On April 13, 20th Century Fox releases “The Three Stooges,” the much publicized attempt to recreate one of Hollywood’s greatest comedy teams. Whether the film should be seen as a tribute the original Stooges, or an attempt to reestablish a new version of the trio, one thing is certain…it will be almost impossible to duplicate the success of the real Moe, Larry and Curly. In a career that spanned over 50 years, The Three Stooges went from vaudeville, to motion pictures and eventually to television, and although their physical prime years were 1935-1941, it was in the late 1950’s that they achieved their everlasting status as Baby Boomer icons.
The Stooges started out in 1925 as part of a vaudeville act headed by comedian Ted Healy. Moe Howard, his older brother Shemp and Larry Fine combined with Healy to form, “Ted Healy and his Stooges.” It was Healy who originated the Stooges tradition of physical abuse, as he constantly pounded on his three associates onstage, whenever they seemingly stepped out of line. Shortly after the act began receiving small parts in motion pictures, Shemp quit the group, pursuing a solo career. Moe convinced his younger brother Jerry to join the team, and soon the character of Curly was born. After appearing in several movies alongside Ted Healy, the Stooges accepted an offer from Columbia Studios to star in a series of 20 minute shorts without Healy. Now billed as “The Three Stooges,” the trio’s “Woman Haters” (1934) was the first of 190 comedy shorts that the team would do for Columbia over the next 23 years. It only took a small handful of films for the Stooges to develop their own comic style as well as their individual personas. Moe was the self appointed leader, who took over Healy’s role of slapping and eye-poking his two partners. Larry, with his wild hair, was the neutral Stooge, whose main goal was to somehow stay on Moe’s good side. But it was Curly who usually stole the show, as Jerry Howard, despite no show business experience prior to becoming a member of the team, quickly establishing himself as a comic genius. Portraying the ultimate man-child, Curly was a energetic marvel, performing all sorts of physical stunts, as well as having the ability to convey a wide range of emotions without using actual words. His signature laugh (nyuk-nyuk-nyuk) and his high pitched “woo-woo-woo-woo,” heard whenever he became overly excited are still often imitated today.
The beauty of “The Three Stooges” was that they could be placed into any setting. Even though their characters seemed totally incapable of even the simplest tasks, Moe, Larry and Curly would be cast as plumbers, carpenters, cooks, airplane mechanics, and even doctors. It was certainly a surreal world where such incompetent men could consistently find employment, but such is poetic license. Of course, some of the most memorable “Three Stooges” episodes occurred when the boys were placed within high society, where the more fancy the setting meant to more intense the inevitable the food fight. Although “The Three Stooges” did not invent pie throwing, they probably perfected it.
Despite the success of the “Three Stooges” comedies, and the team’s popularity as a live act, Columbia never elevated the team to the level of the Marx Brothers, Laurel and Hardy or Abbott and Costello, keeping the trio in Saturday afternoon minor-leagues.
Problems developed for “The Three Stooges,” in the late 1940’s as Curly Howard’s deteriorating health forced him leave the team in 1947. Shemp Howard reluctantly rejoined Moe and Larry, returning only because he knew the Stooges would probably fold without his help. Shemp stayed with the team until his untimely death in 1955. Although Moe and Larry soldiered on, replacing Shemp with Joe Besser, their days with Columbia were numbered, as television began to eat away at what was left of the 20 minute, comedy short-subject market. In December of 1957, Columbia Studios did not renew the trio’s contract. Now middle-aged, Moe and Larry were out of work.
In the late 1940’s, motion picture studios found a new source of revenue…leasing old films to TV stations. In January of 1958, Columbia made the “Three Stooges” shorts available for television, introducing them to the new, massive Baby Boomer audience. The Stooges 20 minute comedies were the perfect fit for a half-hour time slot, and some markets began showing two Stooges’ shorts a day, five days a week. Now getting daily, national exposure, “The Three Stooges” were hot again, and Moe and Larry were back in business. Hiring Joe DeRita (Curly Joe) as their third Stooge, the trio was welcomed back to Columbia, making several full-length features over the next several years. The “Three Stooges” worked all through the 1960’s, performing live and making numerous television appearances, up to the time of Larry Fine’s 1970 stroke. Although Moe Howard and Larry Fine both passed away in 1975, their work has continued to be admired, through countless airings on television, as well as from various “Three Stooges” DVD packages.
I certainly hope the new “Three Stooges” film does well, especially if it encourages the younger generations to check out the real thing. How successful can the new Stooges be? Let’s see if anyone is watching them in 2082.