Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Before comedian Jim Carrey came along with to tickle us with his elastic-faced antics, there was Joe E. Brown. This hilarious 1936 vehicle "Earthworm Tractors" (**** out of ****) shows Brown in top comic form as Alexander Botts, a boastful character in the stories of author William Hazlett Upson, who touts himself as 'a natural born salesman and master mechanic.' Born in 1891, William Hazlett Upson worked as a service mechanic and trouble-shooter for Holt Caterpillar Tractor Company. In 1923, Upson started writing short stories. In 1927, the nationally published general interest magazine "Saturday Evening Post" published his first yarn about caterpillar tractor salesman Alexander Botts. Upson wrote his stories in the form of letters and memos between Botts and his boss. Alexander Botts wants to marry pretty Sally Blair (Carol Hughes of "D.O.A."), but he faces stiff competition from broad-shouldered Emmet McManus (brawny Dick Foran of "The Petrified Desert") who drives a nice car. Botts demonstrates the latest product that he sells. This gadget is a pipe that you blow into that sends a little cork up a string and attaches itself to a hook. Grandiosely, he describes this contraption as "a little novelty that opens the pores, clears the eyes, takes the mind off business worries, and last but not least brings laughter back into the life of the working man."

Predictably, Sally's father (Olin Howland of "The Paleface") is appalled and contemptuously calls him a 'peddler.' Emmet laughs uproariously, too. Sally refuses to wed a salesman who sells frivolous items. Together, they scan the pages of a magazine to find something 'big, important, and worthwhile' for him to push, and Botts settles eventually on selling bulldozers for the Earthworm Caterpillar Company. He hopes that Sally will delay any trips to the altar until he can prove that he can sell these bulldozers.

Back in his hotel room, equipped with a phone, Botts types out a letter to the Earthworm Tractor Company and the boss, H.J. Russell (Charles Wilson of "The Mayor of Hell") likes the letter. "It shows the kind of nerve it takes to make sales," proclaims Russell and he sends George Healey (Gene Lockhart of "Northern Pursuit") t0 meet him in Cypress City, Mississippi, to demonstrate the Earthworm Tractor. When Healey meets Botts, he suspects that Botts isn't everything that he has stacked himself up to be as a mechanic. Healey only wants him to demonstrate the Earthworm to a Mr. Jackson, but he guzzles a bottle of what appears to be whiskey but turns out to be shoe polish and winds up sick. Cheerfully, Botts takes his place to make the sale. Healey has told him to look up a Mr. Jackson, but of course, Botts gets Jackson mixed up with Johnson and heads off to sell Johnson. In town, Botts helps a damsel-in-distress, Mabel Johnson (June Travis of "Circus Girl"), who has gotten her convertible sedan stuck in the mud. Botts wraps a rope around her bumper, around a nearby light pole and ties it off to a taxi. The results are hysterical. The back end of the cab is pulled off. The light pole crashes through the glass doors at the bank, but Mabel's car is freed from the mud. Botts tells one and all that the Earthworm Tractor Company will pay for all the damages.

Mabel gives Botts a lift to see her father, cantankerous Sam Johnson (the irrepressible Guy Kibbee of "Babbitt"), who suffers from a hearing loss problem and constantly reprimands his one employee for watching the clock. Johnson hates all things automotive, because he brought a truck and got it stuck in a swamp where it's still sets. Botts comes up with a stratagem to entice Johnson to buy his tractor when he offers to pull Johnson's truck out of the bog with an Earthworm tractor. Johnson and Botts ride to the railway depot in Johnson's horse and wagon. Botts and he climb aboard the Earthworm and Botts—who has never driven a bulldozer—promptly demolishes everything in sight at the depot and then takes the Earthworm down to the swamp. Again, he destroys Johnson's truck. However, in the process of all the mayhem, Botts convinces Mr. Jackson—the man that he was supposed to see—into buying six Earthworms. Before news of the sale reaches Russell, Russell has fired Healey and Botts, but he rehires Botts.

This is only the first half of this wonderfully funny movie. Ray Enright never wastes a moment. When Joe E. Brown doesn't have you in stitches, then Guy Kibbee has you laughing until you want to burst.

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