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The Three Stooges - Hapless Half-Wits

(MGM; US DVD: 20 Feb 2007)

Nyuck, Nyuck, Nyuck

Before Sasha Baron Cohen was accused of bad taste for the way he made fun of anti-Semites in Borat, a different group of Jews vulgarly took the Nazis to task. The Three Stooges were the first people in Hollywood to crudely show the world what Hitler and his band of thugs were like. This new four short-film collection does not include the Stooges’ initial anti-Hitler flick You Nazty Spy (made nine months before Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator), but this one-disc DVD does contain the hilarious follow-up I’ll Never Heil Again (1941).


I’ll Never Heil Again grossly parodies Germany before the United States entered the Second World War. Moe Howard (nee Horwitz) plays the Adolf Hitler-like Moe Hailstone, the dictator of Moronica, complete with a toothbrush mustache and a coat of arms that reads “Moronica Uber Alles”. Larry Fine (nee Louis Fineberg) and Curly Howard (Moe’s real life younger brother) broadly portray the Minister of Propaganda and Field Marshal Herring in ways that clearly echo the Nazi leaders whose roles they parallel. The short is chock full of silly one-liners and sight gags and allows its American audience to feel superior against an enemy that proclaimed itself a race of supermen.


The superfluous plot serves as an excuse to make fun of the Axis’ desire for world domination. Not only does the film poke fun at the Nazis; the climax features doubles depicting the leaders of Italy, Japan, and the Soviet Union plotting a global takeover that breaks down into a hilarious pseudo-football game, which includes everything from a rumba dance to a Statue of Liberty play.


While the inclusion of this flick alone makes the The Three Stooges: Helpless Half Wits DVD worth purchasing, the other three shorts are also very good, especially Brideless Groom (1947) and Dopey Dicks (1949), which are the first Three Stooges movies to feature Shemp Howard. Moe’s younger brother Curly was in all of the Three Stooges films until he suffered a stroke in 1946. Curly still starred in Beer Barrel Polecats (1945), but he doesn’t seem his vital self, probably because he was quite ill.  Like most of the Three Stooges films, Beer Barrel Polecats relies on slapstick comedy to be humorous.


The Stooges were always rude, crude, and out of control as they vainly attempted to be the opposite. While high brow/low class Hebrew entertainers like the Marx Brothers made fun of high society in a manner that even the snobbish poet T.S. Eliot could enjoy (wasn’t that Margaret Dumont at Prufrock’s cocktail party chatting about Michelangelo?), the Stooges tried mostly just not to arouse the suspicions of the common people and cops they encountered in their daily lives. The Stooges provided physical comic relief during the Great Depression years, and with the exception of the anti-Nazi films, they continued relying on pokes in the eyes, kicks to the butts, and other gross gestures to be successful comedians.


Shemp was the oldest of the Horwitz brothers and had a thriving career as a character actor when Curly got sick. In many ways, Shemp was a much better actor than Curly. He could play the more debonair speaking roles and serve as a straight man for the Three Stooges’ gags, which he does to great effect in the other two shorts included here. Brideless Groom recycles the common plot of a man (Shemp) without a steady beau who must marry within seven hours to claim a rich family inheritance. The short relies on two comic conceits. Shemp plays a music teacher. His lessons to a talentless and plain looking pupil provides a steady source of fun (he tells her to “gargle with old razor blades”). Plus, the women who Shemp tries to woo serve as constant foils. The most colorful instance of the latter occurs when actress Christine McIntyre learns that Shemp is not the person she thought so she slaps him around, punches him, and knocks him through the door. She actually broke his nose in the process. This scene was included in the movie.


Dopey Dicks makes fun of the detective movies and horror films that were popular at the time. The short begins as the Stooges move furniture into private investigator Sam Shovel’s office and ends with them escaping from a mad scientist in a car driven by a headless robot. That sort of sums up the zaniness involved, but again it’s Shemp who steals the movie from his two cohorts because he can simultaneously seem sophisticated and a doofus. Moe and Larry never seem more than simpletons, despite whatever airs they put on.


The DVD Hapless Half-Wits contains no extra bonuses, but it uses “ChromaChoice” technology that allows viewers using a remote to toggle back and forth between original black and white and colorized versions of the film (so that there are actually eight shorts here; four in black and white and four in color). The black and white masters have been remastered in hi-definition video that looks great. The colorized versions have a sepia tone that fits in with the period from which the movies were originally made.


These four Three Stooges discs stand among the best work the act ever made. Sure the jokes can be as stupid as someone getting whacked in the head with a mop or taking a pratfall into a bathtub full of beer, but it’s more fun than watching someone wrestling with a naked hairy, fat man in their hotel room. And in the case of I’ll Never Heil Again, these Jewish boys from Brooklyn stick it to the anti-Semites before anyone else in Hollywood had the balls to do so.

Rating:

Steven Horowitz has a Ph.D. in American Studies from the University of Iowa, where he continues to teach a three-credit online course on "Rock and Roll in America". He has written for many different popular and academic publications including American Music, Paste and the Icon. Horowitz is a firm believer in Paul Goodman's neofunctional perspective on culture and that Sam Cooke was right, a change is gonna come.


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