‘Broadminded’ and ‘Elmer the Great’ Are the Depression Era’s Cinematic Escapism

That Joe E. Brown, he's got a mouth on him.

In the early ’30s, director Mervyn LeRoy and Warner Brothers-First National Pictures put out hard-hitting projects that took account of Depression-era America. Broadminded and Elmer the Great, two Joe E. Brown vehicles, don’t count, however, as they represent the era’s flipside: willfully trivial escapism. With his sleepy eyes, puffy cheeks, and unnaturally big, wide mouth, Brown comes across as a bizarre vaudeville cartoon. Today, he’s best remembered as the eccentric millionaire who provides the punchline in Billy Wilder’s Some Like It Hot. It’s hard to believe in a time when he was hot, but he ruled the early talkies.

Broadminded, whose cleverest joke is the title, functions more as a curiosity than a comedy. It begins with a “wild party,” more irritating than decadent, with everyone dressed up like babies. In a pre-Production Code bit of salaciousness, the hostess (Margaret Livingston) threatens to put everyone to bed. Brown is introduced in a very surreal manner, wailing from a baby carriage. In a later scene, he’s alarmingly convincing when imitating an ape.

The movie settles into a plot about a spoiled playboy (William Collier Jr.) berated by his fatcat daddy (Holmes Herbert) and chaperoned by his fat-headed buddy (Brown) in a cross-country drive to California. They fall in love or something with travelling cuties (Ona Munson, Marjorie White) and tangle with a hair-trigger South American played by Bela Lugosi, whose amusing presence makes the movie all the odder. As an actress who aids in the complications, Thelma Todd has the best female role in the picture, or perhaps she just makes it so.

Though not a musical, it’s scripted by the songwriting team of Bert Kalmar and Harry Ruby. The romantic mix-ups, forbidding aunts, and masquerades feel lifted from P.G. Wodehouse without being as funny. Fortunately, it’s all over in 72 minutes, and so is Elmer the Great. Based on a play by Ring Lardner and George M. Cohan, this is a more substantial, fully rounded character for Brown than the other movie’s larkish knucklehead.

He plays a typical Lardner conception: a small-town boy, both naive and arrogant, whose phenomenal prowess at the bat lands him in the Chicago Cubs and a big game against the Yankees. He’s flanked by an understanding mother (Emma Dunn) and a blond beanpole brother (Sterling Holloway) who makes you think they had different daddies. There are unnecessary complications with a local sweetheart (Patricia Ellis) and illegal shenanigans with gamblers (including J. Carrol Naish). Claire Dodd looks smashing in a nothing role, and Frank McHugh is a buddy who takes Elmer gambling.

The main attractions were Brown and a parade of Major League players as themselves–35, according to the trailer. (IMDb doesn’t bother to list them.) The only bonus is that trailer, which might have been for a re-release, as it illustrates what was acceptable before the Production Code crackdown of 1934. At the climax, the Cubs manager (Preston Foster) tells Elmer to warm up, and he replies “Warm up? Hell, I ain’t been cool since February!” In the trailer, “hell” is blanked out.

Brown, who’d played pro baseball, often used athletic plots. This is his second of three baseball pictures; the others are Fireman, Save My Child and Alibi Ike, another Lardner project that’s virtually the same story. Although Broadminded and Elmer the Great haven’t dated especially well as mindless entertainment, they do remain mindless. Showing his versatility, LeRoy’s direction is vigorous and well-aimed in both pictures. Elmer especially features nice snowy small-town compositions, the very smooth gambling sequence, and the frenetic baseball scenes, which play fast and loose with all kinds of rules.

RATING 3 / 10