Joe E. Brown.
If the name is not familiar to you, the face probably is.
Joe was one of the best loved comedians of the 1930s and 1940s. At the prime of his career, Joe commanded upwards of $100,000 per film. You don’t earn that kind of money without being incredibly good at what you do, and insanely popular with the public.
Today, Joe is probably best remembered for his flawless performance in the 1959 classic, Some Like It Hot.
Joe E. Brown: An Underappreciated Star
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 named him our March Star of the Month, I knew it’d be a great opportunity to get to know a star I probably wouldn’t have researched otherwise.
And let me tell you, I now have the greatest respect for this exceptional man. Joe E. Brown didn’t have a mean bone in his body. Joe’s kindness and decency were legendary in his day. We’re talking Jimmy Stewart-nice guy status here.
When you’re that nice and still become a mega success in Hollywood, you deserve to be remembered.
Here are a few things about Joe E. Brown you didn’t know:
He Was An Acrobat
Joe was born in 1891, and grew up during the heyday of the circus. Joe knew from the second he saw a poster advertising the “big top” that he wanted to be an acrobat. And as one of seven children in a loving, but very impoverished family, at the tender age of ten, Joe wanted to contribute to the family finances.
So he ran away from home to join the circus.
Well, not exactly. Joe had his parents’ blessing to leave home and become an acrobat. As such, Joe later joked 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.
During his circus years, Joe became one of the first performers to execute “the passing somersault.” That’s that really cool trick when two guys are thrown into the air and flip while passing each other mid-air before being caught by their partners 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.
Joe E. Brown 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 sold 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.”
It’s incredibly admirable that Joe decided to use what nature gave him to full advantage. Joe recognized the strengths of his unconventional features and, rather than mope around wishing he looked like Clark Gable, Joe capitalized on his uniqueness.
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 kept 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.”
Dirty jokes, no matter how unfunny, produce laughs out of sheer audience discomfort. It takes a more skilled comedian to make an audience laugh without resorting to such cheap humor. It may have required more thought and craftmanship to keep his humor clean, but to Joe E. Brown, it was worth it.
The fact that Joe remained consistent with his clean humor convictions throughout his career makes his comedy standards all the more admirable.
Joe E. Brown Was a Natural Athlete. And Played Semi-Pro Baseball
Before he made it big in Hollywood, Joe supplemented his performing income by playing semi-pro baseball over the summers. Despite his undeniable talent, Joe was always modest about his baseball 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 must have been pretty 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. Joe later played baseball 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, more accurately, he only had one wife. Who he married three times.
Joe met his future wife, Kathryn, at age twenty-one. As Joe recounted of falling for Kathryn:
“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 married 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.”
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.”
Joe E. Brown Was Awarded the Bronze Star
We’ve all heard of Bob Hope’s admirable bravery and contributions to the war effort by entertaining our troops.
But Joe E. Brown did it all first.
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.
Joe was 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.
Talk about bravery.
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 Considered Himself Lucky. And Loved Life.
Despite his impoverished youth, unconventional looks, and decades of hard work and struggle before finding success in show business, Joe E. Brown was convinced he was the luckiest man on earth.
It’s an attitude that’s beyond admirable. As Joe once said:
“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.”
Even during the tough, impoverished days of his youth, Joe lived by one simple mantra:
“I thought then, as I think today, that it’s great to be alive.”
It’s great to be alive. This mantra shines through in Joe’s film performances, whether he’s delivering a comedic line or making a classic Joe E. Brown face.
Joe’s love of life is contagious. It’s no small part of why audiences of his day absolutely adored Joe E. Brown on screen and off. And it’s certainly one of the reasons why he deserves to be better remembered today.
Celebrate Joe E. Brown!
Celebrate Joe E. Brown with me this month, and join me next week for all about Joe, Betty Grable, and 1944’s Pin-Up Girl.