Friday, June 10, 2016

Film Review: The Three Stooges Meet Hercules

"The Three Stooges Meet Hercules"  ** (out of ****)

The Three Stooges don't flex much muscle in the time traveling comedy "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" (1962).

Between 1959 - 1965 The Three Stooges released six feature-length comedies aimed at children, thanks to a resurgence in popularity largely due to television which had begun airing their comedy shorts made at Columbia Pictures. By this time however the Stooges had undergone a change in their line-up. Now the team consisted of Moe Howard, Larry Fine and Joe DeRita, who would be billed as "Curly Joe", due to his physical resemblance to Curly Howard, perhaps the most beloved of all the Stooges. "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" was the third theatrical release.

The Three Stooges began as a vaudeville act in the 1920s consisting of brothers Moe Howard, Shemp Howard and Larry Fine. They were teamed with Ted Healy, whom is credited as creating The Three Stooges. The team (Moe, Larry and Curly) signed a contract with Columbia Pictures in 1934 and started releasing comedy shorts. They made shorts for Columbia until 1957 when the act consisted of Moe, Larry and Joe Besser, whom is, unfairly, the most hated of all the Stooges.

I mention this because by the time the Stooges started appearing in feature films with Joe DeRita the boys were too old to carry on. They looked old in the comedy shorts with Besser and the passing years did not make them look any younger. The image of seeing men in their 60s hit each other on the head or poke one another in the eyes was no longer funny.

Time is cruel to comedians. With age the mainstream public believes comes a loss of talent. The comedians slow down with age. They lose their comedic timing. They repeat famous routines. And, worst of all, they simply look old. Unfortunately it has happened to the best of them. The public turned their backs on Laurel & Hardy in the late 1940s and into the 50s. They began commenting the boys were too old to engage in their usual hi-jinks. People commented on their physical appearance in "Utopia" (1951). The public lost interest in Jack Benny and Bob Hope. They were merely getting by on their reputation and the memories fans had of them when they were younger.

I have defended those comedians and the movies they appeared in, in the past but I'm not usually willing to extend that goodwill to The Three Stooges. Why? I guess because I never liked the Stooges. They never really made me laugh. I've said it before, I might laugh when I see Moe poke Larry in the eyes the first time he does it but when Moe does it eight more times in the same comedy short it ceases to be funny. Something about going to a well too often.

And that is where we are with "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules". Is this a painfully bad movie? No. The viewer will get more or less what they expect. If you are a Three Stooges devotee you'll know this will not show the boys at their peak. You'll know they have slowed down considerably at this point in their careers. In hindsight I'm not sure I even remember anyone getting poked in the eyes. The physical bashing between the Stooges was almost non-existent.

What hurts "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" and every other movie they appeared in at this time including "Snow White and the Three Stooges" (1961) and "The Outlaws Is Coming" (1965) is the lousy production value, the stiff acting by all involved and the unfunny material given to the Stooges. "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" is no better or worst than the other films the Stooges appeared in. This is essentially a "B" movie made around the hope children, who had been watching the Stooges on television, would be able to wrestle up enough money to see this in a movie theatre.

This time around the Stooges play their well established characters as workers in a drug store in Ithaca, New York. The boys are friends with their neighbor Schuyler Davis (Quinn Redeker, who would win an Academy Award nomination for his screenplay for the anti-war film "The Deer Hunter" (1978). Davis is an inventor working on a time machine. The time machine is near completion but the owner of the drug store, Mr. Dimsal (George N. Neise) is growing tired of all the loud noises and explosions Davis' invention is causing.

The Stooges attempt to help Davis finish the time machine by working on it when Davis is not around. By the time Davis and his girlfriend, Diane (Vicki Trickett) come back the time machine not only works but transports everyone back to ancient Greece where they meet Hercules (Samson Burke, a Canadian wrestler and swimmer who competed in the 1948 Summer Olympics).

Hercules is a loyal subject to King Odius (Neise again), who has just defeated the army of King Ulysses, thanks to the Stooges, Davis and Diane, who are seen as Gods courtesy of their entrance to ancient Greece on a time machine. What the Stooges and company don't realize is their actions have changed the course of history. Before you can say "Back to the Future" (1985) the Stooges must make sure Ulysses becomes king and restore order.

"The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" gives us a typical, routine social commentary concerning male masculinity. Davis is a shy, timid man that allows Mr. Dimsal to walk all over him, which makes Diane angry. Why won't Davis defend himself she wonders. Isn't he a man? And so through the course of the movie, as the Stooges and Davis try to set history on the correct course, Davis will have to, at one point, prove himself as a man. Proving oneself as a man in movie terms means one must acquire strength and beat up their antagonist.

On the other hand this movie wants to poke fun at Hollywood epics. By 1962 David Lean had released "Lawrence of Arabia" (1962), Stanley Kubrick directed "Spartacus" (1960) and William Wyler had given us "Ben-Hur" (1959).

The screenplay by Elwood Ullman, who wrote five of the six Stooge feature length comedies, is predictable at best and lacks any inspiration. There are no memorable comedy sequences. Whatever routines are created only feel like pale imitations to routines the boys did in their earlier comedy shorts. For example there is one scene when the boys find themselves in a bathing house for women. At this point the boys are wearing female robes, only robes no make-up or wigs, and are mistaken as three new female slaves. How on earth can three 60 year old men, not even wearing make-up, be mistaken for three women? The sequence tries to create risque comedic situations for the boys by having the women ask them to help with their shower or paint their toe nails. In the end it is not funny because if for no other reason the pacing and timing is off. The boys aren't "selling" the material. Or perhaps couldn't "sell" it.

Another problem with the screenplay is it does not allow for much character development. The transformation regarding the Davis character is quite predictable and not interesting and in fact misses some good comedic opportunities. Davis throughout the course of the movie begins to develop muscles similar to that of Hercules. The Stooges use this as an opportunity to build up Davis' confidence and to make money by arranging for Davis to fight various monsters (a la Sinbad). Davis really isn't as tough as he may think he is. He is able to defeat his opponents with ease thanks to Curly Joe, who carries sleeping pills with him, which he makes sure to give the opponents. Unfortunately there is never a scene when Curly Joe runs out of pills and Davis, who learns of what Curly Joe has done, must fight the battle and really prove his strength.

Then there is the question of the romance between Diane and Davis. Nothing about the relationship seems believable. I suppose a better approach would have been to use the old cliche of Diane in love with a tough jock, maybe she could have fallen in love with Hercules, and Davis must prove himself as a man and have a showdown with Hercules, which would make Diane notice him. This would touch on the same theme, Davis proving his masculinity, but it gives Davis more to fight for. It gives him a goal to reach.

Finally there is the acting. No one seems to have any energy in their performances. For whatever it is worth I will say Quinn Redeker does a better job than Adam West (who appeared in "The Outlaws Is Coming", a year before he would play "Batman" on television) but he is still stiff and doesn't tap into the comedic potential of the role. Only the Stooges posses any flair for what they are doing.

The director was Edward Bernds who directed several Three Stooges comedy shorts, starting in 1945 when Curly was part of the act. He even directed a solo Shemp Howard short and a solo Joe DeRita short. But besides making sure the camera is in place to capture all of the acting there is nothing visual impressive about the movie. One may counter you don't watch a Three Stooges comedy for impressive visuals. In other words I'm right about Mr. Bernds but perhaps missing the point. I shouldn't mention bad directing because its not an issue. Talk about looking the other way!

If the intention of "The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" was for it to play as an elongated version of one of their comedy shorts of the 1930s or 40s the movie fails. If it was meant to serve as an introduction into the comedy of the Three Stooges, it fails. If this was meant as an attempt to cash in on the Stooges appeal to children, it is halfway adequate. If it was meant to give the Stooges something to do during the week to keep active, it succeeds.

"The Three Stooges Meet Hercules" is a harmless, incredibly silly movie but it lacks comic inspiration. The Stooges look tired. They are well past their prime. This is not a painful movie to watch it is just boring. And that may be worst.