Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Here's Nyuck In Your Eyes!

Whether readers are aware of it are not, I am a great fan of classic Hollywood comedy. I love writing about my favorite comedians and comedies. Comedy is my favorite genre. It has had the biggest impact on me. I have tried to discuss many of the great comics and comedy teams of the 1920s, 30s and 40s. I have written about Laurel & Hardy (my favorite comedy team of all time), Charlie Chaplin, Abbott & Costello, the Marx Brothers, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. But I have also tried to introduce readers to the comics time has forgotten. I have discussed Harry Langdon, the comedy team of Wheeler & Woolsey, Olsen & Johnson and Joe E. Brown among others. However, there has been one very popular comedy team I have not written about; the Three Stooges.

There has been a reason for their absence. The Three Stooges are not known for their work in feature films. They are best known among their fans for the 2 reelers they appeared in at Columbia Pictures. Though they did appear in feature films these were made later in their careers and do not feature the most famous line-up of Moe, Larry and Curly (or Curley as he is credited). As a result I have not mentioned them. I don't want to review individual 2 reelers. I prefer to review feature length films.

So now some of you might be asking yourself, if that is my rule, why am I writing about the Three Stooges. The reason is rather straight forward. I recently received some DVDs of the Stooges' work and wanted to discuss them. Not necessarily review individual shorts but their work in general and the impression it has left on me.

Even at a young age I've taken pleasure in watching comedies from the 20s, 30s and 40s. I appreciate many of the great comics; W.C. Fields, Laurel & Hardy, Chaplin, Bob Hope...ect. But for some reason I was never a Stooge fan. Their approach to comedy didn't appeal to me. Even as a child I actually found them childish. Not to mention my mother gave me the same warning most mothers gave their sons and told me not to watch the Three Stooges. She felt they were too violent.

I've had friends over the years try to show me what I am missing. They tell me the Stooges were great reactionaries. Pay attention to their facial expressions I was told. But, it didn't matter to me. They just weren't funny. Oh sure, I could handle them in small doses. Maybe watch a short or two at a time. But after a while, their antics; slapping each other in the face, poking one another in the eyes, pounding their fist on each other's head, became boring and predictable. After I've seen Moe poke Curly's eyes once I may in fact laughed at it. But when he does it 6 times in the same 2 reeler I'm no longer laughing.

It was to my surprise someone would buy me a DVD of the Stooges for Christmas. Their logic was since I am an admirer of classic comedy therefore I must like the Stooges. I thanked them for the gift and part of me was anxious to watch them again. It had been years since I done so. Could my memories have been wrong? Maybe there wasn't as much violence as my mother warned me about. I remembered their comedies being a battle royale. Perhaps I was wrong.

An 8 volume DVD collection simply titled "The Three Stooges Collection" was released in 2007. It features all 190 plus 2 reelers the boys appeared in while at Columbia Pictures. I was given volume one, which showcases their first 19 shorts and volume eight, which features the last 32 they appeared in and includes the 16 shorts Joe Besser appeared in. Those 16 shorts are actually a matter of controversy to Stooge fans which I will discuss later.

Volume one has the most famous line-up; Moe, Larry and Curly. Here we see the team working out the rough edges and establishing what each man's role would be in the team. Moe is the leader, Curly is the "second" stooge, the one who takes most of Moe's hits. Curly is the most adversarial. Meanwhile, Larry is their to take up space and say "it was an accident Moe" when accidentally hitting Moe.

What really surprised me was how many gifted people worked with the Stooges. A good number of their shorts were written by Felix Adler. I've actually discussed him on here before. He was a very good gag writer who worked with Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Vernon Dent also appeared in several shorts with the boys. He would play "heavy" to Harry Langdon in his 2 reelers. And Raymond McCarey (Leo's brother) directed a few of these shorts. Raymond, at one time, worked for Hal Roach and did some behind the scenes work for Laurel & Hardy. His brother Leo, is credited as being the man who paired them together.

There are also a lot of famous shorts in this first volume which also surprised me. It would appear right from the beginning the Three Stooges were making memorable comedies. Their second short at Columbia, "Punch Drunks" (1934) is quite famous, even I had seen it before. This is the one where Moe is a boxing manager, Larry is an out of work fiddle player and Curly is a timid man who goes berserk whenever he hears the tune "pop goes the weasel". Their third short, "Men in Black" (1934) is equally famous. It was their only short to be nominated for an Oscar, "Best Short Subject". This is the one where they are doctors as a loudspeaker repeatedly says "calling Dr. Howard, Dr. Fine, Dr. Howard". Next there is "Three Little Pigskins" (1934) which features a very young Lucille Ball (!). I honestly didn't know Lucille Ball worked with the Stooges. I knew she had worked with the Marx Brothers, but was extremely surprised to see her here.

Also on Volume one is "Three Little Beers" (1935) which is only famous to me because this is where the boys try to learn how to golf and wear their famous golf costumes. And lastly, "Disorder in the Court" (1936) is here, perhaps their most famous short. I know of many people who regard it as a comedy masterpiece.

As I watched these shorts my opinion of the Stooges changed very little. None of these shorts really made me laugh. However, I do have a favorite from the set. One called "Movie Maniacs" (1936) which has the boys trying to break into Hollywood. There is one gag as the boys try to direct a movie and show the actors how to make the proper gestures which really did have me laughing out loud. But notice, it had nothing to do with hitting. Just non-violent physical comedy. The things I came away laughing at watching these shorts were a lot of the verbal gags. I liked one moment in "Men in Black" when the boys are about to perform surgery (for the first time) as a nurse is whispering to them. So the boys start to whisper to until finally one of them ask why are they whispering, to which the nurse replies, she doesn't know why they are but she is because she lost her voice asking for a raise. Some my think it is a corny joke, but, I've always been one to appreciate a good corny joke. I also like a moment in "Disorder in the Court" as Curly is about to be sworn in before he testifies.

The biggest problem with all of these shorts is they lack a strong structure. There really is no beginning, middle and end. A lot of the stories don't resolve anything. The shorts are merely a collection of jokes. Depending on the comedians I may not mind that very much if I'm laughing. But, with the Stooges I notice the plot holes.

At first the idea with the Stooges seemed to be the same approach taken with most comics. Try to put in comedians in the most outrageous situation and let the sparks fly. So in one short they are doctors, in another football players and yet another soldiers in the army. Put them in the past as knights defending a queen or put them in outer space. It is suppose to be funny to see these characters played in environments out of the normal and see what would happen.

Now I said volume 8 of the collection has been a matter of debate. A great many Stooge fans hate Joe Besser. Some go as far as to say the man really wasn't a Stooge. In a sign of just how bloody minded Stooge fans are, their main compliment is Joe didn't get hit enough. Stooge fans go as far as to say Joe was a wuss and make insinuations that the man was a closeted homosexual. Not just the character he played but Joe Besser himself! They insist the man wasn't even funny. I simply cannot go along with these extreme comments.

First of all Joe Besser was not a homosexual. Neither him or his character. And even if the man was, so what! That is no one's business. What Stooge fans don't realize is the character Joe Besser played while with the Stooges was the character he played all his life. An overgrown man child. For those unware who Joe Besser was. He is best known for the catchphrase "not so haaarrrdddd". He worked with Abbott & Costello, Joey Bishop and even Jack Benny. He was a very funny man and if put in the right situation his character could be humorous. As far as not taking a hit, Joe did take a hit, though I will admit not as often as Curly, Shemp or Larry. And I should point out Joe did have it in his contract he didn't want to take too many hits in the face.

Remarks regarding Joe Besser didn't fit in as a Stooge I feel are correct. I can nod in agreement with that. But once Stooge fans start going overboard with all those other criticisms I have to start drawing the line. And to further irritate Stooge fans I must say I don't mind the Besser shorts. In some ways I prefer them because now the hitting doesn't take up as much screen time as before, Though I must also admit, the stories weren't very good. That wasn't Joe's fault though. You have to remember the Stooges had been working at Columbia since 1934. Joe Besser became part of the act in 1957 making his debut in "Hoofs and Goofs". They were simply starting to run out of steam. Many of the shorts made during Besser's years were actually remakes. Though the Stooges also did remakes when Shemp was part of the act too.

My favorite Joe Besser short is "Pies and Guys" (1958) which is a remake of "Hoi Polloi" (1934) which was one of the Curly shorts (found one volume one of the collection). Here the boys are part of a bet to see if they are able to learn manners. The short "Triple Crossed" reminds me of a Laurel & Hardy movie "Our Relations" (1936). In fact a great many of the gags the Stooges were doing remind me of Laurel & Hardy gags. You have to remember as far as screen comedy goes Laurel & Hardy precedes the Stooges, the Marx Brothers, Bob Hope, Abbott & Costello and Jack Benny. Laurel & Hardy were around in the silent era. Comics stole from other comics all the time, so I'm not suggesting the Stooges started something. I realize it is a reality. But, as a Laurel & Hardy man myself, I kept thinking about them as I watched the Stooges and how I prefer Stan & Ollie over Moe, Larry and Curly.

Still my opinion isn't as harsh as it once was concerning the Three Stooges. I'm somewhere in the middle regarding them. However, this DVD collection is a must have for Stooge fans. The shorts look great, very crisp sharp image.