Joe E. Brown had what may have been the world’s most enormous smile – the kind of expression that you can’t help but smile back at. And while his face may be his most well-remembered asset, he certainly wasn’t short on talent either.
Joseph Evans Brown was born in Holgate, Ohio on July 28, 1891. He spent most of his young years in Toledo – the city closest to the small town in which he was born.
Even as a child, he was already showing great talent in many arenas. He performed as a tumbler in vaudeville acts, joining a circus group called The Five Marvelous Ashtons before he was even a decade old.
And tumbling wasn’t his only skill. Joe was a fantastic baseball player, and at one point was even propositioned to sign with the New York Yankees. Instead of continuing his career as a professional baseball player, though, Joe turned the Yankees down and kicked off his career as an entertainer. (He would later portray baseball stars in quite a few of his films.)
His film career began with Warner Bros., where his star rose after his appearance in 1929’s One with the Show, an all-color, musical talkie. By 1931, he earned the right to receive top billing on the promotional posters and lobby cards for his films, and his career kept momentum until the mid-1960s.
Joe wasn’t just a great entertainer: he seems to have been an all around stand-up guy. He fought for a bill that would allow German Jewish refugee children into America during World War II, adopting two of the refugees himself (and later adopting two more children). He traveled around the world during that same war, all at his own expense, to entertain the troops since he was too old to enlist – and to personally ensure the delivery of letters from those troops to their parents.
It seems that with modern audiences Joe is remembered for one role only, as Osgood in the Billy Wilder comedy Some Like It Hot. Though Joe is amazing in that role and the film as a whole is highly enjoyable, he appeared in many larger roles during his long career. I regard him as a highly underrated actor with serious comedic talent.
The following are three of my favorite appearances by Joe in films.
It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963)
This was my first exposure to Joe, though I didn’t realize it at the time because I was just a kid. I feel like I’ve been watching this film for my entire life. A slew of great performers (including Buster Keaton!) have cameo
appearances in this film – so many, in fact, that I could make an entire separate list of favorite Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad cameos – but Joe’s is one of the most delightful to watch. He appears as a union official giving a speech at a construction site during one of the film’s best scenes. Though his screen time in this film is quite short, his cameo is unforgettable and the film remains a favorite of mine from childhood.
Fit for a King (1937)
This was a recent discovery of mine (watched in June, review posted yesterday). I bought the film as a blind purchase from my favorite record store, mostly because I’d never come across one of Joe’s leading roles on DVD before and am always delighted to see him carrying a film rather than acting as a supporting player as he did in some of his better-known films. This film won me over from the beginning since it’s got a journalistic plot, and Joe is hilarious as a rookie reporter known as Scoop who ends up on a wild goose chase to get the scoop on a big story.
The Lottery Bride (1930)
Though Jeanette MacDonald is the focus of this film, it was Joe’s scenes with Zasu Pitts which really stood out to me and came close to stealing the whole film. Zasu’s character owns a cafe in Norway. Joe portrays Hoke, a man who shows up at the cafe in hopes of scoring a job as their entertainment coordinator. Hoke is a total cornball. If his jokes were objects, they would take the form of the world’s largest cheese wheels. But Joe delivers the lines in such a witty way that you can’t help but crack up at Hoke despite the fact that he tumbles far off of the corny cliff.