Joe E. Brown

Active - 1928 - 1964  |   Born - Jul 28, 1892   |   Died - Jul 6, 1973   |   Genres - Comedy, Musical

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Biography by Hal Erickson

One of comedian Joe E. Brown's proudest claims was that he was perhaps the only kid whose parents encouraged him to run away with the circus. In 1902, the 10-year-old Brown joined a circus tumbling act called the Five Marvellous Ashtons, with whom he started his vaudeville career. He toured in burlesque in an acrobatic act, and also briefly played semi-professional baseball. His avid interest in baseball inaugurated a lifelong association with that sport which would included his participation in the National Vaudeville Artists ballteam, his part-ownership of the minor league Kansas City Blues, and his providing pregame "color" for the televised New York Yankees games of the 1950s (Joe's son Joe L. became manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1955). On the verge of his leaving vaudeville for Broadway in 1919, Joe discovered that Actors' Equity had called a strike; with very little hesitation, he grabbed a sign and joined the picket line. In 1920, Brown finally made it to Broadway as a comedian in the all-star review Jim Jam Jems. He went on to star in such New York productions as Captain Jinks and Twinkle Twinkle. In 1928, he began his movie career, uncharacteristically appearing in turgid melodramas until he was signed by Warner Bros. in 1929. In his popular Warners vehicles, Brown alternated between playing naive young men who made good despite impossible odds, or brash braggarts who had to be taken down a peg or two. His trademark was his huge mouth, cavernous grin, and drawn-out yell. Joe's best films were those in which he was permitted to display his athletic prowess, such as his "baseball trilogy" Fireman Save My Child (1932), Elmer the Great (1933) and Alibi Ike (1935). Personally selected by Max Reinhardt to play Flute in the lavish Warners adaptation of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream (1935), Brown easily stole the show from such formidable competition as James Cagney, Olivia de Havilland, Victor Jory, and Mickey Rooney. During his Warner years, Brown and his wife began sponsoring promising college athletes: among Joe's proteges were UCLA football star (and later producer) Mike Frankovitch, and Olympic contestant (and future politician) Ralph Metcalfe. After ending his Warners contract in 1936, Brown starred in a series of largely disappointing low-budget comedies for independent producer David Loew. By the early 1940s, Brown's pictures were strictly in the "B" category, though some of them, notably his brace of co-starring assignments with comedienne Judy Canova, had glimmers of the old Brown magic. He worked tirelessly entertaining troops in all corners of the world during World War II; their enthusiastic response enabled Brown to overcome the death of his son, Captain Donald Evans Brown, in a training accident. After the war, Brown devoted most of his energies to stage work, notably in the road companies of Harvey and Show Boat (he would repeat his interpretation of Captain Andy in the 1951 MGM film version of Show Boat). He added television to his long list of accomplishments in the 1950s and 1960s. Most of Joe E. Brown's final film appearances were cameo roles, with the outstanding exception of his portrayal of daffy millionaire Osgood Fielding in Some Like It Hot (1959), wherein Joe, after discovering that his "girlfriend" Jack Lemmon was actually a man, brought down the house by uttering the film's classic punchline: "Well, nobody's perfect."

Movie Highlights

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