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Joe E. Brown was a major star in his day, but modern viewers need to get past a few obstacles if they hope to enjoy his movies. Despite his big-screen popularity, Brown was really an eager-to-please stage entertainerwho treated motion pictures as an extension of his live act. Narrative concerns took a distant back seat to "material" for this type of performer, so don't expect Son of a Sailor, a corn-pone vehicle in which our hero joins the armed services, to be particularly challenging. Joe E. aimed for nothing but guffaws, and he wasn't shy about mugging for the camera to generate them. Some of his reaction shots make The Little Rascals look like minimalists.
In Son of a Sailor Brown plays an idiot who winds up succeeding in a situation that seems well beyond his skill level...but that's pretty much what he did in every movie. This time out, he's "Handsome" Callahan, a sailor who badly wants to live up to the example of his heroic father. For reasons that are too ridiculous to get into, Handsome finds himself aboard a target-practice ship that's scheduled to be sunk by the Navy. This, as you might expect, leads to his accidentally breaking up an enemy spy ring. And there you have it.
Brown, of course, later appeared in Billy Wilder's classic comedy Some Like It Hot (1959), and capped the film with one of the great closing lines in film history. But Son of a Sailor, for all its silliness, features two performers whose lives later took exceptionally tragic turns.
Brown's co-star, Jean Muir, appeared in a series of mostly mediocre films for Warner Bros. throughout the 1930s (an exception was A Midsummer Night's Dream, 1935), but she, like so many other performers, eventually fell victim to Joseph McCarthy's "Red Scare." On Aug. 27, 1950, Muir was about to debut in a TV series called The Aldrich Family when the show was suddenly and unceremoniously canceled by NBC. It turned out that Muir's name had recently appeared as a "Communist sympathizer" in the publication, Red Channels. Would-be viewers raised such a stink with the network, the plug was pulled, even though there wasn't a shred of evidence to support what was written.
Muir insisted that she was never a Communist, and said that she viewed the party as a destructive force in America. Nevertheless, she didn't work on TV again until 1958. In later years, she taught acting classes at Stephens College in Columbia, Missouri.
At least Muir lived through her trials. The same can't be said of her beautiful, talented co-star in Son of a Sailor - Thelma Todd. By 1933, Todd was a well-known comic actress who co-owned a popular Hollywoodrestaurant called The Sidewalk Cafe, which brought her into contact with all kinds of big-spenders, some shady, some respectable. She was a modern woman who very much enjoyed her time in the spotlight. She also managed to break a lot of hearts along the way, and ended up addicted to pills.
In due course, she made the mistake of getting too close to the notorious mob figure, "Lucky" Luciano. The gangster reportedly tried to get Todd to open an illegal gambling casino on the top floor of The Sidewalk Cafe, and she refused. Shortly thereafter, she began to receive death threats and told friends that she feared for her life. On the morning of Dec. 15, 1935, Todd was found in her garage, slumped in the front seat of her Lincoln convertible. The official cause of death was carbon monoxide poisoning, but, to this day, there are many unanswered questions about her untimely demise. Todd's story is one of the true tragedies of 1930s Hollywood.
Director: Lloyd Bacon
Screenplay: Al Cohn, Paul Girard Smith, Ernest Pagano, H.M. Walker
Cinematography: Ira H. Morgan
Editing: James Gibbon
Art Design: Anton Grot
Principal Cast: Joe E. Brown ("Handsome" Callahan), Jean Muir (HelenFarnsworth), Thelma Todd (The Baroness), Johnny Mack Brown (Duke), FrankMcHugh (Gaga), Garry Owen (Sailor Johnson), Sheila Terry (Genevieve), GeorgeBlackwood (Armstrong), Samuel S. Hinds (Adm. Farnsworth), Arthur Vinton(Vincent), George Irving (Rear Adm. Lee), Walter Miller (Kramer), KennethThomson (Williams), John Marston (Lt. Read), Joe Sauers (Slug), Clay Clement(Blanding), Purnell Pratt (Capt. Briggs)
by Paul Tatara