The Three Stooges’ Chaotic Neutrality in ‘I Can Hardly Wait’

The Three Stooges, I Can Hardly Wait (1943), dir. Jules White

For plenty of film fans, the Farrelly Brothers’ The Three Stooges (2012) may be a perfect example of how it’s possible to appreciate a film – even be grateful for its existence – without for a moment believing that it’s actually any good. From the pseudo-objective perspective of cultured film criticism, The Three Stooges is bunkum; but it was nice to see signs of appreciation (even as it was being panned) for its honest effort at recapturing some of the essence of its source. Whether or not the Farrelly Brothers were the best choice to make that effort is debatable, but when most film remakes or “reimaginings” usually involve stripping away whatever it was that made the source memorable in the first place in order to make it marketable (ie. generic), respect for any source and its place in cultural history is blissfully refreshing.

Of course, even with a source like the Stooges, exactly what fidelity means isn’t always easy to work out. I don’t just mean making a choice between Curly or Shemp (or Joe Besser or Curly Joe…or Emil Sitka). With an output stretching from vaudeville to 1970’s TV pilot “Kook’s Tour”, and most famously their 190 short films with Columbia, the Stooges span all kinds of eras and, more importantly, have all kinds of cultural resonances. It wasn’t especially surprising that the Farrelly Brothers ended up with the old “save the orphanage” storyline that seems to be closely linked with the Stooges (also the storyline to the enjoyably-respectful Commodore 64 computer game), even though orphanage-saving wasn’t really the Stooges most frequent activity.

“Loveable buffoons” may be the most marketable Stooge image, but let’s not forget that the Stooges were just as likely to be selfish, antisocial, and violent. And don’t forget violent, you idiots. They were never bad guys and were definitely easy suckers for a sob story (usually to their disadvantage) but their whims of benevolence were just as likely to be whims of self-interest. Or just plain whims. In Dungeons & Dragons terms, I guess the Stooges spent a fair amount of time as chaotic neutral.

In the midst of the Stooges’ 190 shorts is I Can Hardly Wait (1943), an entry which stands out not so much for its quality but for its weird sense of enclosure and violence that leans more towards uncomfortable brutality than comic slapstick. It wasn’t uncommon for the cheaply-made shorts to be shoved into a conveniently enclosed location, but usually there were still some other folk around for the Stooges to make life a misery for, or to provide some kind of reason for Stooge-unity. In I Can Hardly Wait, the Stooges are completely trapped in their own chaotic realm, with nobody else to lure them into a passing attempt at normality. A couple of dentists do appear (though only in a dream, technically), but they’re just as much inanimate props for destruction as a pair of conveniently-placed pliers.

Coming in late one night (or early one morning?) after working on planes for the wartime effort (cue the expected wartime reference to “Japs”), the Stooges creep into the dark with a small torch, seemingly breaking into a safe. Actually, they’re just trying to get to their breakfast – some heavily-rationed wartime ham and eggs. That makes sense, since the Stooges’ main priorities tend to be food and sleep, usually in that order. Typically, even this simple pleasure eludes the boys thanks to their distinctive inability to maintain even the thinnest veneer of civilisation.

The Stooges’ reflex incapacity to fulfil even the most basic task often sees them placed beneath the other great comic teams of their era – whereas the others could rely on miscommunication, misinterpretation or whims of chance or fate or wordplay to propel forays into kitchen-sink slapstick, the Stooges’ activities would usually fall apart simply because Moe’s anger would bubble to the surface before they’d even had a chance to draw up plans. Other comedy teams may collapse into comic failure, but only the Stooges were so consistently, neurotically, and compulsively self-destructive. The porn-like flimsiness of the setups (“oh, you must be the three plumbers/carpenters/neurosurgeons I called for”) and blatant pandering to desired destruction (priceless antiques!) is only part of the joy.

What it lacked in subtlety it made up for in pace – with projects falling apart almost instinctively, the Stooges would crash into a scene, destroy it for next to no reason other than their own basic incompatibility with the universe, and then flee into the distance, with nothing resolved, no friends made, no fun times had, and no hint of closure. Such an ending is one of the things that makes the Stooges so identifiable. Chaplin mastered the finale of the comic-melancholy walk into the distance, Laurel and Hardy the simmering look of eternal frustration, Buster Keaton the simple resolve to persevere, and W. C. Fields the crowning moment of bawdy one-upmanship. But the Stooges – always pragmatic – simply ran away.

Aside from running away (possibly while being shot at), or being killed (rare), the only other truly acceptable ending for a great Stooges short is that they simply go to sleep (immediately). My personal favourite ending combines both: in “Dizzy Doctors” (1937), the Stooges flee from a hospital where they’ve caused chaos, causing chaos again in the act of fleeing (they’re propelled down a busy street on a hybrid hospital cart/sailboat) and then conveniently leap through the window of their own room, where they crash down onto their shared bed and immediately fall asleep. Chaos schmaos, sleep n’ eats is what counts. If only their wives could make them breakfast and work at the same time.

For one reason or another, I Can Hardly Wait” lacks that energy to complement the chaos. It’s nice to think that after destroying regular society, the Stooges were able to go home and get a decent night’s sleep, so maybe it’s just inherently morbid to see the Stooges fail at two of their only talents. Here they don’t manage to get anything to eat and, as a result of Moe feeding him a hambone (a whole one, while he and Larry only get half the actual ham each), Curly’s toothache agony stops them all getting any sleep. Chaplin was similarly deprived of joyous sleep in his great one-man short One A.M. (1916), but he (atypically) wore a top-hat and lived in a nice house in that one, so who cares if the rich jerk got any rest, anyway.

In his excellent and exhaustive review of the recent The Three Stooges: The Ultimate Collection, Stuart Galbraith IV notes that Curly’s “pupils lack their usual wild-eyed luster” in I Can Hardly Wait, and it’s true that he seems less capable of negotiating Moe than in many of their other shorts. Moe also seems in one hell of a bad mood in this short compared to others, despite the promise of precious ham. As Larry leans in to smell the eggs he has cooking on the stove, Moe takes the opportunity to shove Larry’s face into the simmering pot. It’s unprovoked, unless the joy of others is provocation enough. Later, when Larry and Curly show the first hint of communal fun (singing at the dinner table) Moe ends that with a slap. When Curly breaks his tooth on the hambone, Moe’s advice is as blunt as it ever got: “Shut up, go to bed, in the morning the pain’ll be gone”. And then, as though he’s afraid of letting Curly have a single moment without supervision, Moe drags them all to bed (meal uneaten, it seems).

Moe oddly overwhelms each scene with a physical dominance over the others rather than his usual role as controlling but collaborative ringleader. He’s probably in the process of tipping over from chaotic neutral to chaotic evil. Here he swings at them at a moment’s notice, more likely to snarl a simple “shut up!” than call Curly “kid” or Larry “porcupine”.

It all makes for a weird fever dream of a Stooges short; one where the comedy comes not from the frivolous idiocy of it all but from the fact that it all seems so incongruously, disproportionately mean! Maybe I Can Hardly Wait has always been a guilty pleasure because it stands out in the same way as the uncomfortably awkward cost-cutting Czechoslovakian Tom and Jerry shorts by Gene Deitch from 1960 to 1962, where the lightness of the mood and silliness of the violence seem to have been lost in translation and replaced by a cold tone and hints of a sadistic cruelty. In both cases, it seems that simple, beloved characters have suddenly wandered into the realm of dramatic naturalism, which dictates a primitive, bestial nature lurking behind even the most seemingly-benign of human actions.

I Can Hardly Wait is hardly “The Three Stooges Meet Emile Zola”, but its strange, sadistic undertone of not-quite-joyous violence does make it an awkwardly enjoyable oddity and a desirable part of the recent DVD release of the Stooges’ Columbia shorts, even if it’s far from the best of the Stooges (1940’s Boobs in Arms might get Retro Remote’s personal vote for that honour) and perhaps not even the most violent (1943’s They Stooge to Conga with its infamous face-meets-climbing-spike gag usually takes that prize).

Oddly, the cruel I Can Hardly Wait is a remake of a the excellent Leave ’em Laughing (1928), starring the mild-mannered Laurel and Hardy. There’s a tad less punching in that version.

The fact that about half of Curly’s anguish in I Can Hardly Wait turns out to be a dream isn’t exactly a consolation given that Curly basically has nightmares about being tormented by his friends and thus can’t escape his abusers even in sleep. Still, a punch to the face later, and Curly’s (disturbingly enormous) tooth is knocked free. And, though the boys lies stacked on top of each other in the midst of a collapsed triple bunk bed, they’re snoring within seconds, and this somewhat anomalous short at least ends just as it should.