Joe E. Brown’s Baseball Movie Trilogy

Alibi Ike (1935)

Many of you may not remember comedian Joe E. Brown. The guy worked America’s funny bone in movies a very long time ago now. In fact, he was 80 years old when he passed away in 1973, so you are duly forgiven, but still regretfully deprived if he played no part in your earlier cultural education about life in America and our special love for the game of baseball.

Known for his rubbery face, his very large mouth, and his long-winded, comically framed ability to hold a singly sung or shouted note,  Brown made a trio of movies during the 1930s that were all dedicated to one of the most overworked fiction themes in baseball novel and movie history.

These movies were “Fireman Save My Child” (1932), “Elmer the Great” (1933), and “Alibi Ike” (1935). All cast Joe E. Brown as the naive country bumpkin with incredible talent for baseball. “Fireman,” the first, is both the worst and hardest to come by as far as viewings are concerned. It may hit the screen at TCM (Turner Classic Movies) every now and then, but I’ve never seen it there. In fact, I haven’t seen it in years. “Elmer” and “Ike” are both easier to see and acquire through TCM or by DVD. Order them at TCM or through Amazon.

Famed sports writer Ring Lardner had a hand in writing the scripts for both “Elmer” and “Ike” and maybe that’s why each of these movies had Joe E. Brown coming up as the star that finally led the Cubs to pennant and World Series victories back in the 1930s. After all, Cubs fans of that era were starting to get a little fed up in 1933 with the fact that they had not won it all since 1908.

In each case, Joe’s baseball character falls into the beguiling hands of the slick city girl hustler who leads him astray – and into the deeper clutches of mobster-based gangsters who entrap or kidnap him as a result of gambling losses into missing “the big game” until he is able to fee himself and get back to the ballpark in time to save the day.

The ploys of each film run together for me now. I do recall that Lucille Ball’s character actor for Fred Mertz (William Frawley) plays Joe’s Cubs manager in “Alibi Ike,” while the great Olivia DeHavilland makes her screen debut in the same film as his home town girl. She would go on to take a supportive sctress Oscar four years later in “Gone With The Wind.”

In “Fireman,” Brown stars for the Cardinals; the other two films arrest him as a Cubs hero. In “Ike,” a climatic scene plays out through a night game at Wrigley Field.  It’s supposed to be Wrigley Field in Chicago, but the film was actually shot at the lighted Wrigley Field in Los Angeles. The fact that Wrigley Field Chicago would not have lights until 1988 did not bother the continuity folks working the “Alibi Ike” script one little iota.

Whoever handled continuity for “Alibi Ike”  must also have had a kid who later handled the casting of right-handed New Yorker Ray Liotta as Shoeless Joe Jackson in “Field of Dreams.” Who’s going to notice the difference, or even care? Right?

"Are you ready to win another big pennant for the Cubs, Ike?"

“Ready to win another pennant for the Cubs, Ike?”

Joe E. Brown’s son, Joe Brown, later served a successful term as General Manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates, causing the elder Brown to cast his lot as a dedicated Bucs fan. In 1950, while the younger Brown was coming up as the GM for the Pittsburgh farm club Waco Pirates, the late Buddy Hancken served there too as the club’s field manager. According to Buddy, Joe E. Brown was so involved in his son’s movements there that he came to Waco for about a month and sat on the bench with the club in uniform to be a part of it all. This field access also provided the old showman with an opportunity to act out some of his own shadow-ball routines on the sidelines as the mood and inspiration struck.

One doesn’t have to be crazy to be a baseball fanatical, but it helps. It also helps if the fanatic possesses some entertaining talent. And Joe E. Brown had far more of the latter than he did of the former. Baseball misses his insanely talented dedication to the game.

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7 Responses to “Joe E. Brown’s Baseball Movie Trilogy”

  1. bbprof Says:

    Bill:

    I remember two of the movies, especially “Alibi Ike.” I think it was adapted from a Ring Lardner story of the same name that I later read. Brown was was one of a kind and I always envied his baseball lineage, along with that of Hope and Crosby. I think I remember the Elmer movie…just the character and not much of the plot. This post was a nive trip down memory lane…which baseball is so good for…I, like you, had most of my childhood tied up in the game. Doubt if any kid can say that today, There is too much of the noise of sports—a constant frenetic action where one season blends into another. I was “bored” more than they but also had more time to test my imagination. The BBPROF

  2. Cliff Blau Says:

    Did you ever notice that William Frawley looked just like Frankie Frisch? Both he and Joe E. Brown were big baseball fans.

  3. Bud Says:

    I loved those Joe E movies. Elmer the Great was Elmer Kane. Had some actual WS footage showing Ruth and Gehrig.

  4. emmettmcauliffe Says:

    “Fireman” had the accuracy of having a real Cardinal scout sign the letter to Joe offering to sign him to a Cardinals contract: Charley Barrett. ps Charley was “discovered” as a scout while working in a sporting goods store by original Browns owner Bob Hedges.

    Anyway I think that is more accurate than today’s baseball movies would bother to be. Of course today MLB has a “scorched earth” licensing policy and they would probably want money just to use the name , for example, “Mo Mozeliak” on a telegram.

  5. Rebecca Says:

    I don’t find any reference to Joe E. Brown’s movie “The Earthworm Tractor”. Does anyone have information on this? I’m also looking for anyone who is interested in Brown’s memorabilia.

  6. nbv Says:

    I have a photo my g pa took at a game or filming Joe e brown and Jimmy Crandall family photo norm 626 215 4620 amazing photo

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