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Joe E. Brown is chiefly remembered by the last generation or so of film buffs as the addled millionaire boatsman enamored of Jack Lemmon's female impersonator in Some Like It Hot (1959). It's less well recalled these days that the large-mouthed funnyman enjoyed a substantial heyday over the course of the 1930s, raking in box-office profits for Warner Brothers in a string of successful lowbrow comedy vehicles. Beyond the mugging that the performer could achieve with his prodigious pie-hole, the other signature of Brown's comedy was the physicality made possible by the natural athleticism that let him pursue a stint as a semi-professional baseball player. Not surprisingly, there are many jock-themed farces on his resume, including 6 Day Bike Rider (1934), Alibi Ike (1935), Polo Joe (1936), and The Gladiator (1938). Joe probably found the best such fit for his talents when he took on the Broadway baseball saga Elmer, the Great (1933).
The Ring Lardner-George M. Cohan stage comedy starred Walter Huston in its original Broadway run, and Brown actually headlined a 1931 revival. (Moreover, the story had actually already been filmed once before as Fast Company (1929), with Jack Oakie in the lead.) So Joe was more than ready to step into the cleats of Elmer Kane, country-boy outfielder with an ego proportionate to his considerable home-run power, whom the Chicago Cubs pluck from the sticks in the hope that he can lock up their long-sought World Series berth and eventual championship. (Boy, the more things change...)
Between his frustrated affections for a hometown girl (Patricia Ellis), the conniving of various gamblers and fixers, and some improbable gamesmanship on the part of the Yankees during the Fall Classic, Elmer's got his hands full until the final fade-out. While Elmer had been an ace pitcher in previous incarnations of the story, the film was produced at the career height of the legendarily gifted, and just as legendarily cocky "Dizzy" Dean, pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals, and the studio might have been uncomfortable with the coincidental similarity.
In his 1959 autobiography Laughter Is a Wonderful Thing, the baseball-savvy Brown acknowledged Chicago White Sox pitcher Ed Walsh as having inspired Lardner's Elmer, and declared that he drew his own characterization from Philadelphia Phillies hurler Harry Coveleskie. "Coveleskie came from some mining town in Pennsylvania and he was what you might call unlettered," the comedian recalled. "He was a pretty good pitcher. He had a lunk walk and was funny to watch."
The direction was capably handled by Mervyn LeRoy, who was behind the camera for three other Brown vehicles (Top Speed (1930); Broadminded (1931); Local Boy Makes Good (1931)) and remembered the comedian fondly in his 1974 autobiography Take One. One incident concerned Mike J. Frankovich, later a front office executive and producer for Columbia, then just a UCLA student who Brown and his wife had taken into their home as an adopted son. "I did give him one line, though, to please Joe," the filmmaker wrote. "It was a simple line: 'Good morning, Elmer. Have you had your breakfast yet?' A simple line, but poor Mike was so nervous it took us a dozen takes to get it right. Whenever I see Mike these days, I kid him about that line and he kids me back."
Director: Mervyn LeRoy
Screenplay: Thomas J. Geraghty; Ring Lardner, George M. Cohan (play)
Cinematography: Arthur Todd
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas
Film Editing: Thomas Pratt
Cast: Joe E. Brown (Elmer Kane), Patricia Ellis (Nellie Poole), Frank McHugh (Healy High-Hips), Claire Dodd (Evelyn Corey), Preston S. Foster (Dave Walker), Russell Hopton (Whitey), Sterling Halloway (Nick Kane), Emma Dunn (Mrs. Kane), Charles Wilson (Mr. Wade), Charles Delaney (Johnny Abbott), Berton Churchill (Colonel Moffitt), J. Carroll Naish (Jerry), Gene Morgan (Noonan).
BW-73m. Closed captioning.
by Jay S. Steinberg