Posts Tagged ‘Joe E. Brown’

Joe E. Brown Was a Baseball Man

May 2, 2012

Elmer, The Great, 1933.

If you remember comedian Joe E. Brown at all, it’s probably for his role as the lecherous old Osgood Fielding III in the 1959 movie “Some Like It Hot,” starring Marilyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon, and Tony Curtis, bit the fact is – the rubber-faced widest mouthed comic in Hollywood was out there making comedy films as far back as 1927.

Joe E. Brown was also the consummate baseball fan and not a bad athlete. During the 1930s, he made two baseball movies that were essentially the same movie twice. In both “Elmer, the Great” (1933) and “Alibi Ike” (1935), Brown plays bumpkin “PHE-noms” that come out of the country wood work to star for the Chicago Cubs and lead the WIndy City Boys to world championships. Each movie carries with it a “best girl” to cheer him on to victory, gambler bad guys who get in the way of glory temporarily, and a fairy tale finish that the Cubs could actually win it all in the end.

William Frawley (right) managed Brown in "Alibi Ike" (1935).

In “Elmer, The Great,” Brown was manly a star pitcher. In “Alibi Ike,” the played a slugger whose ability to make excuses for failure almost always exceeded his ability to come through in a pinch – until the foul actions of criminals and threat of losing his girl friend straightened him out. – Is that ploy old, or what? Heck, it was ancient when Brown dug it up for his baseball movies.

Esteemed actress Olivia de Havilland played Brown’s lady-love in “Alibi Ike” (1935). Four years and seventeen movies later, de Havilland was cast as Melanie Hamilton in one of the greatest movies of all time, “Gone With The Wind” (1939). – Joe E. Brown didn’t make t into that one.

"Alibi Ike," (1935).

Back in the early 1950s,  the late Buddy Hancken took over as field manager of the minor league Waco Pirates at the same that Joe E. Brown’s son, Joe Brown, was taking over the same franchise as general manager. The younger Brown was already on his way to becoming the future general manager of the parent Pittsburgh Pirate and to his role as a major front office force in leading the big club to their dramatic 1960 win over the New York Yankees in the World Series.

During the Waco tenure, elder Brown Joe E. came to Waco at the start of the season, suiting up as a Pirate player and taking the field for a little pre-game and shadow ball entertainment play for free before the fans. Buddy says that Joe E. Brown was a delight to be around who just burst with pride over his son’s rising success as a baseball club operator. – It’s no wonder where the younger Brown’s passion for baseball began. How could anyone grow up with a father like Joe E. Brown and not like baseball?

Interesting too is the fact that actor William Frawley of the “Alibi Ike” film, who later played Fred Mertz on the “I Love Lucy” TV show, was also a first class baseball fan and one of the regulars with Joe E. Brown in the annual Hollywood Stars All Star Games that played out every season for several years in the Los Angeles area.

Buddy Hancken used to tell the story of his days in the Pacific Coast League back in the 1940s. His Seattle club was in Hollywood to play the team named the Stars on the day that the movie actor Stars Game was set to be played, but Buddy and Company was unaware of the fact.

“We were in the clubhouse shower,” Hancken said, “when I started up a chorus of “Just a Closer Walk With Thee” because, as a kid from Alabama, hymns were the only songs I knew. We no sooner got ‘Just a closer walk with Thee…’ out of our lungs when we all of a sudden heard this great voice pick up on the song just outside the shower.”

“Blessed Jesus – hear my plea!”

We walked outside the shower to take a look and, what do you know. It was Bing Crosby. He had got that early to play in the celebrity game and they had directed him to our dressing room as a place to change. They were going to play the game between the two sets of our doubleheader, as best I remember.

Well, under the circumstances, there wasn’t much else to do that made sense. We kept on singing the rest of the hymn in our birthday suits, but with the help of America’s best singer of his time, Mr. Bing Crosby.

Thanks, Buddy. Lore or fact, it’s still a great story. Things of substance that we love ooze with lore. Things that don’t matter – do not.

And thank you, Joe E. Brown, for loving the game of baseball. Let’s hope the people of Pittsburgh appreciate that little ripple of caring that you cast into the stream of love for the game and what it helped bring to them in such a very big way through his son and others back in 1960.

Joe E. Brown’s Baseball Movie Trilogy

March 26, 2011

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.