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  • James L. Neibaur

Cinema Revisited: Joe E. Brown in “The Gladiator”

Directed by Edward Sedgwick. Cast: Joe E. Brown, June Travis, Dickie Moore, Lucien Littlefield, Robert Kent, Man Mountain Dean. Running time: 72 minutes. Released August 15, 1938.

There was a rumor connected to this simple comedy that it inspired Siegel and Schuster to create the Superman comic. Well, that’s not quite possible. Superman’s origins date back to 1933, and while it was sold to Detective Comics in 1938, the first comic book came out two months before this movie was released. The rumor then shifted to the possibility that the novel on which this comedy is based, which came out in 1930, inspired Superman, but Siegel said this is not so.

Despite it not having influenced Superman, this comedy featuring Joe E. Brown is delightfully super-heroic. Joe is used as a guinea pig by a wacky scientist who injects him with a serum containing the qualities of an ant (allowing him to lift several times his own weight) and a grasshopper (allowing him to jump several times his own height). Joe, back in college to get the necessary degree to keep his job at a children’s hospital, ends up on the football team, knocking over the competition and jumping over the approaching line. When he desperately tries to earn money by going two-out-of-three falls with massive wrestler Man Mountain Dean, the serum runs out in mid-match.

Joe E. Brown was a major star in the 1930s, enjoying the same box office popularity of Clark Gable, James Cagney, Bette Davis, and Jean Harlow. In fact, he was the only comedian in the top ten back then. Laurel and Hardy weren’t, nor were W.C. Fields or The Marx Brothers. Joe E. Brown was the most popular movie comedian in the 1930s. His films were for Warner Brothers, a top studio, and his popularity sustained until 1936 when he chose to leave the studio and hook up with indie producer David Loew who paid Joe a flat fee of $100,000 per movie. Joe would forever regret this decision, but the B movies he made for Loew hold up quite well, “The Gladiator” being among the best.

Director Edward Sedgwick, whose career included working with Buster Keaton, Laurel and Hardy, Red Skelton, and Ma and Pa Kettle, helmed “The Gladiator” and presented a lot of wild visual gags. Brown was a natural athlete, like Keaton, so he had no trouble doing the stunts on the gridiron or in the ring (however picking up Man Mountain Dean for an airplane spin maneuver resulted in a double-hernia operation). The special effects when Joe jumps over the approaching line is done quite effectively for a 1938 B movie.

There is a romantic conflict involving pretty June Travis and stuck up Robert Kent, some pathos with Dickie Moore as one of the children in the hospital, and some wildly funny bits with the likes of Lucien Littlefield (as the scientist) and Eddie Kane (as the promoter). Kane is a scream trying to raise his at and shout “now” to Brown, which is the signal to end the match with a finisher after Joe’s power has gone. He keeps signaling louder and more aggressively until the cutaways from the match show him jumping, sweating, and yelling “NOW, NOW” to no avail.

As with most low budget B movies, “The Gladiator” is charmingly funny without pretension, and remains consistently entertaining throughout its running time. Always relaxing and pleasant, “The Gladiator” is also filled with several big comedy scenes providing good laughs. A pre-serum Joe being used as a tackling dummy, offering a running commentary (“this is the best sawdust I ever tasted!”), Joe effortlessly beating up Man Mountain Dean in the wrestling ring, and unwittingly winning the final fall after a bumbling finish, are among the highlights.

It is unfortunate that the film is no longer accessible. It was available in a DVD set of Joe E. Brown comedies, but withdrawn when it was discovered it was, in fact, not in the public domain as the distributor believed, but still under copyright. I don’t know if it is in any TV packages, but the independent produced film was released by Columbia Pictures. Joe later was under contract at Columbia, however this indie only used the studio as a distributor. After one more Joe E. Brown movie, “Flirting With Fate,” David Loew quit the producing business and retired to South America. He had made six features with Joe E. Brown.

“The Gladiator” is one of those movies that time has forgotten, featuring a comedian that should be better remembered. He was not the creative stylist Buster Keaton had been, but he was very funny and the biggest comedy star of Hollywood’s golden era.

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