Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Thursday, June 16, 2005

How Now Joe E. Brown

Joe E. Brown cranked out the movies back in the late twenties and early thirties. A quick scan at the indispensable www.imdb.com shows he starred in 39 movies between 1928 and 1939. I hadn’t seen any in thirty-some odd years until catching “Fireman Save My Child,” and “You Said a Mouthful” in recent weeks on TCM.

Brown’s most famous role was many years later, a bit part in “Some Like It Hot,” in which he wooed Jack Lemmon’s female persona. But, in his younger days, Brown was a physical comedian with an aw-shucks personality and a signature way of hollering that starts out quiet and builds to a loud wail. Any of his old movies feature this holler about two dozen times, and it’s pert near always funny.

They didn’t spend much time on the plots in these films. “Fireman” is about a baseball pitcher (employed by the St. Louis Cardinals, of all teams) who’s also a great fire fighter, and who gets distracted when he hears sirens. “Mouthful” is a strange confusion of identity picture in which Brown’s character gets mistaken for a champion marathon swimmer. Urged on by his new ward Farina (from Our Gang), Brown wins the heart of a very young Ginger Rogers by actually managing to win the hours-long marathon despite never knowing how to swim before he got there.

It’s not logic we’re looking for here. It’s Brown’s huge gaping maw of a mouth, a hole larger than anything not drawn by Jack Kirby in the 60s. It’s his wind-up toy awkward movements, his ability to create strange patterns with his arms, head, and legs which he can duplicate several times in each movie. It’s his ability to be seen as foolish yet unbeatable at the same time. There is no suspense in these films, no real connection between sequences. It’s just a series of gags interrupted by half-hearted romance. These are not guffaw-inducing comedies, but they’ll put a smile on your face and a warm feeling in your belly. And, hey, two down and 37 more to go.

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