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!

Double Your Fun: Laurel & Hardy in BLOCKHEADS (MGM 1938) and SAPS AT SEA (United Artists 1940)

Hal Roach first teamed Stan Laurel with Oliver Hardy in 1927, beginning a long and prosperous screen comedy collaboration. The pair became the movie’s most beloved, and funniest, screen team, a point  that’s hard to argue against after a recent rewatching of BLOCKHEADS and SAPS AT SEA, two films that each clock in at less than an hour, but pack more laughs than many longer, larger budgeted films of the era – or any era, for that matter!

In BLOCKHEADS, L&H are soldiers during WWI, and Stan is ordered to stand guard in the trench until the troop returns from battle. Twenty years later, he’s still there! Found by a pilot he shoots down, Stan is taken to an Old Soldiers’ Home, when Ollie (once again a henpecked husband) spots his picture in the newspaper. Ollie rushes to see his old pal, and finds him sitting in a wheelchair with his leg tucked under him. Thinking Stan’s lost a limb, Ollie picks him up and brings him home to meet his wife, and of course mayhem ensues as they attempt to climb upstairs to Ollie’s thirteenth floor apartment, encountering trouble at every floor, and a final melee with Ollie’s wife, neighbor Patricia Ellis, and jealous husband Billy Gilbert !

A battalion of comedy writers (Felix Adler, James Parrott, Charley Rogers, Arnold Belgard, and former silent star Harry Langdon) are credited with the script, but let’s not forget the behind-the-scenes contributions of Stan Laurel. Stan held court during the writing sessions for L&H’s films, supervising the entire project, and many of the quick-hit gags sprung from his fertile comic mind. It’s hard to say who came up with what, since all were great gag writers, but they come fast and furious: Stan in the trench, eating beans, tosses his empty can onto a pile (a virtual “hill of beans”!); the aforementioned wheelchair sight gag; perennial nemesis James Finlayson battling Ollie; an obnoxious brat (Tommy Bond, Butch of the OUR GANG shorts) kicking his football on one of the floors; and Stan smoking his “hand pipe” (first used in WAY OUT WEST). One of my favorite gags is when Stan tells Ollie, “You remember how dumb I used to be?…Well, I’m better now”, followed by a series of mishaps that causes Ollie to repeat, in his own inimitable way, “You’re better now”!

Billy Gilbert as the big-game hunting jealous neighbor adds his own blustery brand of buffoonery. Like Finlayson and Edgar Kennedy, Gilbert made a great foil for the boys in many of their shorts and features. Minna Gombell takes the role usually filled by Mae Busch as Ollie’s combative wife. John G. Blystone is the credited director (he also worked with the boys on SWISS MISS), but Stan had final say on all things Laurel and Hardy. After BLOCKHEADS, the team and producer Hal Roach left MGM (though Stan and Ollie would return five years later under drastically different circumstances).

Roach moved his output to United Artists, and his last with Laurel and Hardy is one of my favorites, 1940’s SAPS AT SEA. In this one, the boys work in a horn manufacturing company, where all the noise causes Ollie to have a nervous breakdown (“Horns! Horns!). He’s sent home to get some peace and quiet – no chance of that with Stan around! Ollie’s doctor (Finlayson again) recommends an ocean voyage, which Ollie refuses, but Stan has a brilliant idea (for a change); they could just rent a boat and stay in the harbor, getting as much fresh salt air as they would by going a-sea!

After some chaos involving wayward plumbing (silent legend Ben Turpin cameos as the cross-eyed plumber in his final film appearance) and Stan’s music teacher (Eddie Conrad) stopping by to give him music lessons (driving Ollie berserk!), the boys head to their dilapidated rented scow ‘Prickly Heat’, with a goat named Narcissus in tow (because Dr. Fin recommended Ollie drink plenty of goat’s milk!). Escaped killer Nick Grainger (Richard Cramer, playing it straight), chased down to the docks by police, sneaks aboard and hides on the boat, but Narcissus chews through the line, causing the boat to drift out to sea.


Grainger and his gun (nicknamed Nick Jr.) take control, dubbing the boys Dizzy and Dopey, and ordering them to rustle up some grub… or else! Having no food on board, Stan and Ollie decide to serve Grainger a “synthetic” meal, consisting of string spaghetti, sponge meatballs, paint tomato sauce, soap grated cheese, and the like. The killer watches them make the deadly concoction, then forces them at gunpoint to eat it themselves! More mayhem occurs when Stan begins playing his trombone, causing Ollie to go berserk again and subdue the criminal, just as Harbor Patrol comes across the adrift boat, followed by a funny coda and “another nice mess” Stan gets Ollie into!

Director Gordon Douglas , a graduate of the OUR GANG shorts, keeps things moving swiftly, and writers Adler, Langdon, and Rogers return, but as usual Stan Laurel is the genius behind the scenes. Some of the gags are old (the ‘mama’ doll under the rocking chair, for instance), but Stan and Ollie make them all seem fresh. SAPS AT SEA is their last really great comedy; when they signed a contract with 20th Century-Fox, creative control was taken out of Stan’s hands, and their later films suffered for it. Thank goodness their films under Hal Roach still survive, masterpieces of comedy delivered by the best in the business. The world is a better place thanks to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy!