Star of the Month: Joe E. Brown
March 6, 2020 | by Shannon
If his name is not familiar to you, Joe E. Brown’s face probably is. Joe was a beloved comedian in the 1930s and 1940s. During his heyday, Brown commanded upwards of $100,000 per film! You don’t earn that kind of money without being insanely popular with the public!
Today, Joe is probably best remembered for his flawless performance in the 1959 classic, Some Like It Hot.
I’ll be completely honest: I’ve never really had a great desire to research the life of Joe E. Brown. So when I found out TCM had named him our March Star of the Month, I knew it would be a great opportunity to learn about a star I probably would not have researched otherwise.
And let me tell you, I am extremely grateful TCM gave me reason to get to know all about Joe for this month! Joe E. Brown was an exceptional human being. I’m convinced the guy didn’t have a mean bone in his body. Joe’s kindness and decency were legendary in his day. I mean, we’re talking Jimmy Stewart-nice guy status here!
When you’re that nice of a person and still become a mega success in Hollywood, you deserve to be remembered!
Here are a few remarkable things I learned about Joe E. Brown:
He Was An Acrobat
Joe was a kid during the heyday of the circus (he was born in 1891), and knew from the second he saw a poster advertising the “big top” that he wanted to be an acrobat. Plus, as one of seven children in a very loving but very impoverished family, Joe desired, at the tender age of ten, to contribute to the family finances.
So he ran away from home to join the circus.
Well, not exactly. Since he had his parents’ blessing to leave home and become an acrobat, Joe would joke that he was
“…probably the only performer in the history of the business who didn’t run away from home to join the circus.”
Joe became a member of “The Marvelous Ashtons,” an acrobat troupe that traveled across the country performing in various circuses.
Cool fact about Joe’s circus years: he and his buddies were one of the first troupes to do “the passing somersault.” That’s that really cool trick were two guys are thrown into the air and flip while passing each other mid-air before being caught by their pals on the ground. The trick inspired the song “The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze,” and young Joe E. Brown was that daring young man flying through the air!
He Knew His Face Was Unique
Joe once said that the
“Only thing I ever could do was make people laugh…And I can take only second billing for that talent. Nature met me more than halfway when it threw a handful of features together and called it a face.”
Joe E. Brown’s face is memorable, unique in its composition of features that were destined to make him one of the most beloved comedians of his era. Though his unique looks would literally be gold to Joe in his later career, as a kid, the day he realized his face was “funny” to others was a hard one: a man in a bar where seven-year-old Joe was selling newspapers made a cruel remark about Joe’s face and [aff. link]
“It was the first time I realized that my face could be considered funny. The knowledge did not please me. It never has since, though I’ve grown accustomed to living with it. I even got so I didn’t mind the press agents who wrote glowingly about my homeliness, or the make-up artists who made it worse by widening my generous kisser. I even grew to like it, when it was bringing me over $300,000 a year, and the greater reward of millions of laughs.”
I think it is so incredibly neat that Joe decided to use what nature gave him to full advantage. He recognized the strengths of his unconventional features and, rather than mope around wishing he looked like Clark Gable, Joe capitalized on his uniqueness.
That’s an attitude I know I can certainly learn from!
He Wouldn’t Tell Dirty Jokes
After Joe’s circus years, he moved his acrobatic skills to the Vaudeville circuit. It was Frank Prevost, his partner and mentor at this time, who first encouraged Joe to explore his natural flare for comedy. Joe trusted Prevost’s good judgment, and soon honed his comedy skills in burlesque and Vaudeville.
No matter the show or venue he appeared in, from his earliest days as a comedian to the end of his career, Joe E. Brown had a steadfast rule with his brand of comedy: it would be clean. Joe would keep his routines appropriate for all audiences.
The standard by which Joe judged his material was how comfortable he would be if his mother were in the audience listening. If he would feel ashamed telling a certain a joke in front of his mother, then it didn’t belong in his shows. Joe was a firm believer that comedians
“…didn’t have to stoop to dirty stories to hold an audience.”
In his autobiography [aff. link], Joe sums up his convictions about clean humor:
“If somebody isn’t around to pass out new material, jokes deteriorate. Like everything else that’s used too much, jokes get dirty. And when the jokes get dirty, everything else gets dirty. That’s why I took my job so seriously…because, with everything else I believe, I have faith that people honestly prefer things clean.”
No matter our own comedy preferences, isn’t it admirable when someone has an ideal and sticks to it? I love that Joe strongly believed in clean humor, and remained consistent in this belief and practice throughout his career.
He Was a Natural Athlete. And Played Semi-Pro Baseball!
YES! Isn’t that cool?!! Before he made it big in Hollywood, Joe supplemented his performing income by playing semi-pro baseball over the summers. Joe was always modest about his abilities [aff. link]:
“Unfortunately, the publicity department at Warners [once he became a star] kept building up my past as a baseball player until I was one of the all-time greats of baseball. I’ve been trying to live up to it ever since…I have stood alongside some of the greatest ball players in the world and heard them say (about me) ‘This fellow is a ballplayer.’ Of course I don’t know just how they meant that, what reading they gave it. Maybe they said ‘This fellow is a ballplayer?’”
Modesty aside, Joe had to have been pretty darn good, for in 1920, Red Sox manager Ed Marrow asked Joe to sign a contract to play with the team!
Joe turned the offer down because by that stage of his career, show business was paying better than baseball. But baseball remained a great passion, and Joe even had the chance to play ball players in some of his best films, including Elmer the Great (1933) and Alibi Ike (1935).
He Married the Same Woman Three Times
Joe E. Brown is one of those rare Hollywood stars who only married once. Or rather, he only had one wife….
Joe met his future wife, Kathryn, at age twenty-one. He sweetly says of falling for his wife that
“It is a strange commentary on the long years I spent in the theatre, constantly surrounded by women, some of them beautiful, many of them alluring, and all of them sophisticated, that the only serious romance of my life was with a girl who had nothing to do with show business, the girl I eventually married.”
Kathryn was the first and only woman Joe ever loved. A City Hall wedding was all Joe could afford when they married, but he promised his wife a grand church wedding and honeymoon in the future when they could afford it.
Joe kept this promise, and on their 25thwedding anniversary, the Browns married each other again, this time in a church, with their four children (and daughter-in-law!) present.
The Browns would marry each other a THIRD time after Kathryn became a devout Catholic. As Joe proudly says in his autobiography,
“So it is my happy boast that we are the only married couple I know who’ve been married three times to each other without ever having a divorce.”
I think that’s so cute!
His First Hollywood Films Were Dramas
Yep, Joe E. Brown, who would make $100,00 a film on his comedy pictures, started off in Hollywood making dramas.
After years of trying to make the transition from Broadway comedy shows to movies, the first six films Joe made in Hollywood were dramas. And he died in five of them!
Although he enjoyed branching out into serious roles, when Joe could afford to be more choosy with his films,
“I began to turn down roles that were strictly dramatic. I felt like a great actor when I could make people cry, but I got an even greater thrill out of making them laugh.”
He Was Awarded the Bronze Star
We’ve all heard of Bob Hope and his amazing bravery and contributions entertaining our troops, but did you know that Joe E. Brown did all of that even before Bob Hope? Joe was the first performer to entertain US troops in the South Pacific.
Joe was so dedicated to bringing humor to these “comedy-starved” audiences that he even performed by electric torchlights in areas where brighter lighting was prohibited because of proximity to enemy lines.
Talk about bravery. He was undoubtedly even more motivated to provide humor to our brave troops after losing his eldest son Don in the war.
All in all, Joe traveled 200,000 miles over the war years, performing in the South Pacific, India, China, the Near East, Africa, Italy, and Australia. Joe eve broke a few military regulations by participating in a tank attack, an infantry engagement, eleven bombing raids, and by taking one prisoner.
Joe became one of two civilians awarded the Bronze Star for his bravery and contributions to World War II.
What an honor! At fifty-years-old when the US entered WWII, Joe may have been too old to enlist, but he more than contributed his share to the war effort.
He Was Grateful
From everything I read and researched about Joe in preparation for this month, it seems that despite his impoverished youth, unconventional looks, and decades of hard work and struggle before he found success in show business, Joe was convinced he was the luckiest man on earth.
And I LOVE that attitude:
“I have found more than my share of happiness in a family, in friends, in work. I have always felt that my work is the grandest business in the world.”
A Positive Mantra
I want to close this post on Joe with a short and sweet thought Joe shares in his autobiography while reflecting on the tough days of his youth [aff. link]:
“I thought then, as I think today, that it’s great to be alive.”
This mantra, that it’s just great to be alive, shines through in Joe’s film performances. We the audience can feel his zest for life as he delivers a comedic line, or makes a classic Joe E. Brown face.
Joe’s love of life is contagious, and I think it’s why audiences in his day absolutely adored him on screen and off. It’s certainly one of the reasons why he deserves to be better remembered today.
So celebrate Joe E. Brown with me this month! Be sure to check my site calendar for the Joe E. Brown films I plan on catching, and head on over to tcm.com for a complete list of all Joe’s films TCM will feature in the coming weeks!
Are you a Joe E. Brown fan?