They represent the last word in physical comedy, their surefire slapstick a crazy cut above everyone who would eventually try and imitate their art. While the formidable silent film approach to humor had long been abandoned for more sophisticated laughs (i.e. the majestic Marx Brothers), the so-called Stooges still believed in its visceral, unequivocal effectiveness. Working both live and on film, they perfected their timing and false fury in a way that would forever change the format. In fact, when people think of the appropriately named comedy style, the Stooges come up more often than other, more mercurial examples.
It’s safe to say that they now own the genre – and this without the complex, narrative inspired gags that one time illustrated its cinematic language. No, aside from an occasional clay/pie/cream puff fight, Rube Goldberg inspired tumble, or interaction with a collection of well-placed props, the trio touted as The Three Stooges were the most hands on of the body-oriented buffoons. From the moment their shorts aired as part of a trip to the movies, the eye gouge, the cheek smack, and the stomach poke were never quite the same.
Still, if you don’t get the genius that is The Three Stooges, don’t fret. Not everyone embraces the masterful at first. What you need is some manner of perspective, a compare and contrast if you will between the boys’ unquestionable wizardry and all the other warmed over wannabes. Think the trio is too low brow? Look at their contemporaries Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. They practically lived along the bottom rungs of subterranean common denominators. Find their actions too brutal and abusive? Watch modern mirthmakers attempt the same physical shtick. It’s all unnecessary violence with none of the boys’ panache.
No, the Three Stooges remain viable cinematic icons nearly 75 years after their motion picture debut because, in an era which still embraced slapstick as viable everyman entertainment, they understood the rules, rewrote the syntax, and defined the genre for all who would come after. In fact, you could argue that the Stooges both showcased and strangled the artform. Before them (BTS), individual anarchy was an approachable element for any film. But once they came along (ATS), their flawless bravado couldn’t be matched. Instead, most bowed to the masters and moved along.
It’s not hard to see the immediate impact of the trio. Looking at the four films from their first year at Columbia (they had some previous success as part of the MGM family with straight man Ted Healy), their impeccable style and skill with comic timing is more than evident. Granted, “Woman Haters” does the dumbest thing possible with the boys – it turns them into shuffle bum singers in an all rhyme (and no reason) variety review. The premise has possibilities, but outside the standard slapstick, the rest of the short stumbles.
“Punch Drunks” was the perfect comeback. It gave Curly his first great goofball roll (a fighter who goes nutzoid the moment he hears the song “Pop Goes the Weasel”), and sets up the trio’s working dynamic – Moe as the cantankerous leader, Larry as the sullen sidekick, and Curly as constant source of frustrated bemusement. By “Men in Black”, the hospital/doctor setting could barely contain them. The Oscar nominated effort is so overloaded with sight gags, physical flailing, and memorable lines (“Jeez, the joint is haunted”) that it accurately reflects the growing confidence between the studio and its stars. It would all be taken to dizzying new heights with the football themed funny business of “Pigskins”.
By 1935, the Stooges were established. After a couple of minor period piece stumbles (both “Horses’ Collars” and “Restless Knights” have their non-narrative moments), the threesome hit a string of inspiration that would forever illustrate their power. Unlike the costumed craziness of an era specific outing, the timeless aspects of the gang worked best when butted up against the current social morays. It’s just more fun to see Curly court and dress down a snooty dowager than a Wild West cowgirl. They were better as social commentators, the downtrodden taking on the haughty rabble, than as members of a specific historic sect.
That’s why the art school spectacle of “Pop Goes the Easel” soars, its last act clay fight a delicious combination of comeuppance and cruelty. It’s why the whiskey crazed swells of “Pardon My Scotch” and the cockeyed Confederate gentility of “Uncivil Warriors” make the perfect backdrop for the boys’ unbridled mayhem. Even the insular short “Hoi Polloi” figured this out. It actually made taking down the privileged part of the plotline. It’s obvious that the Stooges work better as the storm amidst the calm, not visa versa. The minute they step on the elitist golf course to challenge the links in “Three Little Beers”, their presence perks up (and perplexes) all around them.
Still, those behind the camera didn’t quite grasp this comedic compartmentalizing – at least, not yet. They still believed the boys could work well within every filmic format. Proof of how wrong they were arrives toward the end of 1936. The first six shorts the trio made that year featured present-day circumstances (exterminators, performers, war veterans, trial witnesses, starving hoofers, and firemen) and used modern slang and jargon to complement the physical hijinx. Then it’s back to Dodge City as the guys give the frontier another try. True, the Stooges were fantastic as part of a Civil War setting, but “Warriors” would be the exception that confirms the overall rule.
“Whoops! I’m an Indian” is not bad, it’s just not a stunner. It takes too long to payoff, and along the way, the boys are seemingly forced to be funny. That’s not how the Stooges are supposed to work. When matched with the effortless laughs of “Slippery Silks” (the furniture gowns remain one of the shorts’ best sight gags), or the public domain delights of “Disorder in the Court” (who HASN’T seen this legal lampoon), it simply stands out as something underwhelming. And since this incarnation of the act would go on to make another 78 shorts (97 in all), it would remain a prickly premise the studio would insist on. After all, how many different settings could the storied group’s havoc fully function in?
It’s important to note that there was more to the Three Stooges than location, location, location. Many believe the boys to be inept in the arena of scripted jokes, but buried throughout the first three years of their Columbia existence are consistent examples of verbal wit. From a classic witness box exchange invoking the spirit of ’76 to a dessert as feather bed reference, the trio used lots of imaginative wordplay as part of their performance. Even the titles created were typically spoofs of current popular films (“Men in Black” for Clark Gables Men in White) or parodies of well known songs or sayings (Pardon My ‘Scotch’ subbing for ‘French’).
In fact, those who would marginalize the trio as being nothing more than jocular juvenilia, the pre-post-modern equivalent of fart jokes and toilet humor, have probably never really studied the Stooges. They are much more than boxers battling within a craven comedic context or arrested adolescents using fists instead of quips to earn their keep. They are artisans working in the almost impossible arena of physical wit. That they continue to delight a quarter century later is both a testament to their timelessness and their unequivocal quality control. Sadly this first Volume only whets our long dormant appetite for the rest of their amazing output.
Back in the mid-80s, it was argued that The Three Stooges were the male equivalent of a chick flick – that is, the kind of entertainment that hit men in the merriment harder than it did the ladies. Of course, there are numerous ways to argue out of such a broad overgeneralization, but for the most part, the comment has a small amount of truth. Sold as a baser experience, as the artistic equivalent of a knee to the groin, the short films made by these amazing performers can be considered gut level laugh getters. But does this mean women are above the experience, or simply that, searching for a way to describe the decades old appeal of the act, scholars slipped into stereotyping?
Whatever the case, it’s clear that there are more than gents holding up the Stooges’ lasting legacy. Constantly bringing new generations into their farcical fold, as long as there are viewers, there will be fans for the threesome’s fantastic follies. Bellyache all you want over the lack of packaging or added features, but The Three Stooges Collection Volume 1: 1934 – 1936 is performing one invaluable service – it’s protecting the boys’ mythos for future aficionados to enjoy. And when it comes to skilled slapstick, a true obsessive will take preservation over puffery any day of the week.