I bought a DVD set called The Ultimate Three Stooges this weekend.* I was rather surprised that even 20 DVDs could not contain all of the film work the trio (more on that, below) put together in their long career. But it does contain the core – and the very best – of their work, including several rare and forgotten early pieces.
I’m delighted to have it – before this set I only had a scattered collection of pieces, but nothing this comprehensive.
I grew up in the 1950s watching the Three Stooges in B&W on a TV that showed a test pattern early in the morning and late at night. TV channels didn’t run 24/7: they started and ended at specific hours. I developed an affection for them from back then.
Mostly TV showed re-runs of shorts from the 30s and 40s. My parents fretted over my brother and I watching them; they were considered too violent for children. It was the era of growing awareness of how media affected children. I didn’t see the Stooges as much more violent than the other series we watched – Tarzan, Wagon Train, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Dragnet, The Naked City, The Untouchables, the Twilight Zone, Combat, Rawhide, The Outer Limits, Ernie Kovacs, Dragnet…
Of course unlike today, there was no graphic violence. And sex? None at all (TV couples were usually shown having separate beds if not separate bedrooms!)
At the summer drive-in we watched films like The Attack of the Crab Monsters, The Attack of the 50-Foot Woman, Them, Village of the Damned, One Million BC, Dracula and others. The Three Stooges seemed so innocent, so mild to us kids, in comparison to some of these films. Yet they have stuck with me all these years. I became more curious about the biography of The Three Stooges - and what they represent to the development of modern comedy and cinema, so I spent a few hours online reading.
Their best work was, according to critics and film historians, done between 1935 and 41, when Curly as among them. There are also good productions after that, when Shemp rejoined the remaining pair, but it gets further and further between productions as they aged. The stuff that came in their late career was often rehashed from this material, and the very last material was aimed at children – the Stooges had become just another cartoon series; rendered harmless and quaint animations.
The Three Stooges appeared in 220 films – mostly shorts – between 1934 and the early 1970s. But their careers started much earlier – Moe and Shemp (Moses and Samuel Horwitz nee Howard) first teamed up for a Vaudeville act in 1916, then paired with comedian Ted Healy.
Moe joined in 1922, Shemp in 23, and Larry (Larry Fine nee Louis Feinberg) joined the pair in 1925. The foursome continued a successful Vaudeville career – with Healy as the lead – through the late 1920s. This is also the period I’ve been interested in for its music and growth of media and technology: mid-1920s to mid-1930s.
The group appeared in their first movie, Soup to Nuts, in 1930. The trio broke from Healy shortly after that, in 1931, but returned to work with him again in 32, finally breaking away for good in 34. Shemp left the trio in 1932 to pursue a solo career, and Curly (Curly Howard nee Jerome Lester “Jerry” Horwitz) joined them. He quickly became the most popular of the trio.
The Three Stooges – Moe, Larry and Curly – were so popular in their heyday that their 1934 short, Men in Black, was nominated for an Academy Award (it lost to La Cucaracha). But after a dozen successful years, Curly suffered a stroke in 1946 that forced him out of the business.He died in 1952.
Shemp returned to the Stooges for a short stint replacing Curly, but had a mild stroke himself in 1952. He recovered and continued working for a while, but died in 1955. Then Joe Palma stood in as a Shemp replacement. After him, Joe Besser was recruited as Curly in 1956-57, and finally Joe DeRita (Curly Joe) was recruited, in 1958.
Actor Emil Sitka, who had performed with the Stooges in the past, was proposed by Moe to take Larry’s role after Fine suffered a stroke, in 1970. However, that was never realized (although publicity stills for a proposed movie taken in 1975 show Sitka with Moe and DeRita).
There’s an interesting footnote that the original four Stooges – and the three Howard brothers – only ever once played together in the same film: Hold That Lion!, 1947, in which an ailing Curly – shown with a full head of hair – has a cameo appearance beside Moe, Larry and Shemp. It was Curly’s final film appearance, too.
The early history of the Stooges is fascinating, and not a little tragic. At the height of their popularity, they were conned by Columbia Pictures president Harry Cohn into thinking they were always a hair’s breadth from unemployment to keep their contractual and salary demands low. During their time with Columbia, they produced 190 shorts and five feature films, often under great stress to meet deadlines and budgets.
As their popularity waned post-WW2, Columbia unceremoniously fired the Stooges in 1957, after 24 years of making the film company money.
But Columbia wasn’t done with the Stooges yet.
A small number of Stooges’ shorts had aired on TV as early as 1949. Columbia had a TV arm called Screen Gems that was aggressively looking to sell its parent company’s products on the rapidly expanding medium. In early 1958, Screen Gems offered networks a package of 78 Stooge shorts for rebroadcast. They were so popular and well-received, that Columbia quickly released 40 more shorts.
By 1959, all 190 Stooge shorts made for Columbia had reached TV (those 190 shorts are now in the Sony DVD collection).
This revival raised the Stooges back into popularity and Columbia brought them back under contract – with Joe DeRita as Curly Joe in the lineup. This trio made six full-length films between 1959 to 1965, mostly B&W movies aimed at the “kiddie-matinee market.” But because of their renewed screen popularity, The Three Stooges became one of the most popular and highest-paid live acts of that period, too.
The Three Stooges (Moe, Larry and Shemp) did their first TV show appearance in 1948 and had several more guest appearances through the early 1950s – although a pitch for their own show wasn’t successful. A subsequent pitch in 1960 also failed to win them a contract. Eventually, in 1965-66 they were able to sell The New Three Stooges, a TV series with 156 animated cartoons mixed with 41 short, live-action skits. They voiced their respective, animated characters, too.
But the Stooges were older by then – Moe was 68, Larry 63 – and their slapstick was softer and more subdued than in their past.
The Stooges started filming a pilot episode for a new TV series in 1969. During that filming, Larry suffered a paralyzing stroke. That not only ended his acting career, but the possibility of a second television series.
Fine died in 1975. Moe himself passed on that year – after almost five decades of acting and four in films – still trying to pitch one more Stooges’ film. Joe Besser died in March, 1988. Joe DeRita died in July, 1993. Emil Sitka died in January, 1998.
Some of the shorts can still be seen on TV today, although rarely. There have been several DVD releases, mostly of the same group of shorts, including some more recently colourized efforts. Few sets I have purchased have the quality or crispness of the Sony releases.
The films in the 20-DVD set were not only fully remastered, but offered in chronological order. The shorts come with several previously unreleased “treasures” including their first film, from 1930. It’s more than 64 hours’ worth of viewing (more about it here).
Today, they received a mixed reaction. Many media or film critics dismiss them as immature, and irrelevant to film comedy. While vintage comedy from the likes of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin are often viewed as great art today, the Stooges are too often overlooked. Yet they were hugely successful and popular, and were in more films than most of their contemporaries, working until much older than most of them, too. Reviewer Stuart Galbraith wrote:
In one sense the team was a victim of their own longevity. I’ve always felt that had all Three Stooges died in an airplane crash around 1937 “serious” cinema historians would unquestionably rank them in the pantheon of great film comedians: Chaplin, Keaton, Harold Lloyd, W.C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy, the Marx Bros. Instead, the Stooges, in their various incarnations, prolifically continued making movies and appearing in other media until about 1970, long after virtually all their contemporaries had retired or died out.
Nowadays, the Three Stooges may seem dated and corny, I suppose, to modern TV watchers used to sex, violence, canned laugh tracks and special effects. Their humour is often coarse, silly and wears thin quickly. **
Perhaps it’s like the Roadrunner and Wily Coyote cartoons today: too much of the same thing in a short time span inures the viewer to the finer points. But yet, there’s an innocence, a playfulness in the Stooges we don’t see much of today.***
The humour of The Three Stooges is vivid and direct: little, if any, requires a laugh track (I am cynically disposed to think of laugh tracks as directions to the hard-of-thinking, although I understand the psychology behind them). It’s all about sight gags: fast, visceral and simple. Plots were secondary. Special effects are those created by excellent timing, well-rehearsed moves and brilliant ad-libbing.
Today’s gritty realism, gratuitous sex and violence, and spectacular computer-generated special effects don’t necessarily make for better viewing. Context, of course, is everything. And the context of The Three Stooges was simple plots and lots of bumbling, fast-paced interaction. The goal was laughter; a chance to forget your woes and simply enjoy the ride.
The Stooges’ set now sits on the shelf with a growing collection of movies and TV shows mostly from pre-1970. Its company includes the entire 134-episode collection of the original Robin Hood series, some TV westerns, the complete M*A*S*H collection and a lot of B-films from the 50s through the 70s (as well as many from the 1930s and 40s). All of which I view with great affection.
Nostalgia, perhaps, but I find great comfort in watching them. Perhaps the only thing I won’t like is watching the Stooges age on film as I work my way through the collection. But I will take heart and inspiration because they refused to grow sedate and dull in their older years.
* The set was $40 at Costco, compared with $70 pretty much everywhere online. That’s $2 a disc and about $0.62 an hour. Good value.
** For some, at least – humour affects us all in different ways. I was never able to find much sustaining humour in sitcoms like Seinfeld, Friends, Cheers or The Simpsons, but I thought Coupling was brilliant and Jeeves & Wooster was superb, and I can watch Fawlty Towers over and over… and I know from personal experience that not everyone gets a joke. I’ve had to explain my own humorous posts here to some folks who are confused about what is wit and what isn’t.
*** The recently-released Three Stooges Movie was actually quite a good mimic of their style and sight gags. It was – remarkably, given Hollywood’s ability to screw up such remakes – much better than I had expected, although a bit more convoluted than necessary. Sadly, it got poor reviews from the critics, but I suspect they over-intellectualized the whole thing, as is their wont. I think it stands up well as a tribute to the art of The Three Stooges, rather than a remake of it.