7 February 2015 | BrianDanaCamp
Brown sings two songs in Chinese
The novelty value of POLO JOE (1936) is found chiefly in two scenes in which star Joe E. Brown sings songs in Chinese. He also frequently resorts to using Chinese phrases in the course of his frenetic activities throughout the film, even talking to a horse that way in one bit. This is all a result of his character having worked in China for the previous decade in a job that's never defined. The first song is heard in the very first scene as he sits in a train car on his way to his Aunt Minnie's home, where he will be staying. Later, at a dinner party welcoming Joe, Aunt Minnie (Fay Holden) reveals that she's hired three Chinese musicians, performing traditional instruments, to accompany Joe as he sings. One of the musicians, played by Dong Yuen Jung, even sings a duet with Joe, who has wisely made sure, before his performance, that the musicians speak the same Chinese dialect that he does, a rare acknowledgment of China's multiple languages in a Hollywood film referencing China. (I'm assuming Joe speaks Mandarin in the film, although he never identifies his dialect and the way he speaks it is not clear enough for me to rule out the possibility that it's Cantonese.) This isn't the only time I've heard Caucasian Hollywood stars speak Chinese in a Hollywood film. Shirley Temple does it in STOWAWAY, the same year as this film. And twenty years later, Clark Gable does it in SOLDIER OF FORTUNE (1955) and both John Wayne and Lauren Bacall do it in BLOOD ALLEY the same year. I'm sure there are plenty of other examples, although these are the only ones I can think of offhand.
Otherwise, there isn't much to recommend this film. It uses the standard Brown plot line of lying about possessing a particular skill and then being called on it and having to prove it. He did this also in YOU SAID A MOUTHFUL (1932), where he pretends to be a swimming champ. Here he pretends to be a polo champ, all to impress a girl (Carol Hughes). Brown was a natural athlete and is always impressive when he engages in any sports activity on film and invariably did all but the most dangerous stunts, so his character didn't have to lie about anything. It's a cheap and lazy device on the part of the screenwriters. In any event, polo is not a particularly compelling sport, nor does it lend itself very well to comedy. And the people who practice it and watch it are all idle, shallow rich people who get tiresome on screen pretty quickly. The best scene in the film involves a donkey who runs loose around Aunt Minnie's house up and down staircases, butting into every room and terrorizing the occupants, giving the audience, for a brief moment, one noble critter worth rooting for.
Gordon Elliott plays Brown's snooty polo-playing romantic rival and I was surprised to learn that he later took the name of Wild Bill Elliott and became a notable B-western star. I've seen some of those films and reviewed one of them, HELLFIRE (1949), on IMDb and the actor in this comedy hardly looks like the later western star and doesn't sound like him at all, which means he underwent one remarkable transformation in creating his western persona. Carol Hughes, who plays southern belle Mary Hilton, the object of Brown's affections, later played Dale Arden in the third Flash Gordon serial, FLASH GORDON CONQUERS THE UNIVERSE (1939).
POLO JOE was the last film Brown made at Warner Bros., ending a successful seven-year tenure at the studio. He left to go independent and his career suffered greatly as a result, thanks to the lackluster low-budget vehicles he chose to make. He never regained his star status, although he did a number of notable character roles over the subsequent decades.