Admit it—you’ve never seen them on the big screen. Vaudeville roots, topical slapstick, ethnic humor and plenty of nyuk, nyuk, nyuk enliven this compilation of classic Stooges hits in sparkling new 35mm prints, including Oscar nominated Men in Black, plus Violent is the Word for Curly and You Nazty Spy a Hitler satire that predated Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator.
Few tastes cut as sharply across gender lines as a love for the Three Stooges. I’m somewhat of a maverick here, having grown up with them, as few people have the opportunity to do now, during a steady diet of afternoon kiddie tv. Michael Fleming says in his illustrated history, after quoting Leonard Maltin that he is “one of a handful of people still alive who have viewed most of the two-reelers of the 1930s.” Well, excuse me! What about all those little kids who religiously watched Captain Penny after school on Cleveland tv in the 1960s?
I don’t like the Stooges for the slaps, eye-pokes and pie fights. And this is intensely personal: I like them because they were the only people that I saw on tv when I was a kid that I knew for a fact were Jewish. I knew this, because my mother used to explain their Yiddish jokes to me, how if somebody’s boss was nicknamed A.K. it was because the letters stood for alter kocker, or “old shitter.” Shari Lewis had not yet celebrated Passover, so the Stooges were all I had. They may have been embarrassing landsmen, but they were all mine.
There were five brothers in the Horowitz, changed to Howard, family. Irving and Benjamin went into the insurance business. Samuel, nicknamed Shemp, Moses or Moe and the baby Jerome, called Curly, after he shaved his hair off to contrast with his long haired brothers, went into show business. They were joined by fellow vaudevillian Larry Fine. To begin with, the Three Stooges were Larry, Moe and Shemp on stage, and Curly joined the act only after Shemp got some solo work playing bit parts in a number of movies. For example, you can see him tending bar in WC Fields’ The Bank Dick. They were stooges, meaning the dumb recipients of the humor of the lead comic, Ted Healy, an Irish pal from the neighborhood. The way Ted Healy and the Stooges did the act, it was really violent. Without the movie sound effects, the slaps had to echo to the farthest balcony. Ted Healy was a funny guy, but he was an unpredictable and violent alcoholic. He gifted the Stooges with their shtick, but paid them a pittance. Eventually, he cut them loose, dreaming of movie stardom, but died of injuries sustained in a barroom brawl shortly afterwards. Although The Stooges took their act to a few big budget films, like Joan Crawford’s Dancing Lady, they are shown to best feature advantage in a quirky early sound picture called Soup to Nuts that was written by cartoonist and inventor Rube Goldberg. They are probably doing their vaudeville act in that movie, in which Larry says he is doing the elevator dance. The music starts, but he doesn’t budge. The elevator dance—there are no steps to it. Ka-Bong!
By the time Curly joined the act, Moe, the group’s business manager (although not a particularly good one) had signed a contract for two reel comedies with Columbia Pictures. Supposedly an hour later, Larry unknowingly signed a contract with Universal—but, the earlier contract was honored. The Universal deal was for features, not shorts, and whether Abbott and Costello would have even existed if the Stooges had filled that niche at the studio remains a topic of speculation among fans.
While the origin of the Stooges comedy routine was vaudeville, the reason for their success in movies was all the help they had from comedy veterans of the silent film era, both in front of and behind the camera. Del Lord, who had been a director for Mack Sennett studios deserves a lot of the credit for the initial success of the stooges. Clyde Bruckman worked with many of the greats, including Buster Keaton, and Charley Chase, a brilliant comedian in his own right, was another of their directors. These shorts were ground out quickly. A 35 page script was shot in a few days, each 2-reel short lasted 18 minutes, and they cost around $27,000 apiece. The Stooges individually made $500, $750, $1000 a short, but all rights were signed away, and they and their heirs never made a penny more. They certainly owe a lot of their successful trademark humor to sound editor Joe Henrie--a man who loved his work. All alone in the cutting room, he would laugh at his own sound effects, plucking a violin string when a hair was being jerked out, crack a whip to punctuate a slap or scrape sandpaper as a saw was run over Curly’s skull.
Moe and Larry might have been just hard-working comedians, but Curly is a great one. His physical comedy, his raging frustration, his nyuk, nyuk, nyuks and his woo woo woos, were admired and copied by other comedians, including Stooge fan Mel Gibson, in his Lethal Weapon movies. (Growing up with lots of brothers, he had plenty of time practice Stooge routines).
The Stooges were popular when their films were in theaters—in fact, theater owners sometimes had to book a list of undesirable Columbia B pictures in order to get the Stooges' comedies. But, since they were always working, they had little idea of how popular they were, and worried from year to year whether their contract would be renewed. They got raises, but little ones, and lived comfortably off their salaries and the extra money they made from public appearances.
They would have been forgotten, like so many other comedians who toiled in short subjects, if not for one thing, television. Here they were the benefit of the studio’s underestimation of their longevity. Forty of their shorts were assembled in a package by Screen Gems, the Columbia tv subsidiary, and sold to televisions stations around the country for a pittance. Even the tiniest little Podunk station could afford them—the net result, a generation of kids who had the opportunity to memorize every detail during the repeated showings of these shorts. Columbia didn’t take long to realize that the Stooges increasing popularity was a gold mine, and started raising their prices, the studio made $12 million from the initial re-release of the Stooge oeuvre, 190 comedies made between 1934 and 1958.
The enduring popularity of the Stooges was evident in the sold-out screening at the NC Museum of Art. There was lots of father-son bonding, from little kids all the way up to sullen teenagers. And, people laughed! Although all seven shorts were a bit of an overload (five would have been better) the Stooges can still work an audience. One happy parent told me: "If you show more, we'll be back." And, there's no illusion about whether the shorts are educational, "We're here for the Shakespeare," a dad with two little boys in tow announced grandly as his tickets were torn. One can only imagine all the Stooge routines being enacted in cars on the way home. Even if, as moviediva, jr. moaned, "I feel so much stupider!"
Yes, the Stooges are lowbrow. But, their influence is wide ranging. Nearly all Hollywood comedies can trace themselves back--not to the clever wordplay of Preston Sturges but to the brutal slapstick of the Stooges. The Farrelly Brothers adore them, and few present day comedies are free of the pain and humiliation the Stooges wrought on comedy movie history. There has been talk of a big budget Stooges biopic, with "real" violence. Am I alone alone in wishing this will never happen? I dread the release of a $100 million blockbuster with Joaquin Phoenix glowering in the title role of Moe.
Here’s the 75th Anniversary Program:
Men in Black (1934) Filled with silent movie vets like Dell Henderson (who played Marion Davies' father in Show People), Hank Mann, and Billy Gilbert, their third short was a parody of the medical drama Men in White. It was nominated for an Academy Award (the only time) but lost to a cartoon, La Cucaracha. Calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard!
Violent is the Word for Curly (1938) Charley Chase directs the Stooges as they infiltrate a girls college and teach the co-eds an infectious nonsense song. The title is a goof on the popular “Valiant is the Word for Carrie.”
You Nazty Spy (1940) Moe, in a scary Hitler moustache, becomes the dictator of Moronia in this satire on the Nazis that predated Charles Chaplin’s The Great Dictator. This was an audience favorite: "Why are you Russian around? Quit Stalin!"
An Ache in Every Stake (1941) Three icemen are convinced to prepare a society dinner for Vernon Dent and Bess Flowers. A tall LA staircase may be the same (or similar) to the one in Laurel and Hardy's The Music Box.Watch for Blanche Payson at the top of the stairs, she was the tall cave woman in Buster Keaton's The Three Ages. Curly's turkey-stuffing routine got big audience laughs.
Bess Flowers was an extra who may have appeared in more films than any other person in American movies. The imdb lists 704 entries in her filmography from 1923 to 1969. Her statuesque height (for the day) of 5' 8" and her extensive wardrobe combined to create a demand for her services. "I was always clothes conscious. I wanted to be an individual always, never one of the hoard. Mitch Leisen started making clothes for me at Paramount, when he was head designer there. He used to rave about my figure, and he introduced me to Walter Plunkett at MGM as a wearer of beautiful clothes." She bought the clothes made for her, building a wardrobe; a dress extra was expected to provide his/her own clothes for background scenes. The more clothes you had, the more you worked. Casting directors would call to hire a costume, and the person whom it fit would follow. Sometimes she had bit parts, and an occasional line, but in other films she was just a walk-on.
She was from Texas, born in 1898. She told author Anthony Slide, "My father was very strict, and when I had a date my poppa came in and just bawled the boy out. And, I was furious with my father. My momma used to keep extra money in the sugar bowl and I thought to myself, 'I'm going to take that money and I'm going to New York because I want to be an actress.' As I went to the station, I saw a great big sign with oranges growning which said California.'What the devil, I'll go to California and get in pictures.' So, I did. I got a job the first day I ever went on an interview." She began in 1922 (which indicates that the imdb lacks some titles) and her first noticeable role was in Charles Chaplin's A Woman of Paris in 1923, in which she played a model on a podium, wrapped only in a length of fabric. She was in an amazing number of famous films, Marlene Dietrich's Blonde Venus (1932) It Happened One Night (1934) Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936) My Man Godfrey (1936) The Awful Truth (1937) Holiday (1938) with Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis' Now Voyager (1942) Double Indemnity (1944) All About Eve (1950) Singin' in the Rain (1952) and Rear Window (1954). But she was also a frequent victim of Stooges mayhem. Her last performance was in Good Neighbor Sam (1964) with Jack Lemmon. Slide became a friend of hers late in her life when she lived at the Motion Picture Country House, along with a special storage area for her wardrobe (one wonders what became of it!). She told him, "I never amounted to a row of pins in the picture industry, but I made a good living. I'm lazy, from the South, so I never took anything that was hard. I was always good to Bess."
In the Sweet Pie and Pie (1941) Three society girls in need of husbands for to get their inheritance marry the Stooges on Death Row. Clyde Bruckman incorporates a gag, selling concessions at a hanging, from a silent Buster Keaton short on which he collaborated. When they are pardoned, home life begins, which includes the first major pie fight, in their 58th short. Also in attendance, dowager Symona Boniface, wearing the same dress as in An Ache...but I don't think the dry cleaners could ever get that one clean again. The pie fight is hilarious; there's just something about whipped cream in those elaborate 40s hair dos that is sure fire fun.
Micro-Phonies (1945) Curley, in drag as Madame Cucaracha, lip syncs to a recording of the "Voices of Spring", really sung by the woman I thought (as a child) was the most beautiful woman in the world, Christine McIntyre. She wears an unusual one shoulder evening gown in the party scene with (again) Flowers and Boniface.
Brideless Groom (1947) One lone Shemp short, somewhat of a reversal of the previous short. He’ll inherit a fortune if he marries in 24 hours. “Hold hands, you lovebirds” trills Emil Sitka, a line appropriated by Quentin Tarentino (another Stoogeaphile) for use in Pulp Fiction.
(Sources include Selected Short Subjects by Leonard
Maltin, An Illustrated History of the Three Stooges by Michael
Fleming, Silent Players by Anthony Slide, and his article about
her (and a photo from) the June-July, 1984, Films in Review)