Posted by David Kalat on April 14, 2012
Having been on a remake kick now for several weeks, I can’t pass up the opportunity to comment on the current big-screen “remake” of The Three Stooges. The only problem is, I haven’t yet seen it (I write these blogs a week or more before they go up), so I’m not in a position to (yet) comment specifically on this particular rendition. But remaking the Three Stooges is nothing new—the Three Stooges were always an act of continual reinvention.
The Three Stooges were a show-business anomaly, and an act comprised of paradoxes. They hit their greatest and most enduring popularity not only long after their most creative period, but even after they had reached a de facto retirement. They are remembered as a movie comedy troupe, created in the crucible of vaudeville, and preserved on television. Far beyond the Cury-vs-Shemp debate, the “three” stooges, depending on how you count, number as many as 12.
From the moment they first tread the vaudeville boards in 1922 until the retirement of the last member in the early 1970s, the Three Stooges marketed an aggressive slapstick of punches, slaps, and jabs to the eye (more elaborate routines involved saws and explosives). Over fifty years, the boys ridiculed all conceivable occupations: the Three Stooges as doctors! Cooks! Exterminators! Political Consultants! Underneath this broad farce hid a subtler satire on employment, embedded in their personas. Stern taskmaster Moe, always delegating to his bumbling subordinates, was the CEO of the group (both onscreen and off); Larry was middle management, incapable of independent thought; the third stooge was the worker, and the comic focal point. It was this role that proved volatile, filled by many comedians over the years.
The story begins with Ted Healy (We’ll call him Stooge Zero). At the top of his game, Ted Healy was vaudeville’s highest paid comedian. His act involved exasperated reactions to the tomfoolery of others—usually involving extreme physical violence. He needed some “stooges” to smack around—which is where childhood pal Moe Howard (nee Moses Horwitz, Stooge 1) comes in. Moe was a high school dropout with stars in his eyes. Along with his older brother Shemp (Sam Horwitz, Stooge 2) they became Healey’s original stooges. After a few years they were joined by musician Larry Fine (Louis Feinberg, Stooge 3).
This then was the arrangement as Healy and His Stooges first made the leap from vaudeville to the screen—along with Fred Sanborn, Stooge 4. This 1930 feature comedy, Soup to Nuts (directed by Rube Goldberg no less) earned a contract offer for Howard, Fine, and Howard. Left out of the deal, Healy harrassed the studio into withdrawing.
This was typical behavior: Healy was an alcoholic bully who grossly underpaid his comedians. Howard, Fine and Howard split to perform as… well, as Howard, Fine and Howard. Out of spite, Healy continued with Stooges 5, 6, and 7 Eddie Moran, Jack Wolf and Mousie Garner as replacements.
Time heals all wounds and wounds all heels: with the promise to quit drinking, Healy won back his original costars—minus Shemp, who opted to pursue a solo career.
Enter Jerome Howard, AKA Curly (Stooge 8). With his unpredictable adlibs, go-for-broke physicality, and sheer raw charisma, Curly quickly distinguished himself as a true comedy genius.
Curly’s inimitable demented persona, a perpetual victim of coicumstance, allowed the stooges to settle into distinctive roles. Moe became the stern taskmaster, prone to irrational fits of violence, and Larry became the clueless middleman linking Moe to Curly.
Of course, that’s not a comprehensive account. I’m leaving someone out–we can call her Stooge 9. That’s right, her. If the only Stooges you know are the Columbia shorts, this may come as a surprise–but her she is, Stooge #9, Bonnie Bonnell:
The Moe-Larry-Curly team were no happier working for Healy than the Moe-Larry-Shemp variation, and they parted company finally and forever.
A savvier businessman than anyone for whom he worked, Moe talked Columbia Studios into giving the Three Stooges a one-off short comedy to prove themselves without Healy (whose no-drinking pledge had been unfortunately abandoned, a decision that would soon cost him his life—the first of the Stooge troupe to meet an untimely end). Woman Haters was enough of a hit to convince Columbia to extend the contract; the Stooges stayed with Columbia for 24 consecutive years.
Curly’s confidence on camera did not extend into his private life, however, where the shy man sought comfort in excess. His hard-living caught up with him in the form of a series of small strokes in 1946. By 1947, Curly was in no condition to continue working.
So it came to pass that Shemp returned to the act fifteen years later (I could count this as Stooge 10, but I already counted Shemp as Stooge 2, so I won’t). A catalog of nervous tics, Shemp’s character was never a replacement for Curly but a separate comedy creation. Like his brother, though, Shemp was felled by poor health: he died of a heart attack in 1955. Director Jules White, a veteran of silent comedies, managed to turn out four shorts after Shemp’s death, using recycled footage and Joe Palma doubling for Shemp in new shots—a macabre solution to the problem (and here is where I’ll count Stooge 10).
Moe and Larry suggested to the studio that they continue as “The Two Stooges.” Columbia met this suggestion with stony silence. Moe then proposed to hire the brilliant comedian Mantan Moreland to take the third stooge role. Columbia flatly refused to consider a Black Stooge, so next on the list after Moreland was Joe Besser (Stooge 11). His effeminate manchild persona had already been of use as a foil to Abbott and Costello, and he joined the Stooges with a go-getter enthusiasm sorely needed by the grieving and increasingly tired team.
Theatrical short subjects were on their way out by the late 1950s, and after just a single year’s worth of Besser’s work with the Stooges, Columbia canceled the series, the last studio to give up the ghost on shorts. This happened in December 1957; one month later at the dawn of the new year Columbia unloaded the shorts onto TV, where they became instantly and widely beloved.
(Not that TV was a total novelty to them–here’s a clip from a TV pilot they’d shot back before Stooge 2 gave way to Stooge 10):
The Three Stooges were more popular than they had been in years—and new opportunities beckoned: theatrical features, live performances, a TV cartoon series… The only problem was that pesky third stooge slot. Besser’s wife had taken ill, and Joe had to bow out to care for her.
Moe turned to Joe DeRita (real name: Joseph Wardell, Stooge 12), a gentle journeyman comic with a passing resemblance to Curly. Rechristened Curly Joe DeRita, he helped usher the Stooges into the happy sunset of their careers. Few would argue that The Three Stooge Meet Hercules or the like hold much of a candle to the brash anarchy of their riotous early work, but one cannot help but smile at the happy end for such persistent showbusiness survivors.
And if you’d like, I could keep counting:
When Larry Fine suffered a stroke in 1970 (45 years after he took his first slap to the face), Moe briefly considered bringing in Emil Sitka, a longtime Stooges supporting player, but aside from photographs nothing exists of this version of the act.
Mousie Garner (scroll back up—he was Stooge 7) formed a Three Stooges tribute/impersonator group (think The Moopets from The Muppets) with Sam Wolfe and Dick Hakins. They started off performing as “Ted Healey’s Original Stooges,” but legal action by Moe resulted in a rechristening as “Ted Healey’s Stooges,” and later “the Gentle Maniacs.” Following Larry’s passing and Moe’s retirement, JoeDeRita joined with Mousie Garner and Frank Mitchell for “The New Three Stooges,” but the advanced age of all concerned brought a swift end to that.
I singled out Joe Palma as Stooge 10 above for his significance as the performer who kept the team making movies after Shemp’s death, but there were plentiful Stooge stand-ins and doubles throughout the years. There have been endless hommages and impersonators, on and off-screen. The actual Stooges (Moe, Larry and Curly-Joe) provided voices for the “official” Three Stooges cartoon series, but Hanna-Barbera’s Three Robotic Stooges series (I am not making this up—it was on in 1978 and 1979, go look it up) featured the voices of Paul Winchel, Joe Baker, and Frank Welker.
(I don’t have a clip of the Three Robotic Stooges. Maybe YouTube does. I do have one from the actual, real, official Three Stooges ‘toons featuring the voices of Howard, Fine, and DeRita):
And you know what—these spin-offs and knock-offs are mostly dreadful. I’m off to see the Farrelly Brothers’ film now, but I’m trying to set my personal bar at an appropriate level. I know some Stooge fans are miffed that anyone would try to “remake” these “originals,” but the history of the Stooges is an endless process of mining every last laugh (and dollar) out of the property. I would expect the Farrelly Brothers take to fall short of what these comedians really did in the 1930s and 40s, but so what? As long as it’s funnier than the Robotic Stooges, I’ll be fine.
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