Joe E. Brown
|Released by Warner Brothers | Directed By Mervyn LeRoy
Elmer, the Great: Three Strikes
I have a Facebook friend who is real life friends with French Stewart. I have no idea how this happened. I have no idea if you even know who French Stewart is; I’ve seen Inspector Gadget 2. Stewart is a comedian who has squinty eyes and an oddly measured voice. You may also remember him from the film Love Stinks. Probably not.
I bring up Stewart because his schtick seems to be fairly similar to Joe E. Brown’s own comedic personality. Squinty eyes, big mouth, lackadaisical tone. Not much to it, really. It’s a persona that’s slightly off kilter, like you expect that they have a screen door between them and reality, and only a few bits make it through.
That can be funny when there’s something to push that disconnect, but Elmer the Great does no such thing. Here’s the film’s best joke: “He’s the best ballplayer in the country!” “Hey, and in the city, too!” Oy.
The movie takes place in a fictional world where a baseball team called the Chicago Cubs want to win the World Series and thus acquire talent in hopes of actually doing so. This credibility-stretching setup is compounded by the fact that they hire Elmer, a home run hitting wunderkind who has an ego the size of a ballpark. In spite of that, though, Elmer loves his mother (and the constant stream of pancakes she feeds him), and he dearly loves Nellie, his girlfriend from his old small town.
There’s some dumb bit involving a casino and some betting that goes on, and soon Elmer is in hot water: he has to throw the World Series or else his career will be ruined! But then Nellie pays his debt, so he has to lose the World Series or else she’ll be ruined! But then he bets on the Cubs to win, so he has to win the World Series or else he’ll be ruined!
Elmer the Great isn’t very great, especially for a baseball film. Too much of the time is finding one humorous aspect of Elmer’s character and harping on that: he’s sleepy, here’s him trying to sleep. He’s hungry, here he is continually eating. He’s an egomaniac, here’s how snooty he is to everyone.
The baseball scenes in the film are rare and corny as well. Brown’s natural athleticism is demonstrated by a few hits and fewer scenes of the game being played. Only near the film’s climax when the villainous New York Yankees (boo) use the rainy conditions to fake throwing pitches to Elmer does the game figure into the plot, let alone become exciting. It’s a clever bit of trickery and well played, but it’s also the only real moments of tension or interest in the entire film.
Everyone in this movie is stupid as hell. There are a number of great character actors here– Sterling Holloway! Frank McHugh! Claire Dodd!– all wasted. The rote plot mechanics are funnier than many of its gags.
As a baseball movie, it’s a fairly uninteresting take on the sport– great athlete learns humility. But the methods are cheap writers’ tricks, and the screenplay may as well have been developed along with the sport itself in the late 19th century. Only for those who want to see a cinematic vision of the Cubs actually winning a World Series should check it out, though this movie may be the only thing more ridiculous than that scenario occurring in real life.
Trivia & Links
- This entry is part of the Forgotten Filmz Baseball Blog-a-thon! Be sure to check out all of the cool pieces going up about sports movies this week.
- In completely random ‘I’ve watched too many of these things’ news, Evelyn Knapp wears an identical coat and hat during the second half of this film that Joan Blondell dons in Blondie Johnson.
- Mondo 70 talks about this and the other two famous Joe E. Brown baseball comedies– Fireman, Save My Child and Alibi Ike. They note:
It’s nothing spectacular, but all the Brown baseball pictures are efficiently entertaining comedies maintaining an easy balance of slapstick and character humor. They aren’t exactly among the best comedies of the Thirties, but they’re better than most people are likely to expect.
- TCMDB has an article about the movie with a few cute stories as well.
Awards, Accolades & Availability
- This film is shows on TCM every once in a while. And maybe someone has put a copy up over on YouTube at the time of this writing. Who knows!
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