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Depression-era audiences got a kick out of Joe E. Brown, a top comic with an aw-shucks bashful persona and a face that looked like it was made at a taffy pull. Even kids of my era had to have Joe E. Brown explained to us -- we thought he was a cartoon character from animated spoofs that invariably showed him opening his mouth to a size bigger than the screen itself. Luckily for Brown, Billy Wilder immortalized him as a screwball millionaire in his great comedy Some Like it Hot. Joe E. Brown was a big UCLA sports booster, and the "Joe E. Brown" field on campus stood until Pauley Pavilion was built in the 1960s. Before his death in 1973, we'd see pictures of Brown at UCLA games, singled out in the stands and waving for the camera.
Alibi Ike is a silly, entirely enjoyable comedy that deserves a place among the all-time great baseball movies, comedy league. Brown is Frank X. Farrell, a fantastic pitcher with a self-contradictory personality. He continually boasts of his prowess on the field, but also avoids telling anybody the truth about his feelings. His fellow players, especially catcher Carey (Roscoe Karns) are always trying to trip Farrell up, but his flimsy excuses for his fibs earns him the moniker "Alibi Ike".
"Ike" is the only hope for the Cubs, according to its manager Cap (an alarmingly young William Frawley). Ike talks like a hayseed goofball but can back up his boasting in any game -- besides being a whiz on the pitcher's mound ("I intend to throw them pitches they can't hit!") he's great at billiards. Some of the jokes are funnier than others, but Brown's general behavior and guileless attitude will have almost anybody smiling in approval. His one big gag -- besides his signature yell -- is a ridiculous pitch wind-up that begins with a simple wrist swivel, and grows to a full windmill before he lets go. It's a silly parody of "Casey at the Bat"-style ostentation, and it's fall-down funny no matter how many times Joe E. Brown repeats it. I'll bet that a lot of sand lot kids practiced for hours trying to repeat Brown's maneuver.
For romance, Alibi Ike gives us Olivia de Havilland in her first movie appearance; this movie was shot after but released before her instant-stardom debut in A Midsummer Night's Dream. As "Dolly Stevens" De Havilland isn't called on to do much more than smile at Brown and coax him into acting all lovesick, a job she handles with ease. Several of their courting scenes are exemplary exercises in effortless "cute". Nobody will remember this as a significant Olivia de Havilland picture, but it doesn't matter. Their romantic crisis is caused by Ike's big mouth: too bashful to admit that he's engaged, he tells his buddies that he feels sorry for Dolly, and she overhears.
Sports journalist and short story writer Ring Lardner is given a possessory credit on Alibi Ike, and apparently is the driving force behind its baseball cred. All the ball players on view are pros, and it is said that fans of the game can spot several big names -- with the famous Jim Thorpe added to the cast for more appeal. The movie barely needs a plot, but Lardner and screenwriter William Wister Haines cook up a group of crooks who pose as a "Boy's Club" to rope Ike into promising to throw games. The big finale has Ike evading the crooks and rushing to the ball park; he has to play in a ridiculous oversized uniform, looking like a New-Deal David Byrne.
Alibi Ike was the third of three Joe E. Brown baseball movies. He was consistently popular but his film career took a downturn a couple of years later and never fully recovered. He later found plenty of work on TV and the stage (he was originally a Vaudeville star) and never aired his problems in public. Alibi Ike is a merry introduction to Brown at the peak of his Warners film career.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Alibi Ike looks quite good in this presentation and the audio in particular is far more clear than old TV prints. A couple of scenes exhibit a bit of shrinkage unsteadiness, and that's it for flaws; the amusing original trailer on board gets laughs by having Brown's signature foghorn yell come out of the mouths of a number of other actors.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Alibi Ike rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.