Monday, October 20, 2014

Film Review: The Outlaws Is Coming

"The Outlaws Is Coming"  ** (out of ****)

"The Outlaws Is Coming" (1965) is a comedy western starring the comedy team the Three Stooges, directed by Moe Howard's son-in-law Norman Maurer.

This is the first time I have reviewed a Three Stooges comedy. Previously I wrote about the comedy team in general and my reaction to their work overall. I have never described myself as a fan. Many people have tried to show me what I am missing when it comes to the Three Stooges' work, but, I've just never found them funny. Their comedies are just a battle royale to me. After I see Moe poke Larry in the eyes the first time it might be funny, but, when he does it 36 times in the same two reeler it ceases to be amusing.

I have always been a fan of the great comedians and comedy teams of the past. I have tried as best I can to review the work of comedy legends such as Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton, Bob Hope, Abbott & Costello and Harry Langdon among many, many others. I admit I still have a way to go, and I will correct that in the days and months to come, but my appreciation for comedy hopefully is known to my readers. So, it was a matter of time until I chose to write about the Three Stooges.

"The Outlaws Is Coming" marks the final feature length film the Three Stooges starred in and its setting, the old west, has always been a favorite for comedians. Comedians generally play cowards which creates a nice contrast to the masculine image of the old west with tough bandits, courageous sheriffs and gun fights. Buster Keaton was in "Go West" (1925), Bob Hope was in "The Paleface" (1948), Laurel & Hardy in "Way Out West" (1937) and Jack Benny in "Buck Benny Rides Again" (1940). Even in more recent times you see comedians playing around with the western image as in "A Million Ways to Die in the West" (2014) which was as raunchy as Mel Brooks' "Blazing Saddles" (1974).

This time around the Stooges play photographers for a Boston wildlife magazine, we start the movie off with them trying to take a picture of a skunk and not get sprayed. The editor of the magazine, Kenneth Cabot (Adam West, a year before he would play Batman) has been writing a series of editorials on troubling reports of buffalo killings in Wyoming and is sent there to investigate with his photographers.

The buffalo have been being killed in large numbers as part of Rance Roden's (Don Lamond) plan to start a war between the Indians and the U.S. Cavalry. Rance believes if his outlaws; Wyatt Earp (Bill Camfield), Billy the Kid (Johnny Ginger), Jesse James (Wayne Mack), Wild Bill Hickok (Paul Shannon) and Johnny Ringo (Hal Fryar) among them, kill all of the buffalo this will outrage the Indians and make them go on a war path to kill all the white people and destroy the U.S. Cavalry. Once the law and order of the Cavalry is out of the way, the outlaws can take control of all the cities.

"The Outlaws Is Coming" is essentially a "B" movie with "B" level acting, dialogue and production designs. The only performers that really seem natural on-screen are in fact the Stooges, which should be your first sign the movie is in trouble. When the Three Stooges are out acting everyone in the movie, trust me, that is a problem. That means everyone else is doing something wrong.

It should also be mentioned since this is an older film, this movie does not feature the classic line-up most fans of the Stooges love; Moe, Larry and Curly. Once the Stooges started making feature films, in the late 50s, the line-up was Moe, Larry and Joe DeRita, who is credited as Curly-Joe.

Joe DeRita was a comedian, starting off in burlesque, also at Columbia Pictures, where the Stooges made their famous comedy shorts, but never really caught on with the public by creating a comedy persona audiences could relate to.

Prior to DeRita joining the Stooges, Moe and Larry were working with Joe Besser (who is hated by Stooge fans) when Columbia Pictures stopped making shorts. The three were going to tour together but Besser left the group to take care of a sick wife. The Stooges were about to retire but when they were re-discovered by a younger generation thanks to television, Joe DeRita joined the team.

As had started with the Besser shorts, the Stooges engage in less hitting (Besser had it in his contract not to take too many face hits, one reason Stooge fans hate him so much) in these movies with DeRita. You also have to take into account their age. It just doesn't look right when one senior citizen is poking another senior citizen in the eyes. You are afraid if Moe hits Larry a little too hard there could be serious consequences. I approve of this change however the Stooges didn't make up for it. By that I mean, if the Stooges lessen the physical comedy they don't compensate for it by filling their comedy with more verbal gags. The Three Stooges were never witty. Moe could never deliver a one-liner the way Groucho Marx or Bob Hope could. So, instead the Stooges just become less funny.

One of the many reasons "The Outlaws Is Coming" fails is because the Stooges are not at the top of their game. You cannot honestly watch this movie and tell me it is as funny as the Marx Brothers or Laurel & Hardy comedies. Sure, the 1940 comedies Laurel & Hardy showed the team older and recycle gags, but, there was still something special about them. Their timing was still there, slipping a bit, but, they were watchable. Groucho was always funny. Period. But, watching the Stooges at this age, engage in this behavior just seems strange. And the reaction other characters have when watching them, which is no reaction, is also strange. You would expect someone to intervene.

The other problems with the movie has to do with everyone else's acting. Adam West is too stiff. He does not look comfortable on-screen. Is he embarrassed to be working with the Stooges? The movie makes the mistake of having his character also play a coward. It doesn't work. The Cabot character played by West should have been somewhat brave and the Stooges are the cowards. What is the point of having four cowards together? There is no contrast. This was suppose to feed into the stereotype of all Easterners are sissies.

Nancy Kovack, who plays Annie Oakley, is meant to be a potential love interest for Cabot but the movie doesn't fully establish either character and as a result we don't care about either one of them. The movie also doesn't show us these two being attracted to each other. But devotes no time to setting that aspect of the screenplay up. Both characters are almost throw-a-way characters which don't advance the plot at all.

The movie doesn't take full advantage of the western setting with the Stooges trying to fit in, coming from Boston. One good scene however shows them bullied into drinking a strong drink. This is what the movie needed more of. The cowardly Stooges mixing in with the rough west. This also creates a contrast with the Stooges as contemporary comedians in a historic setting giving them the chance to put in some anachronistic humor. In the process the movie could skewer the western stereotypes and culture but it becomes a missed opportunity. This is how you are going to get laughs though in a western comedy.

As the movie goes on Cabot is named sheriff of the town, after all the previous sheriffs have been killed. The outlaws and Rance want Cabot to be a puppet sheriff. Though he speaks of wanting to stop the buffalo massacre they don't see him as a threat. The problem is, the audience agrees. We never see Cabot as a man of action. What is his plan to stop the killings? We never see him report to Boston. We never see him rile the people of the town up. We never see anyone care about his cause. And this guy is suppose to be Batman!

Of course all of this is not necessarily the fault of the Stooges. You need to place blame at the feet of the screenwriter, Elwood Ullman, who worked at Columbia Pictures as a screenwriter on various shorts. He wrote the Buster Keaton sound comedy, "The Spook Speaks" (1940), which is very disappointing, and wrote Three Stooges shorts like "Yes, We Have No Bonanza" (1939) and would go on to write some of their feature films; "Snow White and the Three Stooges" (1961) and "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" (1962), maybe two of the best known feature films the Stooges were in.

The director, Maurer, directed one other feature film prior to this, also a Stooge comedy, "The Three Stooges Go Around the World in a Daze" (1963), another disappointing but harmless comedy. He had more success as a writer, believe it or not, on Scooby-Doo cartoons. He wasn't much of a director, lacking a visual style, but, since he was a son-in-law of Moe Howard, was protective of the Stooge franchise and served as the team's manager.

"The Outlaws Is Coming" is a failure but a harmless failure. The movie doesn't reach the heights of great comedy, no one will mistake it for a comedy masterpiece, but I've seen worst. The Stooges have about two or three scenes that are good for a smile or two. One scenes involves drinking the strong drink, another scene involves them sneaking into a saloon, in an attempt to prevent the outlaws from killing Cabot in a showdown, at night to tamper with their guns but walk into the wrong room. And in maybe their most classic bit, Moe is accidentally glued to a chair and beats up Larry and Curly-Joe as they try to set him free.

Also funny are the scenes involving the Indians, who don't speak in the silly cliche way we always associate with them, but, instead are hip to modern lingo. The Indian chief's son is played by Henry Gibson known for his work on the classic television show "Laugh-In".

Obviously if you are a fan of the Three Stooges, you are not going to think this is among their best work. If you are a true fan, you will say, while it is not great it is still watchable and sometimes funny. If you have never watched the Three Stooges, this really is not the place to start. If this is your introduction in the comedy of the Three Stooges you will never be able to understand what made them famous. I guess this is for the devoted fans of the comedy team. Everyone else that watches it will be too harsh against it, harsher than I am, and I don't think I've been harsh.

"The Outlaws Is Coming" could have been much better instead it is a weak, borderline boring comedy. There is nothing memorable about this movie.