A fun film if you can find it. A favorite of Joe’s.
Republic Pictures made some pretty interesting films during its time in Golden Age Hollywood. This one — 1944’s Casanova in Burlesque costarring Joe E. Brown, June Havoc and Dale Evans (yes, that Dale Evans) — amply qualifies.
It’s about a stripper (Havoc) who becomes involved with a professor of Shakespeare (Brown) who doubles as a burlesque comic. There is some surprisingly effective light comedy, some surprisingly well-sung songs (especially by Evans, sans Roy Rogers) and a general good nature to this entertaining feature.
Republic Pictures, of all the second string, non-major Hollywood studios, was the most interesting. That’s largely because it was an amalgam of six independent, poverty row production companies, one of which had John Wayne under contract. Republic often hired veteran, over-the-hill stars as well as promising newcomers.
The company was formed in 1935 by Herbert J. Yates, a film investor and owner of a film processing unit. He successfully converted the six indebted production companies in the Depression era — all in hock to Yates’ lab — into working units of the new company, under Yates.
Once formed, Republic enjoyed a productive 32-year run.
Casanova in Burlesque’s low budget indicated its stars had already seen professionally better days. Despite its modest presentation, there are those devoted to the picture because it is unapologetically fun and provides at least a laugh or two.
Hard to believe, it turned out to be one of Joe E. Brown’s most durable titles. In the 1930s, Brown was not only a star but very big box office. Did you know, for example, that he ranked among Hollywood’s top 10 box office stars in 1933 and 1936?
In Casanova In Burlesque, he is part of a troupe of burlesque performers putting on a production of The Taming of the Shrew in a stuffy academic setting. Although we are hard pressed to make a case that much of Brown’s movie work stands the test of time (try sitting through 1935’s Alibi Ike), the very physical comedian reins it in here, and the picture is better for it.
Brown was born in 1892 in Holgate, Ohio, located about 50 miles south of Toledo. (Both towns have commemorated our man via Joe E. Brown Avenue in Holgate and the Joe E. Brown Park in Toledo.) He started his career early, as a 10-year-old runaway who joined a circus act called the Five Marvelous Ashtons.
In the 1920’s he gradually added comedy bits to his tumbling routines, aided by his amazing physical prowess and bizarre physical features, notably a large and rubbery mouth. He loved playing rustic rubes.
His lengthy movie career, covering more than 30 years, commenced in the late 1920’s, and ebbed and flowed. By the mid-Thirties, as mentioned, Brown found himself a big comedy star at Warner Bros. In a decision that haunted his career, Brown then exited Warners and signed on with independent producer David Loew. The result was a series of sub-standard titles and a big dip in general popularity by the end of the Thirties.
By 1944 he was at Republic Pictures.
Brown passed in 1973, a stroke victim, at the aged of 80.
We’ll have lots more about June Havoc in tomorrow’s blog. Stay tuned.