Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Up and Down with The Three Stooges

Known for farce and slapstick comedy, The Three Stooges began their career in 1925 as second bananas to vaudeville comedian Ted Healy. The original trio consisted of Moe (Moses) Howard, Shemp (Samuel) Howard, and Larry (Louis Feinberg) Fine--collectively known as Healy's Stooges.

In 1932, Shemp left the act because he was fed up with Healy's alcoholism and abusive behavior. He pursued a successful solo career with Vitaphone Pictures in Brooklyn, New York--his hometown. The boys needed a quick replacement, so Moe suggested his younger brother Jerome.

Healy took one look at Jerome and said he didn't look funny. Jerome was too well-dressed and had a full head of chestnut-colored, wavy hair. Jerome left the room saying he would be back in several minutes. He returned with a freshly shaved head and a star was born. Jerome was given the stage name Curly. He was the original chowderhead and most popular of the Stooges. Untrained but with a flair for physical comedy, Curly's child-like mannerisms and natural comedic charm made him a fan favorite.

The team signed a contract with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer lasting one year. Healy and his Stooges played bit parts of comic relief in half a dozen B-grade movies. The Stooges split with Ted Healy in 1934 and signed a one year contract with Columbia Pictures to appear in eight comedy short-subjects within a forty week period. The trio was paid $7,500 per film to divide among themselves.

During their twenty-three years at Columbia Pictures, Moe Howard managed The Three Stooges--as they were now known. Moe was never fully aware of The Three Stooges' wild popularity at the box office or their income-earning potential. Every year, the boys had to sweat out whether they had a job or not. Studio mogul Harry Cohn complained the market for movie shorts was dying out. Moe never negotiated for a salary increase--nor were The Three Stooges ever offered one. 

When they stopped making shorts in 1957, Moe finally realized what cash cows they were for Columbia Pictures. It was their cheap-to-make, two-reelers that kept the studio's gates open during the Great Depression and World War II.

The Three Stooges shorts satirized greed, high society, health care, crime, the Depression, and World War II. The Stooges were the first Americans to take on Adolph Hitler and the Nazis. On January 19, 1940, Larry, Moe, and Curly ridiculed the German dictator in You Natzy Spy. Although not considered one of their finer efforts, it would be almost two years before the United States' entrance into World War II.

In the 1940s, Curly's weight ballooned from overeating and drinking. By 1945, he had trouble remembering his lines. He was lethargic. His voice was deeper and strained. He couldn't do the high-pitched woo-woos and n'yuk-n'yuks anymore. Doctors discovered Curly had had a minor stroke. The following year, a massive stroke ended his fourteen-year-long career. At the end of his life, he could only communicate with Moe by squeezing his hand or blinking his eyes. Jerome (Curly) Howard died in 1952 of a cerebral hemorrhage at age forty-eight. He appeared in ninety-seven Columbia shorts.

Moe asked his older brother Shemp to reprise his role as an original Stooge. He had a successful solo career but returned in 1947 to keep the act alive. After Curly's last few sluggish performances, Shemp injected some zany vitality into the series. Larry Fine was also given more screen time.

Shemp was with the act when The Three Stooges made their first television appearance on Milton Berle's Texaco Star Theater in 1948. Their slapstick brand of short sketch comedy was well-suited for variety shows. Because there was no backlog of television programming, they were in great demand to fill air time. The Three Stooges became reacquainted with their core audience. Three years after Curly passed, Shemp died of a massive heart attack at age sixty in 1955. He appeared in seventy-seven episodes.

Moe Howard and Larry Fine lived for twenty more years and continued to work with several other replacements. Larry died of a stroke at age seventy-two in January 1975; Moe died of lung cancer at age seventy-seven in May 1975.

In January of 1955, Screen Gems--a Columbia Pictures television subsidiary--began packaging The Three Stooges for the television market. Because of the large body of material--190 shorts--shows were broadcast Monday through Friday in syndication across the country. This heavy exposure led to a new generation of Stooge fans--the Baby Boomers.

Although The Three Stooges were never a hit with critics, they outlasted all their contemporaries. They are beloved by generations of Americans and respected for their large body of work. In 2000, ABC aired a made-for-television The Three Stooges bio-pic telling their story through the eyes of Moe Howard. I thought it was quite good. Evan Handler played Larry, Paul Ben-Victor played Moe, Michael Chiklis played Curly, and John Kassir played Shemp.

In 2012, Twentieth Century Fox released their The Three Stooges movie to a world-wide audience reigniting the global popularity of one of the greatest celebrity brands. This film is divided into three episodes--similar to how the shorts were packaged for television--and attempts to recreate the classic act. 

The list of supporting actors is impressive: Jane Lynch, Sofia Vergara, Jennifer Hudson, Kate Upton, Larry David, among others. The first movie was successful enough to warrant a sequel. On May 7, 2015, Fox studios announced that Sean Hayes as Larry, Will Sasso as Curly, and Chris Diamantopoulos as Moe will reprise their roles.

Hardcore Three Stooges' fans will find the following Larry Fine interview fascinating.

1973 Larry Fine interview (part one):

Larry Fine interview (part two):

Steve Allen narrates a Three Stooges bio: