Happy 124th Birthday, Joe E. Brown!

Joe E. Brown was born Joseph Evans Brown 124 years ago today in Holgate, Ohio. He’s best remembered today for the role of millionaire Osgood Fielding III in Billy Wilder‘s Some Like It Hot (1959), but he starred in dozens of feature-length comedies in the 1930s and ’40s. Here are 10 JEB Did-You-Knows:

  • At the age of 10, Brown, with the blessings of his parents, joined a traveling tumbling act, the Five Marvellous Ashtons, that played vaudeville and circuses.
  • In 1920, Brown made his Broadway debut in a review called Jim Jam Jems. Throughout that decade, he continued to hone his comic chops and in 1929, he was hired to star in comedy features for Warner Brothers.
  • Though he appeared small onscreen and generally played ineffectual nebbishes, he was actually quite athletic, having played semi-pro baseball for a time, and his physique, occasionally displayed in his pictures, was very impressively defined.
  • During World War II, Brown let his movie career lag while he worked tirelessly to entertain the troops in Europe. He was one of just two civilians to be awarded the Bronze Star for his efforts.
  • After the war, Brown and his wife adopted two German-Jewish refugee girls, naming them Mary Katherine Ann and Kathryn Francis.
  • Brown’s first-born son, Don Evan, who was a Captain in the U.S. Army Air Corps, died during World War II in a plane crash. His second son, Joe L. Brown, grew up to be a baseball executive, serving as general manager of the Pittsburgh Pirates. During his tenure, the Bucs won the 1960 World Series, defeating the New York Yankees in a seven-game series.
  • Beginning in 1924, Brown was a lifelong member of The Lambs, a NYC theatrical club that was found in 1874.
  • In 1948, Brown won a special Tony award for his performance as Elwood P. Dowd in the touring company of Harvey. The award cited Brown for “spreading theater to the country while the original performs in New York.”
  • Brown twice contributed first-person stories to Norman Vincent Peale‘s inspirational publication, Guideposts; the stories appeared in the June 1948 and June 1962 editions of the magazine.
  • Joe and his wife, Kathryn were married nearly 58 years, until his death in 1973.

Happy birthday, Joe E. Brown, wherever you may be!

Joe E. Brown

Fred MacMurray, Man of Many Talents

Fred MacMurray is Turner Classic Movies‘ Star of the Month, and that suits us fine. A total of 32 movies will be shown on Wednesday nights in January, beginning at 8 p.m. ET.

We can’t think of another actor as underestimated as MacMurray. He is widely remembered today for the latter phase of his career—his Disney movies and his television work—but in the 1930s, ’40s and even into the ’50s, he exhibited a wider range than any My Three Sons fan might ever imagine.

After all, can you imagine Steve Douglas, widower and pipe-smoking, cardigan-wearing father of three boys, teaming up with Barbara Stanwyck in a blond wig to kill her husband for an insurance payout?

Fred MacMurray

MacMurray pulled off just such a role in the classic film noir Double Indemnity (he starred opposite Ms. Stanwyck four times altogether, the lucky stiff, beginning with the oft-praised-in-this-space 1940 romantic dramady-slash-Christmas movie, Remember the Night).

Fred MacMurray also was adept at romantic and screwball comedies, appearing opposite Carole Lombard (with whom he also worked four times) in such pictures as Hands Across the Table and True Confession.

When you consider that MacMurray also played a mutinous Navy lieutenant in The Caine Mutiny (1954) and a lecherous advertising executive in The Apartment (released, ironically enough, the same year My Three Sons debuted), you start to get the picture.

To top it all off, MacMurray began his career as a saxophonist and singer with such outfits as the Gus Arnheim Orchestra and George Olsen and His Music. MacMurray also appeared on Broadway in Three’s A Crowd (1930–31). He even appeared in a good number of westerns!

So you see, respect must be paid to Mr. MacMurray, who passed in 1991 at age 83. He really could do it all and is well deserving of his Star of the Month designation.

Direct(orial) mail

Stamps depicting Frank Capra, John Huston, John Ford, and Billy WilderIt’s the first day of issue for a set of four postal stamps honoring a quartet of great (native or naturalized) American motion picture directors, and we can’t argue with the selection of a single one of them. Here’s what the USPS has to say about the occasion:

These Great Film Directors (Forever®) stamps honor four great filmmakers who captured the many varieties of the American experience. Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, and Billy Wilder created some of the most iconic scenes in American cinema. They gave audiences an unforgettable (and in some cases, deeply personal) vision of life.

These four filmmakers received multiple Academy Award nominations, 15 Oscars, and numerous other honors during their lifetimes. But their greatest accomplishment lies in the vitality and artistry of the stories they told through film. The stamp art combines a portrait of each man with a scene from one of his most iconic works.

The background art for the stamp honoring Frank Capra shows a scene from It Happened One Night, a comedy in which a runaway heiress (played by Claudette Colbert) and a reporter (Clark Gable) compare their hitchhiking skills.

For the John Ford stamp, the background recalls a scene from The Searchers, an influential Western starring John Wayne and making Ford’s characteristic use of the American landscape.

The Maltese Falcon inspired the background art for the John Huston stamp. In this classic mystery, gumshoe Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart) goes up against various unscrupulous characters (among them Mary Astor, Peter Lorre, and Sydney Greenstreet).

And for Billy Wilder, the background artwork was inspired by Some Like It Hot, a farce about two male musicians (Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) who seek refuge from gangsters by posing as members of an all-girl band featuring luscious singer Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe).

Art Director Derry Noyes designed these stamps using art by award-winning illustrator Gary Kelley, who created the images using pastels on paper.

You can purchase these stamps, along with First Day of Issue color postmarked envelopes and other related items, here.

Norma Jean in New York

Marilyn Monroe is, quite naturally, most strongly associated with Hollywood, but she spent time in New York City, too.

After all, her two husbands, Yankees outfielder Joe DiMaggio and playwright Arthur Miller both had strong New York connections, and she studied acting for some time with Lee Strasberg.

And then there’s her iconic role in Billy Wilder‘s The Seven Year Itch, which takes place in New York City (though most of it was filmed out west).

Pat Ryan, in a story in today’s New York Times, offers a Monroe mini-tour, with addresses and locales that were key to Monroe’s time in NYC, including the subway grate, over which her skirt was famously blown up in the aforementioned Seven Year Itch, the townhouse seen in that film in which her character and Tom Ewell‘s married but restless book editor both resided, a venerable dive bar on the East Side that she is said to have patronized, and a dozen other museums, business establishments and residences where Monroe spent time.

EDIT: After posting the above, we came across the blog Letteryheady, which features letterheads and stationery of the rich and famous. Among the letterheads featured is one for Marilyn Monroe Productions, Inc., which seems to have headquartered out of the apartment Monroe shared with her then-husband, the aforementioned Miller. That seems a bit odd.

But there’s one little tidbit of additional info found on that piece of stationery: a phone number. I don’t know if it was Arthur and Marilyn’s personal number, or if they had a second number added to serve as a business number, but here’s a dandy little item to add some cachet to your little black book: Marilyn Monroe’s phone number was once ELDORADO 5-2325.

Covering all the bases

Most folks who know George Axelrod remember him for his play (and the movie Billy Wilder made from it), The Seven Year Itch.

But his career took many turns. After a stint in the Army Signal Corps during World War II, the native New Yorker found gigs writing for radio and contributed material to comedians, including Martin and Lewis, before hitting it big on Broadway and moving on to write for television and motion pictures (he wrote the screenplays for Phffft!, Breakfast At Tiffany’s, and the original version of The Manchurian Candidate, among many others).

Axelrod also authored three novels: Beggar’s Choice (1947), a role-reversal comedy that finds a novelist whose racy tome gets banned in Boston and New York turning instead to domestic service when he is hired to cook for a well-to-do Connectict family, and his wife takes on chauffeur duties, Blackmailer (1952), a hardboiled mystery set in the world of New York publishing, and Where Am I Now When I Need Me? (1971), a farce that skewers both the publishing industry and Hollywood.

We’ve read about a quarter of Axelrod’s first two titles. We started Beggar’s Choice a few months back and put it aside not because we didn’t find it engaging, but because some title or other we’d placed on hold at the library finally arrived, and we had to undertake that one instead. We’ll definitely return to Axelrod’s first novel, though we’re not prepared to say just when.

And a just an hour or so, while enjoying the beautiful spring weather in Union Square Park, we ripped through the first forty pages of Blackmailer (which was reissued not long ago by Hard Case Crime — a publishing house of which we are big supporters — though we were reading the original edition pictured here), which is a snappy thriller involving one Richard Sherman, a partner in a low-rent publishing concern that survives mostly on the sales of crosswod puzzle books whose life is turned upside down when a beautiful dame turns up in his office offering to sell him the final completed work by a hot-shot author who died just months before. Trouble is, she’s not exactly forthcoming about how she got her hands on this desirable piece of goods, and his company is not exactly the kind of house that would generally have a shot at publishing such a hot — in every sense of the word — property.

What’s more, a big theatrical agent has contacted him via the mail, offering to sell Sherman the same book. Whom to believe?

Things go from bad to worse when a couple of tough guys show up at Sherman’s apartment, subjecting him to a thorough beating and breaking apart or cutting to shreds every single one of his possessions that could possibly be hiding … well, hiding what? The author’s manuscript? They don’t say (they’re not talkative types).

As we said, we’re about forty pages in — a quarter of the way through this quick pulpy read — and we’re sufficiently hooked to stay with it till the big finish (it’s a reasonably safe assumption that there will be a big finish).

We find the disparity between these two covers striking, don’t you? You’d never guess, to look at them, that they were written by the same author.