Friday, August 13, 2010

Remembering Joe E. Brown

Exactly Who Was Joe E. Brown?

The other day I saw Joe E. Brown, the wide-mouthed comedian, in the movie remake of “Showboat” (1951), playing Captain Andy opposite Kathryn Grayson and Ava Gardner. A few weeks before, I had seen him in “Sally” (1929), the old musical with the Jerome Kern song “Look for the Silver Lining.” His dance with Marilyn Miller is one of the film’s highlights. (Miller could dance and sing -– a little.)
Of course, his most notable role in recent years was as the millionaire Osgood Fielding III in “Some Like It Hot” (1959), opposite Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and the other Marilyn, a film in which he gets to utter the classic line, “Nobody’s perfect.” And I recall that he played a baseball player in a few old films, like “Alibi Ike,” based on a Ring Lardner short story.
What has struck me is how little I know about Joe E. Brown –- although I have seen him in so very many movies. Leonard Maltin’s “2010 Movie Guide” lists famous actors in the back, with all of their films. Joe E. Brown doesn’t even appear – as he might have, squeezed between Louise Brooks and Sandra Bullock.
So I decided to do some research – mainly, reading what Wikipedia had to say.
Here’s what I learned:
His name really was Joseph Evans Brown, born in Holgate, Ohio, in 1892. He died in 1973.
He went from being a circus acrobat to semi-pro baseball player to comedian. By 1931 he was a Hollywood movie star. He was praised for his role as Flute in the 1935 film of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” directed by Max Reinhardt and also starring James Cagney, Dick Powell, and Olivia DeHaviland.
In 1939, he testified before the House immigration committee in support of letting 20,000 German Jewish children enter the country. (A relative of Roosevelt’s had said sneeringly that these “ugly children will grow into ugly adults.”) He adopted two refugees, two girls.
In 1941, one of his sons, Capt. Don E. Brown, was killed when his military plane crashed.
During World War II he spent a good deal of time entertaining troops, here and abroad, at his own expense. He is one of two civilians to have received the Bronze Star for his work during World War II.
He had cameo roles in “Around the World in 80 Days” and “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.”
From 1953 to 1964, he broadcast Yankee baseball games.
Once, in the 1950s, he appeared on “What’s My Line?” and it was clear what a modest, charming, and intelligent man he was. In fact, he had a reputation of being –- along with Jean Hersholt and Jack Benny –- among the really decent people in old Hollywood.