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,Fireman Save My Child

Fireman Save My Child (1932)

The embattled manager of the Saint Louis Cardinals has a problem. It's game seven of the World Series, and he has a team of merely competent athletes who just are not going to win this on their own. It all depends on their star pitcher, Smokey Joe Grant (Joe E. Brown). Joe is a natural-born baseball player, renowned for his filthy curveball but the big galloot is also an unlikely clutch hitter. Joe could win this thing single-handed--if he could be counted on to show up and pay attention, that is.

Where most young men might dream of getting the chance to pitch in the World Series at all, Joe is cut from a different cloth. He is a reluctant baseball god, who dreams instead of fighting fires ("fires" pronounced to rhyme with "bars.") At every opportunity, he reminds his manager and teammates that the only thing he values is putting out fires--specifically, putting them out using his own invention, a baseball-shaped gas bomb packed with fire-fighting chemicals. Joe needn't even say such stuff--it is evident enough whenever he abandons a game to chase after fire engines.

And on the eve of game seven, Joe has been granted an opportunity to pitch his invention to the head of a major extinguisher manufacturer ("pitch" meant in this context both figuratively and literally). He won't be showing up on the mound until he sorts that out--and even then he'll have to be coaxed to the stadium with enticements such as a chance to wear the fire chief's big hat.

If this, the plot of Fireman, Save My Child (1932) sounds more than a little ridiculous, well, it is a comedy. More than that, it is a comedy made by people who knew baseball.

Joe E. Brown paid his dues as a struggling itinerant vaudeville and circus performer, but he alternated these gestures towards show business by also working as a semi-professional baseball player. When Brown was ultimately signed to Warner Brothers as one of their top comedy stars, his contract stipulated that he was guaranteed a personal baseball team, paid for by the studio. Brown's All Stars' games, played against other movie baseball nuts like Buster Keaton, became the stuff of Hollywood legend.

Fireman, Save My Child shows off Brown's baseball prowess--that is really him, pitching, catching, hitting, sliding. It is clearly Brown, not a stunt double or special effect, doing those things on the diamond--the man is fairly unmistakable.

Brown's distinctive square face, squinty eyes, and enormous shark-like mouth have been widely caricatured in cartoons and movie memorabilia, such that modern audiences may recognize him without ever having seen any of his films. Newcomers to Brown's films will find that Fireman, Save My Child is a representative example, tailor-made to his personality. In addition to its focus on baseball, Fireman also conforms to Brown's gentle, conservative nature.

Movie comedy in the early 1930s was an unruly place. Early comedians were the rock-n-rollers of their generation: Defiant, hard-partying personalities who got rich by bucking conventions. Off-screen, they were prone to scandals, and on-screen they pushed boundaries. Perhaps from today's jaded perspective, even the most ribald of Pre-Code comedies seems quaint and tame, but the sexually charged aspects of early '30s comedies helped usher in a new era of censorship.

It was against this backdrop that Joe E. Brown rocketed to stardom as a comedian who insisted on keeping his act clean. He played an all-American, corn-fed boy with an "aw-shucks" drawl and naïve outlook on the world. Audiences ate him up.

Consider him in Fireman, where he never even figures out how a gold-digging blonde is trying to use him as a sugar daddy. He just thinks she's being extra-nice. His complete lack of perspective drives the comedy--as he variously injures those closest to him (his long-suffering hometown sweetheart Evalyn Knapp, or his exasperated manager Guy Kibbee), while thinking nothing of spending all night waiting outside the office of extinguisher manufacturer Frederick Burton, in the belief that a casual offer to "stop by sometime" constitutes a firm appointment.

The screenplay is credited to Ray Enright, who is better known as a director, and primarily the director behind many of Joan Blondell's comedies at that. It may be that Enright developed the project but was later removed and replaced by the credited director Lloyd Bacon--such behind-the-scenes details are not well recorded for us today. Both Bacon and Enright were comedy veterans who learned their craft in the shadows of Chaplins: Bacon was one of Charlie Chaplin's stock company of players on films like The Rink (1916) while Enright worked on the production teams for films made by Charlie's brother Syd Chaplin.

Twenty years later, B-movie director Leslie Goodwins dusted off the old Enright script and remade Fireman, Save My Child as a 1954 programmer, presumably to cater to those audiences who were clamoring for more comedies about nutty inventors who would rather fight fires than play baseball. The remake was planned as an Abbott and Costello vehicle ("Who's on first?" "Sorry, no time for that now--I think I hear a siren!"), but eventually went before cameras with Buddy Hackett taking the Joe E. Brown role, and Hugh O'Brian and Spike Jones in prominent supporting roles.

The original Fireman, Save My Child is rarely screened, and even appreciative film historians who set out to chronicle Joe E. Brown's comedy career tend to dodge around discussing it, uncertain of its content, favoring better known Brown vehicles like Earthworm Tractors (1936). Fireman, Save My Child is, like its protagonist, an unreliable and reluctant hero--you can never be sure it'll be there when you want it.

by David Kalat

Sources:
William Cahn, The Laugh Makers.
Leonard Maltin, The Great Movie Comedians.
James Robert Parish and William T. Leonard, The Funsters.
David Robinson, The Great Funnies.

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