On 22 October 1903, a true comedy legend was born. While few would recognize him by his given name—Jerome Lester—millions recognized the sheer creative genius that was Curly Howard. Yes, Curly Howard, the third (and perhaps best loved) Stooge. The brother to Moe, and Shemp, and as part of the original Columbia short subject brigade, a man who brought mirth to multiple generations of comedy fans. But he didn’t start out as part of the act. While his brothers hooked up with partner Larry Fine and “leader” Ted Healy for several tours of vaudeville, “Babe” (as he was known to friends) pursued a career as a humorous conductor. When Shemp tired of Healy’s abuse and drinking, he left to take other offers. Moe suggested Curly step in, on one condition. He had to shave his full head of flowing red hair. Since he considered himself quite the ladies man (and he was), Curly was crushed.
Still, upon his debut with the trio, he quickly became its most iconic member. With a collection of classic mannerisms, malapropisms, and mugging, he soon symbolized the Stooges’ sensibility. Moe may have been the Mean One, and Larry and Laid Back One, but Curly was the Cut-up. He was the punchline to every joke, the rimshot to every pie in the face. Up until his untimely death from poor health at age 48, he was the center of attention, though he was far from happy. Still, the legacy he left behind has become a beacon to a long forgotten time of face slaps, eye gouges, and head clunks. In this regard, we present the Top 10 Three Stooge Shorts—Curly Edition—of All Time. Of course, there’s a caveat. This is a very personal list. After all, comedy is a very personal thing. Also, we’re concentrating on Curly, not the Stooges or shorts overall. And finally, the fact remains that you could easily do a Top 20… or 30… or 50 Curly overview (he co-starred in 98 of the timeless two reelers, after all) and still leave out something legitimate.
So sit back, relax, and get ready to laugh as we show today’s shoe gazing satirists what true comic talent is all about, beginning with this excellent example of amiable anarchy:
This early effort won us over in two significant ways. First, there’s the brilliant byplay between the boys as they essay janitors working in a low rent Hollywood studio. Their eventual insertion into the gorilla movie subplot is aces, including a wonderful bit including Curly and a “cordial”. However, once they get to the ‘jungle,’ things really take off. We get our hero’s henpecked harping of “Mirabel?”, “Mirabel?” as he pines for his leading lady. There’s also a racially inappropriate witch doctor who, while setting the cause of African Americans in film back 50 years, matches his far more famous costars quip for quip.
After becoming accidental government workers (they get involved in the 1940 census), our heroes crash a snobby game of Bridge. Brought on to be both interviewers and waiters, they make a disaster of everything, including putting mouth puckering Alum in the punch. The results are one of the Stooges’ best set-piece bits. Things get even crazier, though, when the boys stumble upon a football game. Recognizing that they could get hundreds of signatures (and therefore, lots of money), they chase players up and down the sidelines… right up to the line of scrimmage. A classic bit of old school slapstick.
Many classic Stooge bits derived out of the boys getting involved in areas where they have limited to no expertise. In this case, they are shiftless plumbers who end up wrecking an entire house. Larry digs up the whole front yard looking for a leak, while Curly concocts a pipe piece that ends up looking like abstract art. But the best stuff occurs once the guys hook the water main to the electrical conduit. The resulting chaos—including another racially inappropriate but still quite humorous reaction shot from the house chef—argues for the trio’s tenure as the greatest physical comedians of all time.
The guys start our as gas station attendants (Google it, since most of you won’t know what those are/were). Then, with a need to escape, they are mistaken for college professors and end up at an all girl’s school (sounds like the set-up to a dirty joke). In between, Curly is frozen solid. Eventually, we are treated to the real highlight of this short—the wonderful version of the song “Swinging the Alphabet.” Reminiscent of other nonsense novelty tunes like “The Name Game” it showcases how versatile and talented these actors really were. And never forget…“Curly’s a dope!”
Another sensational short, another occupation from a long bygone era. In this case, the guys are ice men, delivering large chunks of frozen water to those without electric refrigerators (again, Google is your friend). When they cause a pair of surly personal servants to quit, the harried housewife hoping to give her husband a surprise birthday dinner hires them to take over. Their meal prep, filled with band puns, oddball set-pieces (ice shaving) and an explosive pay-off (literally) remains one of the boys’ best. Watching Curly work his stuffed bird is worth the price of admission alone. It’s a classic.