Spring Fever: Joe E. Brown in ELMER THE GREAT (Warner Brothers 1933)

It may be cold and snowy here in New England, but down in sunny Florida, Spring Training has already begun – which means baseball season is on it’s way! The Red Sox are looking good, although they got pounded by the Orioles in the game I watched this afternoon (I’m writing this on a Saturday), but just hearing the crack of the bats has whetted my appetite for the return of America’s National Pastime. So while we wait for Opening Day to arrive, let’s take a look at the 1933 baseball comedy ELMER THE GREAT.

Comedian Joe E. Brown plays yet another amiable country bumpkin, this time Elmer Kane of small town Gentryville, Indiana. Elmer’s  laid back to the point of inertia, except when he’s eating… or on a baseball field! He’s better than Babe Ruth and he knows it, and so do the Chicago Cubs, who’ve bought his contract from minor league Terre Haute and want him to be their starting second baseman. But Elmer won’t leave his hick town, because he’s got a crush on his boss, pretty general store owner Nellie Poole. When Nellie finds out she’s holding him back, she reluctantly rejects him so he’ll sign the contract and be a success. Disheartened Elmer does, and he’s off to The Windy City.

At training camp, Elmer the big-headed rube gets constantly ribbed by his teammates, but wows ’em at the plate with his hitting power. The season begins, and the Cubs go on a tear, with amazing Elmer belting “67 Home Runs”! Nellie, whose letters have been withheld by team management so Elmer won’t return to Gentryville, flies to Chicago for a visit, and catches Elmer kissing a big city gal! The misunderstanding makes Elmer miserable, so his teammate High-Hips tries to cheer him up by taking the hayseed to a swanky speakeasy/gambling joint. Elmer, thinking they’re playing for “funsies”, racks up a huge gambling debt, and the gangsters that run the joint tell him they’ll rip up the tab if he’ll do them a favor – throw the upcoming World Series against the hated New York Yankees!!

Costars Frank McHugh and Patricia Ellis

Brown’s early 30’s sports comedies are always entertaining, and ELMER THE GREAT is among his best. The screenplay by Tom Geraghty, based on a play by Ring Lardner and George M. Cohan, allows the comic to show off his knack for getting laughs both physically and verbally. He also gets to use that “Big Mouth” of his to good advantage early in the film. Brown’s ably supported by charmingly cute Patricia Ellis as Nellie, Frank McHugh as High-Hips, Sterling Holloway as his kid brother, and Familiar Faces like Berton Churchill, Claire Dodd , Douglas Dumbrille , Emma Dunn, Preston Foster, Russell Hopton, J. Carrol Naish , and Jessie Ralph. And believe it or not, that’s Lucille Ball’s TV nemesis Gale Gordon as the (very) young radio play-by-play announcer!


ELMER THE GREAT was the fourth and final collaboration between Brown and director Mervyn LeRoy , who also guided him in TOP SPEED, LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD and BROADMINDED. It’s a funny little baseball comedy, and best of all (*SPOILER ALERT*), Elmer helps his team rally to BEAT THE YANKEES! Now that’s what a die-hard Red Sox fan like me calls a happy ending!

Screwball Comedian: Joe E. Brown in ALIBI IKE (Warner Brothers 1935)

We’re about a quarter of the way through the baseball season, so let’s take a trip to the ballpark with Joe E. Brown in ALIBI IKE, a 1935 comedy based on a story by Ring Lardner, one of the best baseball writers of the early 20th Century. Brown, known for his wide mouth and comical yell, is an admittedly acquired taste; his “gosh, golly” country bumpkin persona is not exactly what modern audiences go for these days.  But back in the 30’s he was one of Hollywood’s top box-office draws, specializing in sports themed comedies  revolving around wrestling (SIT TIGHT), track and field (LOCAL BOY MAKES GOOD), swimming (YOU SAID A MOUTHFUL), polo (POLO JOE), football ($1,000 A TOUCHDOWN), and racing (boats in TOP SPEED, airplanes in GOING WILD, bicycles in SIX DAY BIKE RACE).

ALIBI IKE is the final chapter in Brown’s “baseball trilogy”. The first, 1932’s FIREMAN, SAVE MY CHILD, found him as a player for the St. Louis Cardinals who doubles as a fireman and part-time inventor. 1933’s ELMER THE GREAT has Brown as an egotistical rookie for the Chicago Cubs. In ALIBI IKE, he’s back in a Cubs uniform as Frank X. Farrell, a hick-from-the-sticks with an unorthodox pitching style and a blazing fastball. His teammates nickname him “Alibi Ike” for his proclivity to come up with an outrageous excuse for everything, but his raw talent sets the league abuzz, raising the hopes of the Cubs long-suffering manager Cap (played by Fred Mertz himself, cranky William Frawley).

The rube’s never been interested in women until he meets Cap’s sister-in-law Dolly, who thinks he’s “cute”. This was movie audiences first glimpse at a 19-year-old actress who definitely had a future before her… Olivia de Havilland ! Olivia had already filmed A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM (also featuring Brown) and THE IRISH IN US, but ALIBI IKE was released first. She’s pretty darn “cute” herself as Dolly, and has great chemistry with Brown. Later that year, Olivia would costar with Errol Flynn in CAPTAIN BLOOD , becoming half of one of the screen’s most romantic couples.

Ike is paid a visit by the president of “The Young Men’s High Ideals Club”, which he soon finds out is a front for a gambling ring that threatens him to throw some games or else! When Dolly breaks up with him over a misunderstanding, the lovestruck hurler loses his first game. Through circumstances, Cap and the team’s president think he’s in with the gamblers, and on the night of the big pennant deciding game against the Giants, Ike is kidnapped! Of course, you just know he’ll escape and wind up winning both the game and the girl, right?

The only quibble I have with ALIBI IKE is the big night game is played on the Cubs’ home field, which as all us baseball fans know didn’t get lights for night games until 1988! Otherwise, this is one of the all-time great baseball comedies, with actors that actually look like ball players for a change. The cast includes Familiar Faces Ruth Donnelly (as Frawley’s wife), Roscoe Karns, Jack Norton  (sober for a change, as a reporter!), Frank Coghlin Jr (Billy Batson in the serial CAPTAIN MARVEL), and Fred “Snowflake” Toones. Hard-core baseball enthusiasts may recognize former old-time players Gump Cantrell, Cedric Durst, Mike Gazella, Don Hurst, and Bob Meusel, as well as Jim Thorpe, whose life story was made into a 1951 biofilm starring Burt Lancaster.

William Wister Haines adapted his screenplay from Lardner’s story, giving Brown plenty of comic opportunities, and director Ray Enright ( PLAY-GIRL , ANGELS WASH THEIR FACES, GUNG HO!) keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. ALIBI IKE is a wonderful place to start if you’re not familiar with Brown’s work, classic movie lovers will want to catch it for Olivia’s screen debut, and baseball fans for the sheer joy of it. Honestly, I think even non-baseball fans will get a kick out of ALIBI IKE. Now let’s play ball!

 

Halloween Havoc!: THE COMEDY OF TERRORS (AIP 1964)

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Vincent Price, Peter Lorre, Boris Karloff, and Basil Rathbone had all appeared together on film in various combinations seven different times, but never all at once until THE COMEDY OF TERRORS. This black comedy masterpiece spoofs AIP’s own Poe flicks and Shakespeare, with the quartet of chiller icons having a grand old time playing Richard Matheson’s delicious screenplay to the hilt. Horror and noir vet Jacques Tourneur gets to direct the old pros, and the supporting cast features classic comic Joe E. Brown and Rhubarb The Cat (more on him later!).

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Price  is Waldo Trumble, the besotted, greedy proprietor of Trumble & Hinchley Funeral Parlor. He’s cruel to wife Amaryllis (Joyce Jameson), a failed opera singer (“I wish her vocal chords would snap”) who he married only to gain control of the company from her doddering old, half-deaf father Amos. “Demon rum will get you yet!”, she tells Waldo, to which he replies, “I look forward to that occasion with anticipation, madam”. Waldo keeps trying to give Amos a dose of poison, which the elderly man thinks is medicine, and Amaryllis keeps stopping him, causing the befuddled Amos to wail, “I don’t believe you care whether your poor old father lives or dies!”.

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Business has been off lately, and landlord Mr. Black (the Shakespeare-spouting Rathbone ) demands his year’s worth of back rent or he’ll throw them all out within 24 hours (Waldo calls him a “penny-pinching old pig”). Soon Waldo and his assistant, the fugitive Felix Gillie (Lorre , who’s wanted for “sundry illicit peccadillos”), go and drum up some business on their own, murdering a well-to-do local. They get the stiff’s funeral, but the widow stiffs them, running off to Boston without paying, leading Waldo to a morbid conclusion: he’ll “kill two birds with one pillow” by murdering Mr. Black, thus billing for an expensive funeral and ridding himself of his overdue rent obligations.

This leads to total chaos when Black, who suffers from catatonia, refuses to stay dead! “What place is this?”, he bellows as he rises from his coffin, causing Waldo and Felix to kill him again. Black’s finally laid to rest in his family crypt, but rises again, scaring the beejesus out of the cemetary caretaker (Big-mouth Brown in his final screen appearance). While Waldo and company celebrate their success, Black grabs an axe and heads for the funeral parlor in a rainstorm, ready to unleash mayhem on the lot of them!

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Price is at his hammy best as Waldo, with one snide remark after the other. When he finds out the first victim’s widow has run off, the murderous undertaker moans, ” Is there no morality left in the world?”. On Amaryllis’s singing, he growls, “Will you stop that ungodly caterwauling!”. He and Lorre (who calls Waldo ‘Mr. Tremble’) are like a macabre version of Abbott & Costello with their homicidal wordplay and bumbling pratfalls (performed by stunt doubles). Rathbone gets to shine too, spouting Shakespeare alone in his bedroom while fencing with shadows, and continuously popping back from the dead with lines like “What jiggery pokery is this?”.

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But its King Boris who truly steals the show as the feebleminded Amos Hinchley. Karloff shows a flair for comedy rarely seen in his films with just a look and a quick quip. Boris stands out amidst all the absurdity, and his soliloquy at the dinner table, babbling about embalming methods, is a scream:

“Old Ben Jonson, buried standing up… Edward III, buried with his horses… Alexander the Great, embalmed in honey, so they say, heehee… Egyptians used to hollow ’em out and fill ’em full of rosin… Egyptains used to bend ’em in two and stick ’em in a vase of salt water… give ’em false eyes, yank their brains out with a hook!”.

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Joyce Jameson holds her own with the seasoned vets as the off-key Amaryllis. She’d acted with Price and Lorre in a segment of the horror anthology TALES OF TERROR, and appeared in films from THE APARTMENT to DEATH RACE 2000, but is best remembered as one of the “Fun Girls” from Mt. Pilot on THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW . Then there’s Rhubarb the Cat, who slinks his way throughout the film as Cleopatra. The Orange tabby, who’s real name was Orangey, was a star in his own right, winning two Patsy Awards (the animal equivalent of the Oscar)  for RHUBARB (costarring with Ray Milland) and as Audrey Hepburn’s pet “Cat” in BREAKFAST AT TIFFANY’S. The feline was one of trainer Frank Inn’s animal stars, and his science-fiction credits included THIS ISLAND EARTH and THE INCREDIBLE SHRINKING MAN.

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Richard Matheson’s  screenplay sends up his Poe films with wit and black humor. Jacques Tourneur takes a break from serious filmmaking like CAT PEOPLE and OUT OF THE PAST , and lets the veteran horror actors take free reign. All the old AIP behind the scenes gang contribute to the madness (DP Floyd Crosby, music score Les Baxter, editor Anthony Carras, art director Daniel Haller), and have a good time doing it. But it’s the four Masters of Terror that make this worthwhile, especially Karloff’s comical performance as Amos. Sandwich this one between ABBOTT & COSTELLO MEET FRANKENSTEIN and YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN for a triple bill of horror and humor on All Hallows Eve, and have yourself a hysterically horrific Halloween!

 

 

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