I was excited when Warner Archive released several Joe E. Brown movies recently. I'd always liked the comic actor, who was best known for his astonishingly large mouth, but I'd only seen him in two of his later films, Some Like it Hot (1959) and Hollywood Canteen (1944).
His appearance in Canteen was a brief cameo, focused solely on the comedian's ability to wrap his mouth around large portions of food. He was, despite his famous closing line in the film, perfect in director Billy Wilder's Hot, playing the happy-go-lucky Osgood Feeling III, a millionaire who turns out to be much more savvy than anyone gives him credit for. I loved him so much in this role, that I can't believe I never attempted to see more of his work.
I finally remedied that by checking out a pair of early Brown flicks: You Said a Mouthful (1932) and Local Boy Makes Good (1931).
It was interesting to see Brown in his prime, I liked him more than I expected. I think this is because I thought the gags about his mouth size would become tiresome over the course of an entire movie. Sometimes it does get old, but the comedian has a lot more to offer than a wide grin. He lends a nice eccentricity to the familiar comic underdog character. I didn't find him hilarious, but his oddball charm is pleasantly amusing. It's easy to see why he was so beloved.
As shipping clerk Joe Holt, Brown is the butt of cruel jokes from his office mates. This despite the fact that he has invented a swimsuit that floats, so that it is impossible for the wearer to drown. When the disgruntled clerk learns he has inherited one million dollars from an aunt in California, he ditches his sorry situation and bolts to the sunny coast. There he finds he hasn't quite hit the payload, but has instead found himself the custodian of the son of his aunt's maid (played by Farina of Our Gang).
The cash-strapped pair boat to Catalina Island in search of work at a hotel, but en route Holt is mistaken for a swimming champion by socialite Alice Brandon (Ginger Rogers). Smitten by the charming woman, he doesn't attempt to clear up his identity and instead enters a race across the Pacific to the mainland. Of course he doesn't know how to swim.
Brown has quirky appeal as the nervous clerk. He can be grating when yelping for help or overemphasizing his thin-lipped mouth, but there's something magnetic about him. There's a lightness to his eyes, a bit of sparkle. Though in his early forties, he radiates youthful hopefulness and a gentle wonder that makes you love him. I found myself gazing at him as I would a handsome leading man or a glamour girl.
While Brown pulls off some amusing physical humor, he's most interesting when he slows down and gives you a close look at that unusual face. In a running gag, every time the comedian concentrates on his interior monologue, he deliberately makes a fist and rests his chin upon it. Then a voiceover with a much stronger, more authoritative voice than his own barks out his thoughts while he blinks into the camera. It's very silly and strangely enjoyable.
Ginger Rogers and Farina are the brightest players in the supporting cast. With her high-pitched baby voice, Rogers is still in the kewpie doll phase: clearly a budding star, but not yet possessing the tartness that would make her our Ginger. Though Farina speaks as if he can hardly form a sentence, as was common onscreen in those more blatantly racist times, he's just as clever and charismatic as he was in his Our Gang shorts. In fact, his wisdom is such an integral part of the plot that I wondered if there was a bit of subversion at play.
Local Boy Makes Good (1931)
In this less inventive, though still enjoyable campus comedy, Brown is John Augustus Miller an anxious botanist and book store clerk who pines for beauty queen and psychology student Julie Winters (Dorothy Lee). He writes her swoony love letters, which he never means to send. When his landlady drops one in the mail, he finds himself under pressure to fulfill his promises of manly feats of athleticism. His bookstore co-worker Marjorie (Ruth Hall) observes with sweet sadness as she has a crush on the botanist cum budding track star.
Miller is a bit of a sad sack when it comes to the outside world. Early on he laments, "I guess I'm not the kind of fella' people wave at. They just point at me." His only true problem is a lack of confidence though. As it turns out, Miller is a natural athlete, and is soon sought after by the college.
Brown makes good use of his surroundings, finding lots of opportunities for gags, whether among the stacks at the bookstore or running backwards to victory on the field. In an exchange with aspiring psychologist Winters, he fends off questions about libido and sex that were risqué even for a pre-code. Its all the more amusing that the scene comes off so innocently. The humor isn't quite laugh-out-loud funny, but there are plenty of clever bits to keep the action moving along.
Though they differ in significant ways, Joe E. Brown reminds me a lot of Buster Keaton, especially in this film. They both played shy, insecure men who were also remarkably fit--even muscular--and impressively athletic when the situation demanded it of them. I was often reminded of Keaton's College (1927) while I watched Local Boy Makes Good.
Other Joe E. Brown titles recently released by Warner Archive include: Broad Minded (1931), Elmer, The Great (1933) and A Very Honorable Guy (1934). The Archive also has several other Brown movies available as well.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing copies of the films for review. These are Manufacture on Demand (MOD) DVDs. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.