Joe E. Brown.
If the name is not familiar to you, the face probably is: today, Joe is best remembered for his flawless performance as Osgood Fielding, III in the 1959 classic, Some Like It Hot.
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 (about $2 million today). You don’t earn that kind of money without being incredibly popular with audiences, and incredibly good at what you do.
Joe E. Brown: An Underappreciated Star
In complete honesty, I never had a great desire to research the life of Joe E. Brown until he was named TCM ‘s Star of the Month in March of 2020.
Ever since, I’ve had the greatest respect for this exceptional man. Joe E. Brown literally did not 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.)
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:
Joe E. Brown Was An Acrobat
Joe E. Brown was born in 1891, and grew up during the heyday of the circus. From the moment he saw a poster advertising the “big top,” Joe knew 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 also knew he wanted to contribute to the family finances.
So he ran away from home to join the circus.
Well, not exactly. It was actually quite the opposite. Joe had his parents’ blessing to leave home and become an acrobat. As Joe himself later joked, 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 was one of the first performers to execute “the passing somersault,” the trick where two acrobats 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.” 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 admirable that Joe decided to use what nature gave him to full advantage. Joe recognized the strengths of his unconventional features and, rather than lament the fact that he didn’t look like Clark Gable, Joe capitalized on his uniqueness.
Joe E. Brown Would Not 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 judgment, and soon honed his comedy skills in burlesque and Vaudeville.
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No matter the show or venue he appeared in, Joe E. Brown held a steadfast rule with his brand of comedy: it would be clean. From his earliest days as a comedian to the end of his career, 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. If he would feel ashamed telling a certain a joke in front of his mother, then Joe decided 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, Joe summed up his convictions about clean humor [aff. link]:
“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, can 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 Played Semi-Pro Baseball
Before he made it big in Hollywood, Joe E. Brown supplemented his performing income by playing semi-pro baseball in the summers. Despite his undeniable talent, Joe was always modest about his baseball abilities [aff. link]:
“Unfortunately, [once he became a star], the publicity department at Warners 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 ‘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?’”
His 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. When the Browns first married, a City Hall wedding was all Joe could afford. But he promised Kathryn a grand church wedding and honeymoon in the future, when they could afford it.
Joe kept this promise. On their 25th wedding 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 shares 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
Joe E. Brown would one day make $100,00 a film on his comedy pictures. But he started off in Hollywood making dramas.
Indeed, 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
Many are aware of Bob Hope’s admirable contributions to the WWII war effort. Hope’s time spent entertaining the troops is legendary.
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.
At fifty-years-old when the US entered WWII, Joe was 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 struggle before finding success in show business, Joe E. Brown was convinced that he was the luckiest man on earth.
As Joe once shared of this admirable outlook:
“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 motto that underscored his intrinsic positivity and goodness:
“I thought then, as I think today, that it’s great to be alive.”
Whether delivering a comedic line or making one of his classic faces, Joe E. Brown’s positivity, goodness, and love of life shine through. It’s why audiences of the day adored Joe on screen and off, and why, even half a century after his last film, we should too.