Three Stooges 70th Annivoisary Blowout

Hoi Polloi (1935), one of the Three Stooges’ best two-reel comedies, ends with an epic pie fight at a society party where the cultured guests degenerate to the same vulgar, violent, and vengeful state as Moe, Larry, and Curly. A similar contagion now seems to be sweeping the academic film community. In December 2002 the American Film Institute selected Punch Drunks (1934), in which Curly plays a prizefighter driven insane by the tune “Pop Goes the Weasel,” for preservation in the Library of Congress. A year later the film quarterly Cineaste published an appreciation of the Stooges alongside features on Orson Welles, Chen Kaige, and Emmanuelle Beart. Now the Gene Siskel Film Center is screening a program of seven Stooges shorts in newly struck 35-millimeter prints. I plan to be the first person in line, if I can find one of those tuxedo shirtfronts that roll up like a window blind.

Yet even now the Stooges have to be let in the back door and disguised as butlers. Marty Rubin, associate director of the Film Center, admits that this week’s program was curated not by him or director Barbara Scharres but by a Stooges fan at Sony, which owns the Columbia Pictures film library. The Cineaste piece, written by James Niebaur, begins defensively and ends apologetically. “Their films were certainly not cinematic,” Niebaur concludes. “They did not have the grace of Chaplin or the technique of Buster Keaton. But their 190 two-reel comedies contain enough interesting ideas and clever moments to make The Three Stooges worthy of some recognition.” An introductory blurb from the editors is both condescending and self-congratulatory: “Woo-woo-woo! Just when you thought you had Cineaste pegged as a highbrow magazine, here come The Three Stooges!”

I must admit, I enjoy watching our cultural mandarins pondering a mise-en-scene in which a swung crowbar bends into a silhouette of the head it bashes. As Neal Gabler notes in his book Life: The Movie, the 19th-century boundaries between high and low culture were blurred by movies and other electronic media in the 20th. Yet the atavistic Stooges remain the property of the unwashed masses, too loud, crude, and just plain stupid to be intellectualized like the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy, and W.C. Fields were. They’re more popular now than any of those acts, and in their prime–from 1934, when they signed with Columbia, until about 1941–they were every bit as inspired. They fused the slapstick of the silent era with the outlandish sound effects of radio, focused on elaborate sight gags during an age of ceaseless dialogue, and were zealously committed to their Neanderthal worldview.

Even in real life the Stooges were dupes of the ruling class, poorly managed and ruthlessly exploited. Harry Cohn, the bellicose president of Columbia, kept them on a short leash with a series of one-year contracts, paying the team $18,000 for eight shorts while Universal Pictures paid Fields and Edgar Bergen $100,000 each for You Can’t Cheat an Honest Man (1939). The shorts were hugely popular, and Columbia used them as bargaining chips to sell mediocre features to exhibitors, but year after year Cohn cowed the Stooges into re-signing at the same pay. After they were finally cut loose in 1958, Columbia sold the shorts to television for $12 million, paying the Stooges nothing. Yet in the end their industry became the key to their enduring renown: their huge backlog of two-reelers, each running 16 to 18 minutes, could be easily packaged three to an hour and broadcast every school day for 12 weeks without repeating. No other comedy act from Hollywood’s golden age was so well positioned for TV exposure.

In fact the Stooges’ quarter century on the assembly line helps to explain the huge gap between their popular appeal and their critical reputation. They stuck it out in Hollywood longer than any other comedy team–from 1930, when they made their screen debut in Soup to Nuts, until 1970, when Larry Fine suffered a stroke. (Curly Howard was felled by a stroke in 1946 and replaced by Shemp Howard, then Joe Besser, then Joe De Rita.) By contrast Laurel and Hardy lasted 24 years, Abbott and Costello split after 17, the Marx Brothers retired after 12 (with a few half-baked reunions later), and Martin and Lewis exploded after only 7. None of the Stooges’ contemporaries made nearly as many movies–or suffered such a long and visible decline. But all things being equal, their work stands up remarkably well. The Marx Brothers established their critical reputation with their first five features, which add up to less than seven hours of screen time; if you assembled seven hours of the Stooges’ best two-reelers, no one at Cineaste would have to apologize for them.

Which makes the Film Center’s 70th Annivoisary Blowout welcome but a little frustrating too. It includes some certifiable classics: Men in Black (1934), which was nominated for an Oscar; An Ache in Every Stake (1941), in which the Stooges try to deliver ice up a 147-step staircase in blazing summer heat; and Micro-Phonies (1945), in which Curly impersonates a classical soprano, miming to a record of Strauss’s “Voices of Spring.” But Punch Drunks and Hoi Polloi are missing, as are Uncivil Warriors (1935), in which the Stooges consume a cake with a pot holder in the middle and spend the rest of the scene coughing up feathers; Three Little Beers (1935), in which they contend with a truckload of beer barrels on a hilly street; Disorder in the Court (1936), which features some of the looniest patter this side of “who’s on first?”; A-Plumbing We Will Go (1940), in which Curly connects a series of angled pipes that eventually form a cage around him; and Dizzy Pilots (1943), in which Moe is coated in rubber, gets blown up like a balloon, and floats away.

Credit for the Stooges’ salad days usually goes to Curly, a true original whose demented persona became the patron saint of hyperactive nine-year-olds the world over. But the team was ably supported behind the camera by Columbia’s short-subject unit, which worked fast and cheap and was staffed by silent-comedy veterans in dire need of work. Del Lord, one of the original Keystone Kops, was selling used cars when unit manager Jules White hired him to direct in 1934, and he masterminded most of the Stooges’ best shorts before moving on to features in the mid-40s. Screenwriter Clyde Bruckman had been Buster Keaton’s right-hand man in the 1920s and had also worked with Fields, Harold Lloyd, and Laurel and Hardy. Charley Chase, who’d starred in silent two-reelers for the Hal Roach Studios, also landed at Columbia and directed a handful of Stooges shorts in the late 1930s.

This crew held together for most of Curly’s tenure, though the quality of the shorts began to drop as their budgets contracted. Even at the beginning they were made for a song, costing $27,000 each ($1,500 per screen minute) at a time when 70-minute features typically cost $250,000 ($3,571 per screen minute). The war years wrought changes in the motion picture market that favored expensive “prestige” features over shorts, serials, and B movies, whose paltry budgets were reduced even further. As a result the exterior locations that had given the Stooges such agreeable playgrounds in the mid- to late 1930s were no longer affordable; by the time of Brideless Grooms (1947), the only Shemp two-reeler on the Film Center’s program, the Stooges were confined to cramped soundstages. After the war the Stooges were directed mostly by White, a dictator on the set who made up for his lack of imagination by upping the sadism level. He also saved money by recycling footage from earlier films, which resulted in shorts that ultimately began to blur the line between remakes and rereleases.

In reruns, the ultra-low-rent crap has a way of neutralizing the 1930s classics, but the Film Center’s program is heavily weighted toward the Stooges’ glory days. Directed by Charley Chase, Violent Is the Word for Curly (1938) spoofs the title of a popular melodrama of the day, Valiant Is the Word for Carrie, and casts the Stooges as gas station attendants who pass themselves off as visiting professors at a women’s college. In one memorable gag Curly freezes solid in the back of an ice truck and the other two thaw him out by tying him to a giant spit and turning him over a roaring fire. There’s also a rare and charming musical number in which the Stooges serenade a class with the nonsense song “Swingin’ the Alphabet” (“Ee-ay-bay / Ee-ee-bee / Ee-eye-bickey-bie / Ee-eye-bo-bickey-bie-bo / Ee-oh-boo-bickey-bie-bo-boo”).

A robust streak of black humor runs through In the Sweet Pie and Pie (1941), which was scripted by Bruckman and directed by White (whose penchant for recycling stock footage is already evident in a short scene lifted from Hoi Polloi). Three society women in need of spouses for legal reasons marry the Stooges, who are on death row. The boys’ hanging is presented as a sports event, with a brash radio broadcaster and a vendor working the crowd (“You can’t tell your victims apart without a program!”). A last-minute pardon leaves the three debutantes stuck with their unruly husbands, who try to appease them by becoming gentlemen. (“Are you familiar with the Great Wall of China?” a dowager asks Curly. “No,” he replies, “but I know a big fence in Chicago.”) As usual in the Stooges’ shorts, their innate cretinism resists cultivation: they’re so used to sleeping in prison bunks that they have to bolt their beds one on top of the other, and of course Curly comes crashing through the top bed onto the two below.

The only short in the bunch I haven’t seen is You Nazty Spy (1940), another White-Bruckman effort, in which the Stooges impersonate Hitler (Moe, naturally), Goebbels (Larry), and Goering (Curly). It was never packaged for television, probably because parents were worried enough about their kids slapping each other and didn’t want them breaking shop windows as well. Stooges fans delight in the fact that You Nazty Spy appeared nine months before Charlie Chaplin released The Great Dictator, but I doubt that the Stooges short has much in common with Chaplin’s plea for brotherhood. Moe, Larry, and Curly were Jewish (born Moses Horwitz, Lawrence Feinberg, and Jerome Horwitz) and loathed Hitler, but their humor was rooted in a much darker view of human nature that, like it or not, is still reliably funny. When you’re incorrigibly inclined to stick your fellow man’s head in a pants presser, world peace seems a rather unlikely prospect.