Hard to believe, but in the 1930s Joe E. 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?
Having said that, 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.)
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.
Fact is Brown was a deft physical performer, a first-class athlete who loved baseball, fathered two athletic sons (one wound up as an executive with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the Sixties) and remained married to the same woman for nearly 60 years.
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.
Brown worked hard to entertain the troops during World War II (he lost one of his sons in the war) and, by the late Forties was back in the Hollywood saddle. He appeared in several high profile features into the 1950’s. Brown passed in 1973, a stroke victim, at the aged of 80.
Ok, let’s see how much you know about this curious comedic figure. As usual, questions today and answers tomorrow. Here we go:
1) Question: Joe E. Brown. What did the “E” stand for? a) Ernest; b) Evans; c) Edward; or d) Nothing. It was the phonetic version of “Joey.”
2) Question: Which one of the following Brown costars in Alibi Ike went on to take a pr0minent role in an extraordinarily successful tv series. a) Buddy Ebsen; b) Forrest Tucker; c) Jim Backus; or d) William Frawley.
3) Question: Brown may be best known for this 1959 comedy in which he portrayed a witty millionaire. Can you name the picture and it’s director? (Hint: do the initials MM mean anything to you?)
4) Question: Which of the following actresses were NOT costars of Brown’s? a) June Travis; b) Thelma Todd; c) Joan Fontaine; or d) Olivia DeHavilland.
5) Question: Although known principally as a screen comedian, Brown won a special 1948 Tony Award for his work in a touring production of which one these stage productions? a) Where’s Charley; b) Mister Roberts; c) Harvey; or d) A Streetcar Named Desire.