in SHOWBOAT.
Joe’s classic yell and the wide mouth was used in seven movies. The most amusing use of the yell was probably in TOP SPEED.
Looking for new material, Joe tried out the skit called The Gob, by Paul Gerard Smith. The audience screamed but the producers of the fifth edition of the Greenwich Village Follies refused to purchase it. Nevertheless, in 1931, Joe would use it in the very successful film, SON OF A SAILOR.
During YOU SAID A MOUTHFUL, the Olympic swimmer Stubby Krueger was hired to impersonate Joe in underwater shots. However, close-up tank shots of Joe were so successful that only a brief shot of Krueger was used. The tank shots had Joe in a huge tank six hours a day for eight days. “At one time I remained under water for one minute and eight seconds– the longest I ever kept my mouth closed in a picture. . . . A half dozen trout were placed in the tank with me to stir up the water and add to the realism of the undersea scene. In one sequence where I am supposed to be swimming the channel from Catalina to Los Angeles, what appeared to be a good sized whale swam past me and harassed me no end. This was really one of the trout. The fish just happened to swim past and it came so close to the lens of the camera that it was magnified into the size of a whale. The scene caused a loud howl everywhere the movie was shown.”
“There was a scene in BROADMINDED in which I was hiding under a bed. A fly lit on my nose and my facial contortions in a big close-up brought on an avalanche of guffaws. I imagine the screen fans thought the fly was supposed to light there– that it was part of the plot. It wasn’t. It was simply an accidental happening I took advantage of and turned into an hilarious scene.”
“I got into [a phone booth] that was so suffocatingly small that I could barely close the door. And I had to close the door before the light would go on. Then I found I couldn’t get the phone book far enough from my eyes to read it. In order to get more distance I pushed the door open– while still holding the book open in both hands– and the light went out. I tried to carry the book outside the booth to look at it but it was chained to the telephone.” Joe took this experience and made it into one of “the best gags in EARTHWORM TRACTORS.”
On a return from a long vacation with his wife in the Orient, they were met by a large number or reporters. Asked why he stayed away for four months, Joe answered, “I made a picture five months ago called A VERY HONORABLE GUY. It was from a story by Damon Runyon. It was no fault of Runyon’s, but that was a bad picture and I know it. I went on this trip actually to be out of the country when they released it.” Joe added, “Warner Brothers made it, but it wasn’t released, it escaped!” Unfortunately, it was opening that very day. Jack Warner would not speak to Joe for six months.
Early in his career, he wrote himself into the movie, CROOKS CAN’T WIN, as a newspaper reporter.
HIT OF THE SHOW was Joe’s first movie under contract.
TAKE ME HOME was slanted toward him and to protect the principal actor, Joe was largely cut out of it.
The director John Stahl was reduced to tears in reading the entire script of PAINTED FACES to Joe.
MOLLY AND ME and MY LADY’S PAST were both directed by Belle Bennett, who played Stella Dallas, herself.
Joe got a $1,000 from Warners for ON WITH THE SHOW.
Joe insisted and got $2,000 for SONG OF THE WEST.
It was in HOLD EVERYTHING that he finally got star billing. Bert Lahr, who did the play version, angrily wrote that Joe stole his role. Joe got $15,000 for the part.
As for ELMER THE GREAT, Joe did both the play and the movie. It was based on the baseball player, Big Ed Walsh.
ELEVEN MEN AND A GIRL co-starred Joan Bennett. Rehearsing a scene where Tim Monahan of Notre Dame was to block him, Joe went down “like a light”. When the other players piled on later in the shooting of the scene, Joe had the wind knocked out of him and could not yell. It had to be dubbed. Joe staggered toward the camera, as scripted, but fell into the camera– he wasn’t acting.
“In THE CIRCUS CLOWN a playful lion clawed my arm in a gentle sort of way, but the doctor had to take six stitches in my hide to sew it up. After that I had to go on with the act and lie on a couch while the lion came up and licked my feet. They put honey on my feet to entice him but there was nothing to discourage him from taking a bigger bite. . . . That one turned out all right though. When the lion finished licking the honey off my feet, he came over and put his two large paws on my chest and then put his head down as though he was sorry he hurt me. It was so good, such a “touching” scene, they rewrote the whole sequence to fit it.”
Joe agreed to play the role of Flute in A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM without knowing what the part was about. He was upset and worried to find the character was a female impersonator. Joe thought it was wrong for him but he proved to be one of his most successful films.
EARTHWORM TRACTORS was based on a series of popular magazine stories by Wiliam Hazlett Upson who was once a Peoria tractor salesman. Joe tells us: “I had played in motion pictures with horses, bears, lions and elephants and bicycles but never anything as tiring to handle as those big tractors. They weren’t hard to operate, once I got the hang of it, but no one on the lot ever trusted me with them, least of all Guy Kibbee, who played a lead role in the picture. In a number of scenes he was supposed to ride with me, but when I went a little wild with the tractor and starting tearing down buildings and running over automobiles, he hollered for help. He yelled so loud and swore so vehemently that I thought we’d have to take the scenes over, but when we saw the rushes, all you could hear was the sound of the motor. But Kibbee wasn’t acting when he registered fright– he was scared stiff. I never had so much fun with a new toy since I was a kid. I broke up everything on the Warner lot. An old railroad station they’d been using for years– they never used again. And there was a large iron statue on the lot I never had liked. I pretended the tractor was out of control and I went right for it– though it wasn’t in the script. It flattened like a penny on a railroad track and the cameraman kept cranking, so it was left in the picture.”
POLO JOE was his last picture for Warners.
Joe was making a picture for Universal called THE GLADIATOR with Man Mountain Dean, a 327 pound wrestler. Joe was supposed to lift and twirl him around. The wrestler insisted that Joe did not need wires, so he gave it a try. “I just lifted and he gave a little push and I had him up there. And once I got him up in the air I found I could twirl him around without much trouble. . . . Well, with all those extras looking on, the ham in me came out and at the director’s urging, I did it five times. On the fifth try, however, I felt something tear inside me. The pain was like two red-hot drills grinding into my groin. The sawbones patched up my double hernia and I was about ready to go back to work.” Then came the terrible car accident.
Joe played a most convincing death scene in HIT OF THE SHOW. Joe did not stir afterwards and it was ascribed to exhaustion. They let him rest 15 minutes but still could not awaken him. A doctor felt his pulse and exclaimed, “He’s dead. He has no pulse. A man from the wire services immediately took off with the news and all the papers carried, “Joe E. Brown Dies on Movie Set.” When Joe came to he had to quickly call family and friends to let them know he was okay, just a really sound sleeper.
“I had been in a few bad pictures. Martha Raye and I had played in THOUSAND DOLLARS A TOUCHDOWN and it was terrible. My box office appeal had fallen off and I wondered if I was slipping.”
JOE E. BROWN LINKS
PLEASE EMAIL ME ANY HELPFUL COMMENTS OR LINKS
God Bless You, Joe!
Keep the Angels Laughing!